European Integration and EU Eastern Enlargement

A Critical Assessment of a Decade of East-West Relations

By
President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz opens the May plenary session
European Integration and EU Eastern Enlargement : A Critical Assessment of a Decade of East-West Relations - Svetlozar A. Andreev

Not long after the sudden collapse of state socialism in Central and Eastern Europe, the enlargement project of the European Union was initiated with the in­tent to assist the countries of the region with the difficult transformations they were experiencing. The EU also intended to promote peace, democracy, and pros­perity in the eastern part of the continent and to advance the European integration process further. Despite the considerable enthusiasm for the successful realization of these goals and the assertion made by some Western politicians and Brussels officials that new member states from Eastern Europe would be admitted in the EU with a minimal delay, the initially optimistic scenario of this initiative has not been realized thus far. A large number of political, social, and economic factors as well as some other permanent constraints of a purely technical character have prevented the EU and its institutions from acting more decisively on enlargement and, as a result, the promotion of the Union's policies in the east has slowed significantly.

Currently, after a decade of intensive EU institution-building and other ac­tivities in Eastern Europe, the outcomes of such a well-intentioned initiative do not appear to be particularly obvious or consistent with the original mission of the project. Unfortunately, the bulk of academic research dedicated to studying and conceptu­alizing normatively the effects and concomitants of the process of European inte­gration in its eastern dimension, has not been able to achieve any major theoretical breakthroughs or produce any practical insight that could explain the nature of eastern enlargement to a sufficient extent. Few authors, even those who have writ­ten extensively about enlargement, have been able to produce any substantial ideas about the probable agenda and final objectives of the most recent wave of enlarge­ment. Their studies have often been overburdened with the tedious citation of offi­cial documents and the enumeration of well-known facts about the procedural as­pects of the contractual relations between the EU and its Eastern European partners.1

This paper takes a different approach from the predominant trend of treating the subject of the eastern enlargement of the EU descriptively and proposes an alternative perspective towards understanding some key aspects of its development. First, the eastern enlargement of the EU is conceptualized not as a linear process, with clearly defined beginning and end points, but, rather, as a randomly develop­ing and difficult-to-predict venture. Second, it is assumed that a certain set of "initial conditions" was very important during the early period of EU-Eastern Euro­pean relations immediately after 1989, when there was a general lack of informa­tion about the countries on the eastern side of the former Iron Curtain thus making the real intentions and interests of the major actors participating in the process of European integration were very hard to predict. Third, it is hypothesized that the occurrence of several large social and political crises in the broader environment external to the EU, such as the collapse of the communism and the outbreak of major military conflicts on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, had a consider­able impact on the evolution of the eastern enlargement process and the pattern of development of European integration, especially as with regard to EU foreign policy. Finally, this paper brings all of the above elements together in order to build a coherent picture of how EU enlargement policies have developed and to determine whether significant changes can be expected in this respect in the future.

Enlargement: Negotiations and Obstacles

Currently there are ten Eastern European countries that are official candi­dates to become members of the European Union: Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.2 In addition, Cyprus, Malta, and Turkey are also applying as candidates from the South and the Mediterranean Basin. In July 1997, the European Commission pre­sented its opinion on the applications for membership, and in its official communi­cation, Agenda 2000, it recommended that negotiations begin with the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia.3 This position was reconfirmed at the December 1997 European Council in Luxembourg, where it was decided to be­gin accession negotiations with these five countries and Cyprus. Only two years later, however, the humanitarian and military crisis in the Yugoslavian province of Kosovo occurred. Bearing in mind the possible considerable political and geo-stra­tegic complications that might have resulted both for the EU and its member states directly involved in the region, it gradually became clear that most of the tradi­tional diplomatic interventions and economic measures employed by Western governments and international organizations towards the ruling Yugoslav regime, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe would need some kind of readjustment and reformu­lation. In the context of prevailing instability and threat posed by the conflicts in Southeastern Europe for the entire European security environment, a number of important developments occurred in the realm of EU foreign policy, which sug­gested that a more comprehensive eastern enlargement with all ten candidate coun­tries participating simultaneously might well take place.4 Indeed, what had seemed to be a distant possibility several months before that became a real argument at the European Council in Helsinki in December 1999, when the date for beginning nego­tiations with the remaining five candidate countries: Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia, plus Malta, was moved ahead and fixed for the second half of February 2000.5

