Blog AnalysisNeighborhood enlargement

EU enlargement: the double challenge of numbers and diversity

(B2) While the High Representative of the EU, Josep Borrell, is in Kosovo and Serbia, the prospect of new enlargements raises several questions according to our columnist Jean-Guy Giraud

Kalemegdan Fortress – Belgrade (credit: European Commission – April 2018)

The prospect of an enlargement of the European Union to six new Balkan states [Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia] must lead the Union to question its capacity to continue development of its common activities at a pace compatible with its general political project aimed at “ advancing European integration " in the framework of " of an ever closer union of the peoples of Europe » (as indicated in the preface of the TEU).

We know that the successive enlargements of the European Union — particularly since 2004 — have considerably increased the number and diversity of Member States », as noted by President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing during the opening of the Convention on the draft European constitution. Since that date — and despite the reforms brought about by the Lisbon Treaty — this double challenge does not seem to have been truly overcome or even recognized, even though the next enlargements will make it ever more significant in the daily life of the Union.

By a sort of 'accordion effect', the geopolitical center of the EU is gradually moving towards the East and South-East of the continent - at the same time as the United Kingdom - one of its main points anchor in the West — breaks away from the European bloc. This 'tectonic' shift has implications of various kinds in the institutional, economic, budgetary, strategic fields, etc.

The risks of blocking the EU

But it is also aggravated by the difficult upgrading of new – and undoubtedly future – Member States whose internal political evolution proves to be chaotic, unpredictable and worrying. All the more so since this development is accompanied by a growing Euro-scepticism among some of the leaders concerned, leading to that of part of national opinions. And that comparable situations may also develop in certain 'old' States of the European Union. This phenomenon has the effect of slowing down – or even blocking in certain cases – the harmonious development of the policies and actions provided for by the Treaty and therefore of compromising the original European project as a whole.

Insufficient palliative mechanisms

Admittedly, the Treaty provides for various mechanisms making it possible to compensate – at least partially – for the insufficient cooperation of some States (or rather governments). Some advances can be spread over time or adapted to particular national situations. Similarly, the “enhanced cooperation” procedure allows a group of States to make progress in a few areas without waiting for others. But, on the whole, the effectiveness of these mechanisms turns out to be limited in practice. And, above all, they cannot compensate for the effects of clearly non-cooperative general attitudes developed on certain subjects by some Member States. This raises the question — more than ever before — of the means to overcome this progressive paralysis of the Union.

The intergovernmental path…

The main alternative is that of the 'inter-governmental' path - which is nothing new, but which presents numerous political and technical risks with regard to unity and solidarity within the bloc. The potential scope of this path is quite broad.

The Treaty in fact leaves States (Governments) free to cooperate with each other in all areas not expressly reserved or covered by its provisions. That is to say all those where the competence of the Union is not 'exclusive' - but also those where this competence is shared between the Union and the States. On the other hand, States can, individually or in groups, provide measures for implementing common policies that are more ambitious than those set by the European standard. And they can, of course, cooperate as they wish in all cases not provided for by the Treaty – even associating, if necessary, with third countries (like… the United Kingdom). All this on condition that intergovernmental agreements or practices do not hinder the development of European Union action.

…useful but risky

This freedom is already quite widely used by some Member States in various sectors such as foreign and defense policy, judicial cooperation, the environment, taxation, immigration, social issues, etc. If this intergovernmental route — in parallel or in addition to Community action — is certainly beneficial in many cases, it still entails certain risks and limits. The risks are those of the dispersion and heterogeneity of initiatives which can harm the readability of “European” policy. But also — above all? — the danger of de facto fragmentation of the bloc between its different geographical components (North/South – East/West). The limits are those of preserving cohesion, unity, solidarity and the general interest within the whole.

A problem to take on 

This problem – already widely commented on by the doctrine – has not so far been clearly posed and analyzed by the institutions and the States. It is certainly subject to legal supervision by the Commission and, possibly, by the European Court of Justice. But this abundant development of intergovernmental practices would benefit from being better linked to the community system and even framed by it in some way. Particularly from the angle of democratic control which the European Parliament cannot, by nature, assume. The question is complex but unavoidable. Perhaps it is time to confront it globally, openly and officially.

(Jean-Guy Giraud)

NB: see also Expansion: the slide and the accordion

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