The great double-bluff between the EU and its neighbourhood

The EU’s half-hearted commitment to enlargement has not gone unnoticed in its neighbourhood and a new form of pragmatism has led to a selective application of accession criteria in candidate states. The lack of credibility on both sides has led to an impasse, experts said at a panel called Beyond EU Borders: Accession, Association, Alienation.

Under the title “We Need to Talk About Europe,” the Diplomatic Academy Students Initiative Conference (DASICON), welcomed a panel of four experts from academia and the political sphere to the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna on March 2.

“A double bluff: The EU pretended it was serious about enlargement and the countries in the region pretended they were serious with reforms,” said Thomas Mühlmann, from the Austrian Foreign Ministry. He reminded the audience that at the last summit between the EU and the Balkans in 2003, the EU’s position was “the future of the Western Balkans is within the European Union.” Now, 15 years on, only Croatia has achieved membership.

The EU has given its would-be accessors mixed messages.  One of the reasons for this is that the EU has been “side-tracked” by the financial crisis, the Greek debt crisis, the situation in Ukraine and, latterly, Brexit. Fellow panellist, former special rapporteur to the European Parliament Ulrike Lunacek, agreed, citing “a rise in anti-EU, nationalist, authoritarian leaders” as another contributing factor.

“I think one of the biggest mistakes of the EU is that they are not acting as one,” she said. She referred to the recognition of Kosovo as a state, which is only supported by 23 of the 28 Member States.

Just as EU member states differ in narrative regarding accession, so too do the prospective members. Perceptions in the Neighbourhood towards the accession criteria have been in flux, particularly in Turkey. While Turkey contributed to the drafting of the European Convention on Human Rights, and is a party to the European Cultural Convention, Lunacek stated that “what is happening at the moment is totally against those visions and principles.” The imprisonment of journalists and closing of news outlets are part of a larger autocratic trend, she suggests, and is not cohesive with the European vision.

Mustafa Kemal Basa, First Counsellor at the Turkish Embassy, Vienna disagreed. “We are committed to continue our accession posed with the European Union,” he said, arguing that Turkey belongs to Europe and European values.

Meanwhile, reform efforts in the Western Balkans have been half-hearted. Mühlmann made reference to the EU’s toolbox for promoting reform, however he suggested that, “eradicating corruption is too ambitious a goal,” because endemic corruption is “too entrenched.” He and Lunacek emphasized that while the EU has contributed to the reform process, local civil society requires a greater degree of initiative, and a new generation must replace the old elites.

Furthermore, the standards acceding states are being held to have grown since 2003, the panel acknowledged. “We should not change the rules of the game whilst playing,”Mühlmann stated. “The EU is dynamic, not static.” The question remains: how does the EU apply what it has learned and allow the acquis to evolve without creating the perception that the rules are being changed whilst the goalposts are being moved?

In response to a question whether the EU should reform itself before it looks to expand, Mühlmann drew attention to the Commission’s new 3-part Comprehensive Enlargement Strategy, presented on Feb. 6. This clearly spells out the deficits in the neighbourhood, reaffirms the EU’s wish to engage more strongly in the region, and emphasises a need for internal preparation.  Looking towards future enlargement, he said, “I am hopeful, always.”

Mustafa Kemal Basa First Counsellor at the Turkish Embassy Vienna

Ulrike Lunacek Former Vice President, Rapporteur on Kosovo and Member of the European Parliament

Thomas Mühlmann Deputy Director and Head of Unit for Western Balkans at the Austrian Foreign Ministry

Cengiz Günay Vice Director of the Austrian Institute for International Affairs

Moderation: Christian Mandl Head of the European Policy Coordination Department at the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber