Heard the news from Salzburg?
If so, you must have been listening very carefully, for the informal meeting of EU foreign ministers held there this weekend was very quiet, and not just because of the extra dumping of snow the region received, in what has been a very snowy winter.
Half-way through the Austrian presidency, ambitions to press for EU enlargement through the Western Balkans are being scaled back. It’s not completely certain that the Austrians are ready to hand the ball to the Finns (who will, in the nature of things, be more likely to push forward on the Northern Dimension), still less to the Germans (1H07, and likely accession of Romania and Bulgaria) or the Slovenes (1H08, the next neighbor and the last until Hungary comes up again in the first half of 2011, a time when America will be gearing up to elect George W. Bush’s successor’s potential successor).
Still, the German newspaper whose web site has marginally improved reports that the lack of backsliding on what ministers agreed in 2003 is being spun as success for the Salzburg meeting. (The 2003 agreement in Thessaloniki was roughly Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, negotiations probably with Croatia and Turkey [since confirmed], Stability and Association Agreements with the Western Balkans, accession negotiations according to the Copenhagen criteria.)
Significantly, the meeting’s participants agreed that the Union’s “absorption capacity” would play a role in the enlargement process. On the face of it, that is just stating the obvious. But it reinforces the view that the EU will take time to come to terms with the 10 new members who joined in 2004, and the poorer nations of Southeastern Europe will not only have to work very hard to meet the EU’s criteria (Turkey recently abolished the death penalty in wartime, following peacetime abolition in 2002), but will also have to wait until present members are good and ready. They may also have to wait until the Union has agreed on how to reform its institutions to work with ca. 40 members, but that is another story entirely.
Each wave of enlargement has been followed by a period of integration. In the past, that has not been pressing because there were not generally countries waiting in the queue. Things are different now. Is the Union?
My slightly sardonic take on enlargement in Central Europe, which I first floated in the mid-1990s, was that it would come to pass as soon as at least one new member would be a net contributor. With Slovenia, that was duly fulfilled for the 2004 enlargement. But I don’t think that Southeastern Europe can wait that long, and I don’t think that the Union’s self-imposed timetable is enough to drive enlargement. While it’s possible that bureaucratic momentum among current members and political will among prospective members will keep the bicycle moving, I am at present not fully convinced. It may take an outside development, but just now I can’t think what that could be. Perhaps enlargement fatigue has gotten to me as well.