Not surprisingly, some countries that were more "advanced'' in their prepara­tions for entry into the EU expressed their concerns about the likelihood that the enlargement process might become "diluted" and that no objective criteria would be applied by the European decision-making bodies as to whether the applicant countries would truly be ready to assume the responsibilities of membership. Since the beginning of 2000, the governments of the first-wave applicant states have also been concerned that the emergence of six new candidate countries and the offer to Turkey of a clearer perspective towards becoming an EU member might lead to a stalemate in the work of the European institutions and provoke the sudden death of the enlargement process in the incipient stages of its evolution. Parallel to that, pressure has been mounting on the individual candidates, regardless of their posi­tion in the long list of countries negotiating an accession, following the decision of the EU General Affairs Council on May 31, 1999 to give a number of other Eastern European countries the opportunity, albeit a distant one, to apply for membership in the Union.6 During the current round of negotiations, however, it became rather obvious that the EU would not be prepared to accept more than a handful of new member states and, most certainly, not even all of the ''best-prepared" applicant countries. Moreover, the potential candidates for associate membership, such as Albania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro, would probably not be able to fulfill a sufficient number of the necessary criteria in the near future, given their present substantial political and economic difficulties.7

In the ongoing discussion about the intrinsic characteristics and probable time­table of eastern enlargement, it has been increasingly uncertain whether the EU, in its present format and under its current system of rules, would be able to follow its domestic and foreign policy agendas simultaneously. For instance, much has been said and written about the presumably contradictory nature of the "deepen­ing" and "widening" of the Union, whatever normative values these two terms could have for the proper conceptualization of EU integration, which in itself is an indica­tion of the political confusion and tensions prevailing at the core of the official Euro­pean institutions regarding this process.8 Besides the frequent and often just criti­cism directed at the Eastern European applicant states about various aspects of their preparedness to join the EU, it has been suggested with equal poignancy by those working for the EU and by some others analyzing the performance of its structures, that the majority of complications with eastern enlargement might actually stem "from the inherent ambiguity of the European Union's integration project itself."9

Although it is a well-recognized reality that the goals and identity of the EU have been undergoing constant evolution since its creation as the EEC/ECSC in the mid-1950s, it must also be acknowledged that realization of this "flexible indefinite­ness" has created a lot of confusion and general suspicion about the Union's pro­claimed objectives, particularly in the field of foreign policy. Moreover, it has been repeatedly stated that a reform of the structural policies and the Common Agricul­tural Policy (CAP), as well as a radical revision of the EU budget, are indispensable preconditions for enlargement.10 Virtually ten years after the signing of the first series of association agreements with the countries of East Central Europe, agricul­ture is still a major impediment for the accession of new member states in the EU, while no serious discussion of reform of the CAP has been conducted at the level of the European institutions and among the fifteen member states. ,Hence, it is pos­sible to conclude that eastern enlargement has consistently been held hostage to the internal problems of the current member states and the EU itself, and candi­date countries have never managed to influence substantially the integration and transformation processes developing within the Union.

There is a popular misapprehension among Eastern European government officials and various media sources, occupied with monitoring the advancement of enlargement, that the European Commission and representatives of individual member states at the different levels of administration in Brussels play a central role in the organization and promotion of enlargement. It is believed that no progress can be made in any policy area without the necessary commitment and direct in­volvement of the member states. However, in reality, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament make the most important decisions regarding enlarge­ment. Yet not all the people working with enlargement issues, least of all those politicians and individuals who defend parallel national, sectoral, and social group interests within the EU, are equally committed to the cause of promoting European integration to the east. The reasons for this attitude are many, but they are basi­cally rooted in a selfish reluctance of the individual member states to release con­trol over certain EU policy areas in which they have a vested controlling interest. This reluctance is also partly the result of the substantial pressure exerted on the Union's institutions by different national and supranational interest groups and social movements during the enlargement negotiations.

