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The ins and outs 18 mars 2007

Posted by Acturca in EU / UE, Turkey-EU / Turquie-UE.

The Economist (U.S. Edition),

March 17, 2007

The EU’s most effective foreign-policy instrument has been enlargement. But how far can it go ?

It is sometimes said that the European Union is an economic giant but a political pygmy, with no foreign policy to speak of. Certainly foreign and defence policies, above all others, remain largely in the hands of national governments; and foreign-policymaking with 27 countries, every one of them with a veto, is inherently difficult. Last year, for example, Poland alone blocked the start of negotiations on a new partnership agreement with Russia. Yet to conclude that the EU has no foreign policy at all would be wrong.

For a start the union is the world’s biggest aid donor, which gives it great sway in Africa, parts of Asia and the Middle East. It has also acquired military heft, with troops deployed (sometimes with NATO, with which links have not always been close enough) in Bosnia, Congo, Darfur and Kosovo. Chris Patten, a former external-affairs commissioner, suggests that success in Afghanistan is now crucial to the EU’s credibility, as well as NATO’s. In the diplomatic world the union also pulls more weight. Javier Solana, the high representative for foreign policy, is in touch with the American and Russian foreign ministers at least as much as his British, French and German counterparts.

Consider Iran and nuclear proliferation. Besides having their hands full with Iraq, the Americans have no diplomatic relations with the government in Tehran. So Britain, France and Germany were entrusted with trying to persuade the Iranians not to build a nuclear weapon. Mr Solana soon joined the trio on behalf of the wider EU. Their approach may not have been particularly successful, though it has probably strung the process out—but it has been a substantial example of a common EU foreign policy in the making.

If any version of the EU constitution were ever adopted, it would bolster the common foreign policy by turning the high representative into a « foreign minister ». More important than the exact title of this person would be three accompanying changes: merging the job with that of the external-affairs commissioner, giving it extra clout and money; setting up a common EU external service that could, in time, become more important than national diplomatic services; and making the foreign minister the permanent chairman of EU foreign ministers’ meetings.

Yet even this would not resolve the biggest weakness in the EU’s foreign policy: that it cannot work when national governments disagree with each other. This was most obvious over Iraq, on which the EU as a whole did next to nothing. It has also often been true of relations with Russia. The new east European EU members generally take a tougher line than older members; and the Russians, as Europe’s chief suppliers of energy, have proved adept at playing divide and rule. Even on China, internal differences have persisted over whether to end the EU’s arms embargo. No institutional change can alter these, even though polls suggest that a common approach to foreign policy is near the top of the list of what voters want from the EU.

By far the most successful EU foreign policy has been its own expansion. In the 1980s the prospect of joining played a critical part in ensuring a smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy in Greece, Spain and Portugal. More recently it has transformed the east European countries as they moved from communist central planning to liberal democracy. The countries of the western Balkans have been pacified and stabilised after the bloody 1990s thanks mainly to their hopes of EU membership. And Turkey has made wholesale changes in its politics, economics and society largely to boost its chances of joining. Indeed, judged in terms of success in exporting its values to its backyard, the EU has done much better with its neighbours than the United States has with central and south America, largely because of the carrot of enlargement.

After this year’s arrival of Romania and Bulgaria, there is further work to do in south-eastern Europe. Entry negotiations began with Croatia and Turkey in October 2005, and are due to start with Macedonia some time in the next 12 months. EU foreign ministers also acknowledge that the only way to prevent the Balkan tinderbox of Serbia, a newly independent Montenegro and a would-be independent Kosovo from exploding again is to hold out to the whole region the prospect of joining their club. Yet the very notion of further enlargement is now in question, for three reasons.

The first and perhaps most serious is a decline in support for enlargement among EU voters. Opinion polls for the whole union still show a narrow majority in favour, but in some countries the mood has turned sharply against. The French and Dutch rejections of the constitution in 2005 partly reflected dissatisfaction over the 2004 enlargement. Olli Rehn, the enlargement commissioner, complains that EU governments have made little effort to spell out the beneficial effects of that enlargement to their voters, even though a commission analysis shows that the economies of new and old members alike have done well out of it—with the three countries that fully opened their labour markets to workers from the new entrants immediately, Britain, Ireland and Sweden, gaining the most.

The second, related reason is that, partly in response to the new arrivals in 2004, many EU governments have lost enthusiasm for enlargement. This is particularly true of France, Germany and Austria. Although Mr Chirac has always favoured Turkish accession, he did not speak in favour of it when it became an issue in the referendum campaign in 2005. Instead, he amended the French constitution so that a referendum is now required on all future new entrants after Croatia. Germany’s Angela Merkel is no fan of enlargement and has long argued against Turkey’s entry (though her government is willing to let the negotiations proceed for now). Austria is even more hostile to Turkey, though it would like to take in the countries of the western Balkans in its own backyard.

The third reason, inevitably, is the failure to ratify the constitutional treaty. In part this is because of an age-old argument known, in the EU jargon, as widening v deepening. Brussels folklore has it that widening (admitting new members) naturally conflicts with deepening (further integration of existing members). To avoid this, expansion has often been timed to coincide with treaty changes: a key motive for the treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice was the knowledge that the east Europeans were waiting in the wings. This time round, the constitution was meant to provide the deepening: if it is blocked, that raises questions over further widening.

Some critics also see the lack of an institutional settlement as a bar to enlargement, arguing that the EU’s machinery, initially designed for six members, cannot function effectively with 30 or more. The Nice treaty provided votes and parliamentary seats for Romania and Bulgaria, but not for Croatia (though in practice the necessary changes, along with a new deal on the size of the commission, could go into Croatia’s accession treaty, which like all treaties must be ratified by all EU members). This argument is aimed mainly at Britain, which opposes attempts to revive the constitution but is the chief proponent of more enlargement. The none-too-subtle message is that turning down the first would mean losing the second.

