Increasingly frosty reception for EU enlargement plans


EUROPEAN DIARY:As Iceland applies to join the EU, accession talks with other candidate states are being held up, writes JAMIE SMYTH

EUROPEAN ENLARGEMENT commissioner Olli Rehn managed a rare smile for the cameras following Iceland’s decision to apply for EU membership last week.

Finland’s nominee to the EU executive has had a pretty torrid time lately as member states have turned their backs on enlargement policy, holding up accession talks with candidate countries Croatia, Turkey and Macedonia.

“I am pleased that the EU’s enlargement agenda may soon extend to Europe’s northwestern corner as well with Iceland, a country with deep democratic traditions, in addition to our continued commitment to south east Europe,” said Rehn, who has worked tirelessly to restore some momentum to the stalled EU enlargement process – without much success.

Rehn mediated unsuccessful talks between Croatia and Slovenia this year aimed at solving a border dispute over access to international waters in the Adriatic. All EU states retain a veto over enlargement talks and the ongoing dispute looks likely to derail Croatian hopes of joining the union by 2011.

The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia became an EU candidate country in 2005 but the European Commission has not sanctioned the start of accession talks due to concerns over the slow pace of reform. It also faces a veto from Greece because of a dispute over the country’s name.

Turkey, which began accession talks in 2005, has made slow progress due to a bilateral dispute with Cyprus over offering it access to its ports and airports. But its accession talks have also been held up due to a reluctance expressed by states such France and Germany to allow a big, poor, populous Muslim nation to join the EU for fear of the likely impact on the union.

The large-scale migration following the accession of 10 member states in May 2004 has also increased scepticism about offering a date for the start of accession talks with Bosnia, Serbia, Albania and Montenegro.

Bulgaria and Romania’s accession, which has been marked by corruption concerns, has further dented support for enlargement.

But backtracking on an EU promise of future membership to the volatile Balkans region is a risky strategy, given the danger of inflaming nationalist sentiment right on the EU border.

Aware of the dangers of growing disillusionment with the union, Rehn proposed last week to offer visa-free travel for citizens of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro from January 1st.

“It will mean a further Europeanisation of the civil societies in the western Balkans,” he said, urging other Balkan states to speed up political and economic reforms so they can also benefit from visa-free travel to the EU.

The downbeat mood surrounding future enlargement is not just directed towards the Balkans and Turkey, which have to implement many political reforms before they can join.

Even tiny Iceland’s EU application has prompted some soul searching in Germany, where the catchphrase, “no Lisbon Treaty, no EU enlargement”, is increasingly popular.

“We should discuss the structure of the EU before we discuss expanding it,” said Alexander Dobrindt, general secretary of Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU), when asked about Iceland’s application to join the EU. The CSU is the smaller sister party to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and is increasingly sceptical about enlargement and EU integration.

“Lisbon is now assumed to be an absolute necessity to enlargement,” says Hugo Brady, EU affairs analyst with the Centre for European Reform, who notes the symbiotic relationship between “integration and enlargement”.

But he believes Iceland could jump the enlargement queue if Lisbon comes into force following the second Irish referendum on the treaty in October. “Iceland is part of the Nordic fraternity and is already well integrated with the EU. It is a member of the Schengen free travel zone and the European Economic Area and could be integrated relatively easily,” he says.

Iceland’s ambassador to the EU, Stefan Haukur Johannesson, underlines this point. “We are fully aware of the enlargement fatigue within the EU but I think people recognise that Iceland is deeply integrated with the EU,” says Johannesson, who believes accession talks can be completed within 18 months.

Fisheries is the biggest potential sticking point in the negotiations. It is also far from clear whether the Icelandic public will vote to join the union.

But with Croatia, Turkey and Macedonia facing significant obstacles to accession, Iceland probably offers the best prospect for Ireland to have its Lisbon guarantees on neutrality, abortion and taxation enshrined in EU law at an early date.

The Government has said it wants an Irish protocol to the Lisbon Treaty ratified at the same time as all 27 member states and national parliaments ratify the next accession treaty. Given the increasingly sceptical attitude towards enlargement and Croatia’s dispute with Slovenia, it will be pinning its hopes on an early Icelandic accession.

Of course, getting a Yes vote on Lisbon in October will play a critical role in creating the right conditions for this to happen.