Defining Enlargement Policies

This paper attempts to establish the record and make sense out of the often controversial developments in the sphere of the European enlargement policies eastwards. If one assumes that the eastern enlargement project is driven by two major sets of actors, the EU and its member states on the one hand and the appli­cant states on the other, then some important points of mutual dependence appear in a number of policy areas.

Primarily, it is asserted that, after the fall of communism and the resumption of EU-Eastern European relations, the historical memories and emerging contacts between the Western states and their Eastern European counterparts have influenced the EU to relate more favorably towards some applicant countries than oth­ers on the basis of certain "initial conditions." With the passage of time and the increase in the number of applicant states, however, new challenges have emerged both for the EU and Eastern European countries. These challenges came as a result not only of a strong desire on the part of some former communist countries to be perceived once again as European in cultural and political terms and to join the group of socially prosperous Western European states, but also because of the abrupt dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia and the associated violent inter­ethnic conflicts. The initial response of the EU towards these crises taking place in its immediate sphere was sluggish and misleading both for the conflicting parties and for the members of the international community involved in the resolution of those regional problems. Nevertheless, until the mid-1990s, the EU's enlargement initiatives were developing reasonably well in other former Communist Bloc coun­tries, and the EU was also playing a relatively large social and economic role in the region. It was both the biggest capital and know-how investor in Eastern Europe and, following the collapse of the Soviet economic and trading bloc, the CMEA, it was the principal market for the industrial goods and other products from those states.

Hence, the EU seized the historical opportunity to assert its political role at three levels by using enlargement as the most appropriate policy instrument: (1) ‘domestically’, by promoting the vision of a united European continent after centu­ries of authoritarian systems dominating some part of its territory (it might be argued that the re-unification of Germany was presented as the first important act contributing to the realization of this ideal at the national level); (2) in its near­abroad and in Eastern Europe in particular, by providing these countries with the opportunity to eventually join the EU (this meant that the former were forced to open their markets almost overnight and start adopting the acquis communautaire as the main legal and administrative basis for the organization of their respective states); and (3) internationally, by relying on the reality that enlargement will in­evitably affect the strategic interests of some of its neighbors further east and south as well as those of its transatlantic partners. This vision is given added salience by the EU's intention to extend its borders towards new social and political milieus, and an intriguing parallel could be drawn here between the competing and/or comple­mentary policies of NATO and the EU.

Of course, not everything has gone smoothly for the EU and its member states. Nevertheless, the European institutions have gradually tried to streamline the nor­mative provisions of the Union regarding enlargement and to transform their policies towards the Eastern European and other candidate states into a far better structured and more predictable process. The various EU initiatives in Eastern Europe have been conditioned by two major factors: the desire of the EU to enlarge itself eastwards and the strong impact of domestic actors. The latter refers not only to the member states but also to a large number of societal and other pressure groups, whose behavior has been conditioned by the perception of the above process more as an opportunity than a danger to the already established economic and political status quo in Europe.

Before beginning an analysis of the events that have shaped EU policies on eastern enlargement and before applying any normative conceptualization, two basic assumptions must be made. The first is that the EU preserves a dominant role and has important leverage vis-a-vis the Eastern European applicant states in most fields of European integration. Secondly, the EU, under its current institutionalized practice of allocating tasks and responsibilities between the Union and its member states, cannot be conceived as having a single decision-making center ad­dressing the problems of eastern enlargement.

As far as the first statement is concerned, almost a decade after the crumbling of the authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, it is quite certain that the EU has played and continues to play a key role by providing a model and establishing the conditions for membership of the new applicant states from the region.11 The Union has also extended various forms of assistance to those countries during their pain­ful transition towards modern political democracy and a liberal market economy. From the perspective of Eastern Europeans, the state of their bilateral relations with the Union seems somewhat different, but, nevertheless, the overall perception remains that the EU and its member states have been the leading actors during this period of time.

Many reasons have been cited in relation to the growing export of institutions to Eastern European candidate states and the conditionality imposed on them. One possible explanation focuses on the behavior of the various elites in Eastern Eu­rope, who have happened to be mostly "policy-takers" in their multiple interactions with EU actors. The initial phase of the implementation of the eastern enlargement policies has demonstrated that Eastern European leaders have been led in their integration endeavors by a mixture of practical considerations and a dose of politi­cal idealism. These motivations have acted as incentives for them to perform cer­tain functions and respond to particular EU policies proposed by different Western experts.12 One could even speculate that a number of policies have been directly aimed at solving broader systemic problems of those elites' respective states: i.e., completing the modernization of their economies after decades of socialist ineffi­ciency, rendering the political changes in their countries irreversible, building demo­cratic regimes, and asserting their nations' European identity after a prolonged period of foreign communist rule.

