EU borders shift eastwards amid public cynicism and murmurs of discontent

Europe Letter: As Croatia becomes the 28th member state, the EU will hope the moral argument for enlargement wins out

An usher of the European Parliament holds the flag of Croatia during a ceremony marking the start of Croatia’s membership to the EU, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Monday. Photograph: Vincent Kessler/Reuters

An usher of the European Parliament holds the flag of Croatia during a ceremony marking the start of Croatia’s membership to the EU, at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Monday. Photograph: Vincent Kessler/Reuters


There was a back-to-school feel about activities in Strasbourg this week, as MEP’s gathered in the picturesque French town for their monthly sojourn in Alsace.

Ireland managed to avoid any mention of the word Anglo during the Taoiseach’s address to parliament, and succeeded in graciously passing over the baton of the rotating presidency of the EU Council to Lithuania.

But it was Croatia’s moment in the sun, as parliament marked the accession of the 28th member state to the European Union. Newly elected Croatian MEPs took their seats in the chamber for the first time in a symbolic expression of the country’s new political membership of the union.

Croatia is the first country of the former Yugoslavia to join the European Union since Slovenia acceded nine years ago. Six others, including Serbia and Kosovo, are lining up in the wings.

While public support for EU membership has been slipping – the latest polls show that only half of Croats support EU membership – Balkan countries continue to strive for EU membership, confident that the long-term benefits of gaining access to the single market and EU funding will outweigh any short-term losses resulting from exposure to the euro zone, rising prices or increased competition.

EU borders shift east
The shift southeastwards can be seen as the inevitable extension of the last major wave of EU expansion, which saw 10, mostly ex-communist countries, join the EU in 2004, followed by Romania and Bulgaria in 2007.

The resumption of the EU’s enlargement programme has raised inevitable questions about the concept of EU enlargement, and whether the EU is becoming too unwieldy as its borders shift inexorably eastwards.

For existing member states, the context for enlargement has changed dramatically, as Europe welcomes the first new member since the economic crisis began in 2008. Two interconnected concerns are the primary focus of anxiety for sceptics –further east-west migration and fears about the economic repercussions of adding new, and inevitably poorer, member states.

Ireland is one member state that has experienced this change in context more than most. Post-2004, the country witnessed the largest influx of migrants in the EU relative to its size. Rather than perceived as displacing Irish employees, the wave of migrants that flocked to Ireland almost a decade ago mainly filled lower-paid positions, effectively freeing up Irish residents to take up higher-paid positions, and helping to resource Ireland’s economic boom.

Today the picture is very different, and the prospect of one new member state joining the club has raised the hackles of some groups. The Irish Exporters Association issued a strongly worded statement last weekend, outlining its opposition to Croatian accession.

Highlighting Croatia’s high unemployment rate, contracting economy and the fact that 60 per cent of its exports already go to the EU, the IEA says Croatia joining the EU “is not helpful at this point”.

“At a time of continued uncertainty within the EU and difficulties in even agreeing an overall EU budget to fund existing structures, the IEA wonders why Brussels does not put on hold all new member applications until more favourable times.”

But despite the murmurs of discontent expressed by some representatives of a tired and increasingly cynical EU public, Europe is likely to press on with enlargement in the long term. With Turkey’s accession talks stalled, the Balkans will dominate enlargement policy over the next decade.

Serbia and Kosovo queue up
Croatia’s accession coincided with last week’s tentative commitment by EU leaders to begin accession talks with Serbia by the end of January, and sign a framework agreement with Kosovo. The process is dependent on both sides implementing measures in the coming months. Steps have already been taken, including the exchange of special envoys and the closure of some Serbian police stations in northern Kosovo.

The idea that the promise of EU membership can incentivise countries to implement progressive changes that they might otherwise be reluctant to do, is one of the strongest arguments for enlargement.

It also taps into one of the founding doctrines of the union – that fundamentally the organisation was founded as a way to prevent future war.

As the anniversary of the outbreak of the first World War approaches, the fact the EU is moving towards integrating a peaceful Balkans into the wider European community is testimony to its authority.

The EU needs a positive news story as it struggles to assert its legitimacy in the face of a prolonged economic crisis.

It will be hoping that the moral argument in favour of enlargement is strong enough to outweigh the real economic concerns of its citizens.