Variable geometry

Variable geometry

Opinion piece (Prospect)
01 July 2005

The end of enlargement would be a tragedy. Perhaps it can be saved by "variable geometry".

The French and Dutch referendums have halted both deepening and widening in the EU. The two ideas have always been intimately linked. The political elites in core countries such as France were reluctant to accept a wider Europe, fearing that the result would be a free trade area with weak political institutions. But in the end they accepted enlargement, because a succession of treaties-1985, 1991, 1997, 2000 and 2004-held out the promise of a stronger political union.

Now that deepening has stopped, the governments of several EU countries are likely to veto further enlargement. Even before the recent referendums, France had changed its constitution so that the conclusion of accession talks with any potential member must be approved by a referendum (this will not apply to Romania and Bulgaria). Austria too has promised a referendum on Turkish membership.

Bulgaria and Romania will probably join as planned, in 2007 or 2008, though their accession treaty still needs to be ratified by 25 parliaments. Turkey is likely to start talks on schedule in October, even if Angela Merkel, who opposes Turkish membership, becomes German chancellor in September. However, these talks will move at the pace of the most reluctant EU member, and they are unlikely to make much progress for many years, if ever. That in turn will strengthen the elements in Turkey's army and Islamic movement which fear European integration, and oppose the reforms requested by the EU.

The EU's new aversion to enlargement may have a disastrous impact on the Balkans. Croatia must be ruing its failure to co-operate fully with the Hague war crimes tribunal, as a result of which the EU postponed the accession talks that had been due to start in March 2005. In few member states is public opinion happy about Bosnia, Serbia, Albania or Macedonia joining. But if Brussels withdraws the carrot of eventual membership from such countries, it loses the ability to cajole them into making hard reforms. The best hope for Kosovo's future is some sort of conditional independence, but Serbia is unlikely to accept that without the prospect of EU membership for itself. To the EU's east, countries such as Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus and Georgia now have little chance of membership.

Andrew Moravcsik acknowledges that enlargement represents one of the triumphs of the EU, but seems rather sanguine about its demise. He shouldn't be: it is a potential tragedy. Of course, there has to be a limit at some point-north African countries are not in Europe and so cannot join. And enlargement should not be an elite project imposed on electorates.

But despite the difficulties, Europe's leaders should try to keep alive the membership hopes of the Balkan states, Turkey, Ukraine and Moldava. If the union says "never," it will weaken the reformist forces within these countries and risk suffering the effects of more political instability, economic crises and flows of emigrants. Unless the EU takes responsibility for places such as Kosovo and Transdniestria, they will remain at the centre of networks that traffic weapons, young women and drugs across Europe.

The EU should extend over the whole continent not only for the beneficial impact on the countries that join, but also for the economic, demographic and geopolitical gains for the union as a whole. Enlargement offers more opportunities for trade and investment, and the prospect of more young people in the union, to balance its ageing population. A broader union will be better able to influence the troubled regions that lie around Europe's perimeter-north Africa, the middle east, the Caucasus and Russia. Moreover, taking in Muslim countries such as Bosnia, Albania and Turkey will help to soften the divide between the west and Islam.

Given popular hostility towards further enlargement, how can the prospect of a wider union be sustained? The most obvious requirement is for politicians in the member states to lead, and explain the benefits. They might become more willing to do so if the union embraced more "variable geometry": the idea that not every country need take part in every policy but some can cooperate more closely. Already some countries stay out of the euro and the Schengen passport union. Those countries which want more political union can use the provisions in the current treaties, never yet applied, to integrate more. Future member states might also be persuaded to stay out of some policies-Turkey with farm policy, for example, or Serbia with the Schengen area. More variable geometry could thus make enlargement less threatening to the EU's political leaders and electorates.