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28th Jul 2017

Time for pause in enlargement, top commission official says

  • How many more flags will fly outside EU buildings in future? (Photo: EUobserver)

Public opinion and political confusion call for a pause in enlargement, a top European Commission official has said, but the EU's neighbourhood policy may not be a good enough alternative.

"We have to think how to build up Europe - is it time to deepen the union, or to widen?" commission external relations director Eneko Landaburu stated on Thursday (23 February) at a meeting organised by Brussels-based think tank CEPS.

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"My personal view and the view of the commission, is that we probably need to deepen a little bit."

He stressed that Romanian and Bulgarian accession commitments must be honoured and talks with EU candidates Croatia and Turkey should not be delayed.

But he did not mention EU candidate Macedonia.

"We have to be serious toward our citizens in France and the Netherlands as well as other countries. There is a message that we don't want this kind of Europe you are building up," Mr Landaburu explained.

The top official indicated that there are also "radically different" opinions about the future of Europe at government level.

"It's not possible to fix today the future of cooperation with the countries we are not willing to, or who cannot, accede to the EU, because we have not yet decided the kind of EU we want," Mr Landaburu indicated.

"Do we really want to set up, step by step, a political union or not?" he asked.

His comments echo industry commissioner Gunter Verheugen, who earlier this week predicted the EU will form a political union without the post-Soviet states in the next 20 years.

Mr Landaburu was the commission's chief negotiator on eastern European enlargement under Mr Verheugen until 2003.

Neighbourhood is not 'light accession'

Mr Landaburu said the neighbourhood policy was launched in 2003 as an explicit alternative to enlargement and carries zero promise of accession.

"What is not possible is to be outside and in," he explained. "Our Swiss friends are willing to discuss a 'light accession'. But we don't want to enter a debate of this type. You have accession or you don't."

The neighbourhood scheme covers the six post-Soviet states west of the Black Sea, excluding Russia, and the ten coastal states of the southern Mediterranean from Morocco to Syria.

It works by creating bilateral "action plans" for economic and political reform, backed up by €1.5 billion a year in EU aid.

Eight of the countries have adopted EU action plans so far, with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Algeria, Libya, Lebanon and Syria still in talks and Belarus out in the cold.

The Western Balkan countries are covered by the so-called stabilisation and association process, which is tied in with accession goals.

Arabic states hostile

Mr Landaburu claimed the neighbourhood policy has been "well-received" so far, but admitted it faces problems in the Arab states.

The king of Morocco is sympathetic to EU human rights standards, unlike Algeria and Egypt, while several Arab leaders have spoken "aggressively" of EU attempts to "impose" its values on the region, he said.

Brussels plans to tie some neighbourhood cash to a "democracy facility" in future "to give a premium in money to those who can show they are making some progress in this regard," he added.

The neighbourhood policy's success also hangs on events outside EU control, such as peace in Iraq and the Palestinian territories plus an end to bickering between Morocco and Algeria over Western Sahara, said Mr Landaburu.

The commission has earmarked EU money for a road from Morocco to Egypt, but the project is "impossible" for now.

Carrot too small

In the post-Soviet region, analysts have also criticised the neighbourhood policy for creating false expectations and giving too little incentive for reform.

The prospect of joining the scheme has led to little change in Belarus.

Kiev's reluctance to take on Russian interests in Moldova is linked to lack of clarity on Ukraine's EU future, Brussels-based think-tank, CEPS, expert Nicu Popescu said.

Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan and the breakaway regions of Abkhazia, South-Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh all aspire to join the EU.

But the neigbourhood option alone could create a "deficit in expectations" the EU's special envoy to the region, Heikkie Talvitie, warned.

Meanwhile, talk of action plans behind closed doors in Baku or Yerevan does little to stir hearts.

"A very small number of people, perhaps a few dozen, know what the action plan drafts look like," influential think-tank, the International Crisis Group, analyst Sabine Freizer stated.

"Today, the action plan process is a very elite-driven process. Once they are in place, there is a risk of very little sense of public ownership and support for their implementation."

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