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22nd Jan 2022

Brussels to urge 'major' PR drive on EU enlargement

  • Absorption capacity, assimilation capacity or functioning capacity? (Photo: CE)

The European Commission is next month set to call upon EU leaders to launch a "major communication effort" on enlargement - but Brussels itself is struggling to find the right wording to convey the bloc's expansion more positively.

The commission is currently preparing itself for a highly sensitive debate on enlargement with EU leaders, with the topic to be the dominant theme at their December summit.

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Reflecting the current enlargement fatigue felt by EU public opinion, national governments in June tasked the commission to flesh out a special report on the union's own readiness to welcome new members – known in EU jargon as "absorption capacity" – due out on 8 November.

But commission officials said on Tuesday (3 October) that Brussels will tell EU leaders that they themselves have the prime responsibility for convincing an enlargement-weary public.

The commission's enlargement director general, Michael Leigh, told an audience at the European Policy Centre on Tuesday that Brussels will call for a "major communication effort."

"There is an important effort of explanation to be made...we will deal with this issue in the report on 8 November," he said with other commission sources saying Brussels will demand "leadership" on the issue from member states.

"The EU is more than just Brussels. Everyone has a responsibility to explain enlargement, not just future enlargements but also previous rounds," said one official.

The planned appeal to member states comes after the commission appeared last week to have adopted a more cautious approach towards EU expansion itself, with commission president Jose Manuel Barroso announcing a freeze on enlargement until the bloc has sorted out its own institutional problems.

What capacity?

Meanwhile, commission officials are struggling to find the right wording for the report on "absorption capacity" – and are considering alternatives to the term "absorption capacity" itself.

"Absorption capacity", a phrase currently en vogue in EU politics, is often used to highlight the limited means the bloc has to expand, but it has gradually become a political synonym for negative EU public opinion towards enlargement.

"Maybe among the population the notion of absorption capacity creates a misunderstanding," one commission official said.

"It suggests that states merge with each other whereas in reality member states of course can retain their own culture and identity."

After an informal brainstorming seminar of the commission in April, senior commission officials had mooted the term "functioning capacity" as a "more accurate" term, primarily referring to institutional arrangements necessary to make enlargement work.

It is however unlikely that "absorption capacity" will completely disappear from the November commission report, with EU leaders sticking to the term in their June conclusions despite the commission's uneasiness with the expression.

"Perhaps it's better not to engage in a dogmatic squabble on wording which citizens are not interested in anyway," said one commission source.

France prefers yet another term

Meanwhile, not all member states are completely happy with "absorption capacity" as an expression either, with France preferring "assimilation capacity" instead.

"Absorption capacity makes you think of a swamp absorbing water," said a French diplomat.

By contrast, the union's "capacity to assimilate new members" would refer to both institutions and values, the contact said, explaining that "being European is a balance between what you used to be before becoming a member and being only European."

France opposes the term "functioning capacity" which only focuses on Brussels institutions and completely leaves the issue of public opinion aside.

"Enlargement has several dimensions including the perception by public opinion," said the diplomat reflecting the French population's strong signs of scepticism towards further expansion of the bloc.

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