The elephant in the room in all discussions about EU enlargement is Turkey, which was one of the earliest applicants to the European club and was accepted as eligible back in 1963. The Turks were miffed to be overtaken by the east Europeans in the 1990s (one Turkish general wondered whether his country would have done better to spend 40 years in the Warsaw Pact instead of NATO). The EU, for its part, argued that Turkey was far from fulfilling the « Copenhagen criteria » for membership (which include democracy, a free-market economy, observance of human and minority rights, and political stability).

When the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party won the Turkish election in 2002, it soon proved itself a bigger reformer than the fiercely secular governments that preceded it. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who became prime minister in March 2003, made it his top priority to get Turkey ready to join the European Union. Over the next two years his government passed a huge array of constitutional and judicial reforms to that end. He won his reward in October 2005, when the EU opened membership negotiations with Turkey.

Unfortunately things have mostly gone downhill since then. After making such efforts to qualify, the Erdogan government lost its reforming zeal. Relations with the Kurds in Turkey’s south-east, which improved when the government scrapped many of its most repressive laws, deteriorated again after the Kurds of northern Iraq cemented their autonomy and the separatist PKK guerrillas resumed fighting following a ceasefire. Moreover, the Turks soon ran into predictable trouble over Cyprus.

A condition for the opening of membership talks was that Turkey extend its customs union to all the 2004 entrants, which included Cyprus. Admitting the (Greek-Cypriot) republic without settling its dispute with the (Turkish-Cypriot) north was, as Lord Patten concedes, « a mistake ». A UN plan to reunite the disputed island fell apart in April 2004 when the Greek-Cypriots, who had been promised membership of the EU in any event, overwhelmingly rejected it in a referendum. (The Turkish-Cypriots, desperate to be admitted to the EU as well, endorsed it.)

An exasperated EU promised to alleviate the isolation of the Turkish-Cypriots, but as full members the Greek-Cypriots now have a veto over this. In December 2006 the Turks refused to open their ports and airports to the Greek-Cypriots because nothing had been done for the north—so the EU suspended negotiations on eight of the 35 « chapters » in the membership talks.

Mr Rehn insists that this is not a « train-wreck », noting that good technical progress is being made and a new chapter will be opened shortly. He describes the commission’s approach as firm but fair. There is a case for a breathing-space in EU-Turkish relations ahead of Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections later this year. He suggests that the right course is to muddle through the rest of 2007. Croatia may join the club « about the turn of the decade ». After that the Turks will have a choice: to resume their reforms, putting their talks back on track towards membership later in the decade, or to turn away from the road towards Europe altogether.

The trouble is that the issue may come to a crunch sooner than that. Mr Sarkozy and his advisers are explicitly saying that Turkey has no place in the EU. Many Germans note with horror that, if Turkey ever joins, it is likely on present demographic trends to become the most populous member by 2020, with more voting weight and more MEPs than Germany. Elmar Brok, a German Christian Democratic MEP who until this year chaired the European Parliament’s foreign-affairs committee, says it was wrong to open negotiations in the first place, and the more honest course would have been to tell the Turks that they must settle for something short of full membership. Yet Turkey refuses to contemplate anything second-class.

A fallout between the EU and Turkey, one of its biggest and most important neighbours, would be disastrous. It would surely put an end to any hopes of settling the Cyprus problem. Worst of all, many Muslims would see a failure of Turkey’s membership hopes as a rebuff administered by a Christian club. Not only would that further sour the West’s relations with the Islamic world; it would also cause disaffection among the EU’s own 15m-strong Muslim population, many of whom are already hostile to the countries they live in.

A close eye is being kept on Turkey and the western Balkans by those with membership aspirations of their own: Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, and countries in the Caucasus and even north Africa. The union has not so far recognised any of these as actual or even potential candidates for membership. Instead it has adopted a « neighbourhood policy » that is supposed to cover such bread-and-butter issues as aid, trade concessions and immigration and visa policies.

Yet the neighbourhood policy suffers from an inherent structural flaw. It is meant to apply equally and without discrimination to countries that may one day join the EU, and to countries that will never do so. However, the first group will always have an entirely different agenda: to them any neighbourhood policy is a mere stopgap until they can begin the long march towards membership. Countries that can never hope for this might be readier to invest in making the neighbourhood policy itself more substantial.

So is it time to define the boundaries of the EU? Even enthusiasts for enlargement think it may be approaching its natural limits. The western Balkans, now surrounded by EU countries, obviously ought to be in. Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus also seem likely candidates. There might be more doubt over the Caucasus, which is even farther off—though Georgia makes no secret of its ambition to join. But north Africa would be off most lists of potential candidates. Morocco has been told that it is ineligible because it is not part of Europe. Talk of the Roman empire, of the Mediterranean as mare nostrum or of Algeria’s and Morocco’s old status as parts of France and Spain will change few minds.

To say now where enlargement will end might also be a good way to reassure nervous voters in existing member countries who have turned against the idea. But their nervousness reflects mainly a failure on the part of EU leaders to explain the benefits of expanding the club, not a hostility to any specific countries (Turkey being perhaps an exception). And it would seem odd to set limits now to a policy that has worked such wonders. If Turkey and Cyprus, why not—one day—Lebanon? Why not Israel (already a participant in the Eurovision song contest)? Indeed, why not—another day—Morocco or Russia, both of which have a strong European heritage and culture ?


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