Published on April 8th, 2013 |
by Katharina Obermeier
Image © Damien Smith 2007
Croatia’s Accession to the EU: An Ever Wider Union?
Last week, the Slovenian Parliament voted in favour of Croatia becoming the next member state of the European Union. This leaves only four other EU countries yet to ratify Croatia’s accession, all of whom are expected to do so shortly, allowing Croatia to officially become the 28th EU member state on 1 July 2013. Slovenia’s approval was considered the last major obstacle in the accession process, as the country had a long-standing dispute with Croatia over a Slovenian bank which closed over 20 years ago without reimbursing Croatian depositors. However, Croatia has agreed to suspend its lawsuit over the reimbursement, allowing the issue to be resolved under the auspices of the Bank for International Settlement.
This means that barring any unforeseen complications, the Union will soon have to balance 28 countries’ distinct interests, national traditions and internal issues. Considering the difficulties already associated with getting 27 semi-sovereign governments to agree on sensitive areas of policy-making, it is worth considering the sustainability of the EU’s mode of governance in the face of an expanding membership of states. How many more countries can the EU accommodate? Will, for example, a Union of 35 states still be able to function if every member retains a veto on areas of policy-making such as citizenship, taxation, social policy and common external policy? And will more less-developed countries joining the EU mean that funds intended to bring less economically viable regions in line with the rest of the EU will be more thinly spread, causing resentment among older member states?
There are no easy answers to these questions, nor is EU governance the only difficult issue to tackle when it comes to membership expansion. Much of the complexity comes from the candidate countries themselves – besides Croatia, these are currently Iceland, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey – who often come with historical baggage which the EU institutions and culture may not be equipped to handle. Several of the current candidate states used to be part of Yugoslavia, and are to this day affected by the deep-running ethnic tensions and conflicts in their history. The most recent round of EU-mediated talks between Serbia and Kosovo which just ended without achieving any consensus is a sharp reminder of the issues the region is facing. Through its policy of expansion, the EU is inching closer to the heart of the conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s, where its failure to act decisively and effectively was widely condemned. Though the Union has remained deeply involved in post-conflict management in the region, handling the after-effects of such traumatic conflicts will require greater finesse, responsibility and unanimity of decision-making than the EU has so far displayed if the parties involved are to become members.
In its accession negotiations, the EU must also walk a fine line between ensuring that any country which joins the Union meets its standards on principles such as press freedom and protection of women and minorities on the one hand and not appearing as an overbearing titan which can impose any policies it wants to on hapless countries seeking membership on the other hand. This is particularly relevant in the case of Turkey, which has been seeking membership in the European project since 1987 when it was still the European Economic Community. Turkish officials are expressing increasing frustration over the on-going delays in their accession process, stating that Turkey will withdraw its application if it is not granted membership by 2023. Of course, in its careful documentation of Turkey’s progress in certain key areas of policy-making, the European Commission continues to note violations of freedom of expression and other human rights, particularly with regard to the Kurdish minority. However, these valid concerns are often overshadowed by xenophobic statements by national government officials who make no secret of the fact that they believe Turkey and Islam have no place in Europe, thereby confirming Turkish suspicions that the EU is purposely keeping the country at arm’s length.
Do all these issues mean that the EU should give up any further expansion? By no means. The example of Croatia and Slovenia putting aside a 20-year-old diplomatic conflict for the good of the Union as a whole demonstrates what a powerful incentive EU membership can be for dispute resolution. Not to mention, the EU’s own core values of inclusiveness, solidarity and peace prevent it from arbitrarily turning away countries eager to join the project. However, any expansion of membership should prompt a review of the EU’s model of governance and activities, so it can truly have a positive symbiotic relationship with all of its members.