Rhein on Energy and Climate

The EU has been in a process of permanent enlargements since its very beginning in 1958. In 2010 it is negotiating with two more candidate countries: Croatia and Turkey. It has given membership promises to six West Balkan countries (Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo). In the East, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia also cherish hopes for membership. In the North, tiny Iceland, beset with financial woes, has put its request for membership and received a positive reaction from the Union.

Negotiations with Croatia are far advanced. The country can expect joining by January 2013.

Negotiations with Turkey, formally opened in 2005, have advanced very slowly and are bound to come to grinding halt during 2011, essentially due to the “Cyprus factor”. Turkey having failed to normalise relations with the Republic of Cyprus and the EU having decided to freeze 18 of a total of 33 chapters somehow related to Cyprus, the two parties will very soon have exhausted the substance for further negotiation.

Cyprus constitutes a welcome pretext for the EU to suspend the negotiations. The EU remains profoundly split on whether or not to accept Turkey as a member state. The objections by France, Germany, Austria and Netherlands are not likely to go away. They are inspired by deeply-rooted doubts about the capacity of the EU to “digest” a big, powerful, Islamic country with different culture and history in its midst. Turkey being fully aware of these fundamental obstacles will therefore understandably refuses to make tactical concessions on Cyprus that will not open the door to its membership.

We should therefore write off Turkish membership, though Turkey has been a potential candidate ever since the signature of the Ankara Protocol in 1964. Still, Turkey has benefited from the long process of negotiations. It has helped the country to push through far-reaching economic and political reforms, join OECD and G 20, and to become a modern Islamic society embracing Western values. Despite its ups and downs during the past 50 years Turkey has been the most important economic and political success story in the Middle East! It can do without EU membership. 40 percent of its population no longer consider it as important. Membership will not change much in commercial terms as Turkey has been linked to the EU via a customs union. It no longer needs free movement of workers; both sides could negotiate appropriate agreements if they felt this to be in their mutual interest. The EU has nothing to offer Turkey in security terms. The EU will not transfer significant amounts of finance. Turkey has itself become a significant donor of development assistance.

As to foreign policy, Turkey is adult enough to lead a very successful foreign policy of its own, as it has demonstrated in the past five years.

Nor does the EU need Turkish membership. Its internal decision making process is already more than intractable. Turkey would be free to align to EU decisions whenever this is in its interest. The same goes for foreign policy where both parties should engage in very close mutual consultations.

In a nutshell, both for Turkey and the EU a status of privileged partnership would do for the coming two decades or longer; and the two parties would be well advised to change the terms of their negotiation in that direction in the coming two years or so. Relations between the EU and Norway or Switzerland might serve as a model.

As to the Eastern neighbours – Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia- the EU does not show excessive enthusiasm for membership either. Georgia is far away in a complex neighbourhood, without common borders. Ukraine is split on the desirability of joining the EU and fully integrating with the “West”. Moldova is very poor and divided, but thanks to the Rumanian nationality of many of its citizens indirectly integrated with the EU.

To sum up, the only game in town in the coming 10-15 years will be the progressive accession of the six West Balkan countries with a total population of some 20 million. They are geographically linked to the EU. But most do not yet constitute mature states and societies. Bosnia is a case in point. Their integration should therefore proceed slowly. It will require an in-depth preparation, including an effective fight against endemic corruption, and ample transition periods.

Accomplishing this process might leave the EU with 35, mostly very small member countries and clearly defined borders by 2025. It should therefore in parallel review its internal structures and undertakes the necessary adaptations, e.g. the size of the Commission.

By embracing a more restricted enlargement strategy the EU could focus on strengthening its internal policies and give much more pre-eminence to its neighbourhood policy. After years of overstretching its forces the time has come for the EU to concentrate on what is truly essential for its long-term sustainability.

Brussels 04.10.10 Eberhard Rhein

Author :


  1. Couldn’t agree more!
    I would only add that Turkey outside EU can be a positive factor in the Middle East and the muslim world in a way that would be impossible if it were integrated into the EU. In particular, as an EU member, it would not be able to serve as a democratic model for other Middle East or muslim countries (who have no perspective of EU membership whatsoever).

Comments are closed.