The second assumption, relating to the absence of a single EU decision-mak­ing center able to manage enlargement, has so far been more difficult to prove empirically because of the obscure nature of the decision-making process in the EU.13 This has been especially true of those foreign policy decisions in which the competing interests of the individual member states have been at odds both with each other and with those of the Union.14 Whether a given policy relating to EU foreign and enlargement policy in Eastern Europe obtains the consensus of the various member states or is rejected outright depends on the issue at stake, and on the preferences of individual actors. For example, there have been several critical situations in the immediate European environment, like those in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo, where resolution of these problems could no longer remain solely under the competence of the EU as a supranational organization. They have instead required the collective effort of the majority of EU member states and of the international community as well. A significantly higher level of diplo­matic, political, financial, and even military support from a larger number of Euro­pean countries and even from bodies and organizations external to the EU has been necessary for resolving these types of conflicts. Enlargement is no exception to the above trend, simply because the majority of complications associated with enlarge­ment are perceived mainly as foreign policy rather than internal EU issues. Al­though they have not evoked such high emotions on the part of Western societies and political class as the military conflicts in former Yugoslavia, issues of immigra­tion, reform of the CAP, and the free movement of labor between eastern and west­ern countries have provoked acrimonious comments and strong debate in the Euro­pean media and among national politicians.

Finally, it should be noted that an examination of EU enlargement policies in Eastern Europe and a detailed analysis of the factors which have influenced the decisions of the Union and its member states create the impression that the present enlargement consists of random processes difficult to predict. Solutions to different types of problems and criteria for enlargement have not been identical despite the similarities in circumstances. However, through this, both the EU and the Eastern European candidate states have been learning about each other's characteristic features and behavior, and their activities have mostly been anticipatory of the expectations and needs of the other side. Consequently, the spread of European integration to the eastern part of the continent should not be depicted as a static, predetermined process, but rather as a dynamic, non-linear one.

Eastern Enlargement: The Point of Departure

Determining the point of departure is an important act in the method of theorizing about eastern enlargement as part of the EU integration process. It fixes the periods before and after a certain initial moment and, parallel to this, permits one to concentrate on the most important information from the beginning phase of such a process. This phase is characterized either by a breakthrough or gradual evolution, and it is presumed that certain events might potentially be repeated in subse­quent periods of time.

It is very complex to determine precisely what consists of a point of departure for the eastern enlargement process. Is it the moment of the collapse of state social­ism in the different countries of the region? Is it the decision of the EU member states to conclude a new generation of Europe Agreements with the applicant coun­tries? Is it the outcome of the 1994 European Council at Essen after which a clearer perspective was offered to a number of Eastern European states to become mem­bers of the EU? Or is it the Commission's June 1997 proposal to name the countries that can begin pre-accession negotiations for joining the Union in its own official document (Agenda 2000)? The problem here is to provide a specific date after which the policies of the EU regarding its enlargement eastwards were firmly established and became virtually irreversible. In other words, the point of departure is the moment when the EU, its member states, and the Eastern European countries es­tablished contractual relations and when it became very difficult for any one of the parties to retreat from the leading negotiations for enlargement.

Undoubtedly, one of the most crucial events since the establishment of bilat­eral relations between the EU and the Eastern European candidate states has been the disclosure of the criteria for a future enlargement of the Union by the Copenhagen European Council in June 1993. The essential requirements for membership laid down in the so-called Copenhagen criteria represent the main legal framework and, even, an initial version of a written "constitution'' of the European enlargement process. They have been evoked on various occasions since being made explicit and have also been used as the most important argument in the hands of the EU official representatives to allow or deny the beginning of accession negotiations with a given country. Most recently, in the case of the renewed Turkish application for joining the Union, the overall political and economic situation of the country was scruti­nized to ascertain whether it conformed to the Copenhagen criteria. These criteria have served as the main basis for evaluation of individual applicant states from Eastern Europe in the annual Progress Reports produced by the Commission. Fur­thermore, in the last half-decade, the Copenhagen criteria have been used increas­ingly as a set of relevant provisos invented by the EU for comparison both among the new associate countries and between the EU as a regional initiative and other countries and regions in the world where the model of European integration has been analyzed and occasionally replicated.

Ultimately, if there is a normative consensus that in the case of Eastern En­largement of the EU, the defining of the Copenhagen criteria represents the point of departure for this process, then indeed, one might be able to describe the factors and establish analytically the record of the EU enlargement policies in Eastern Europe during the period between the collapse of communism in the region (1989-91) and the recent war in Kosovo (1998-99). This historical period consists of ten years, and the introduction of the Copenhagen criteria in June 1993 stands out as an approximate mid-point of this time span.

Eastern Enlargement: The Point of Arrival

The point of arrival should ideally indicate the moment at which the negotia­tions for membership are finalized and the enlargement of the Union is sanctioned by the European Council and the European Parliament as well as by the national governments and parliaments of the member states. The eastern enlargement ne­gotiations have shown that the EU officials, unlike some Western politicians de­fending concrete national interests, have been extremely reluctant to fix precise deadlines for admitting a particular country or group of countries so far. The temporal dimension of the enlargement process has thus remained largely unspecified, and this has become one of the main reasons why eastern enlargement has not been able to transform itself from a mere "project" of the European elites into a reality that would benefit the majority of people living on both sides of the former Cold War divide. One can even speculate that until the first Eastern European countries enter the EU, eastern enlargement might represent anything one would like it to be, i.e., a political concept, historical ideal, or social notion, but still not a hard fact that would confirm the completion of an important stage of the European integration process. Therefore, the point of arrival of the EU eastward enlargement has not yet been reached.

The Importance of the Initial Conditions

The "initial conditions" play a central role in the development of any social process without a predetermined end. A correct understanding of these conditions may provide a prime explanation for the occurrence and sequence of certain events after the beginning of this process. In the case of the EU-Eastern European rela­tions before the summer of 1993, such interactions could have been of a historical, economic, political, social, ethno-cultural, or other nature. It is very difficult to es­tablish which set of factors has contributed most to the decision-making regarding enlargement after the adoption of the Copenhagen criteria. Bearing in mind that in the first few years after the collapse of the communist system, some of the most urgent priorities of the political elites in Eastern Europe were connected with abolishing the former authoritarian regime structures, completing successful tran­sitions to democracy, and rebuilding their respective economies, the EU and its member states kept track of these changes and became almost immedi­ately and decisively involved in all of these domains of activity. Certainly, the precise list of priorities of the West European decision-makers in Eastern Europe cannot be re-established with 100 percent confidence, but the official discourse and concrete actions of these people have prompted the majority of researchers to look at the combination of broadly-defined objectives shown in Table 1.15.

Table 1 presents a set of ten factors, described as "initial conditions," which may provide a possible explanation for the attitude of the major EU actors towards the Eastern European applicant states according to the presence or absence of some of these factors in a given country or group of countries. The overall ranking of the Eastern European states is made by summing these factor variables. The variables are intended to coincide with the above-mentioned three basic areas of EU inter­vention in Eastern Europe, namely, abolishing the remnants of the communist ide­ology and conducting political and economic transformation. The results from this survey clearly demonstrate that Catholic/Protestant countries, countries with some previous experience with democratization, countries which had initiate political and economic reforms earliest, and countries in which people who had not been officially connected with the former communist regime arrived to power after elec­tions in the period 1989-91 have been viewed much more favorably by both the EU decision-makers and Western public opinion as a whole. The Eastern European countries are tentatively divided into three groups according to their level of overall performance, as indicated by the aggregate sum of positive answers obtained in each of the above ten categories. The polities from Group I and some from Group II have been those which have received the largest share of EU and member states' attention and assistance with regard to enlargement initiatives and different bilat­eral and multilateral types of contacts. The states from Group III and some from Group II have been mostly disregarded in one or more of these respects and, as a consequence, have been considered unlikely candidates for early membership.