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Enlargement: the moment of truth for European construction

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Default profile picture Morag Young

Shedding light on the underlying link between enlargement and the reform of the Union undertaken by the Convention.

In May 2004 10 of the 13 candidate counties will be admitted to the Union. At the same time, from now until June 2003 the Union will be rethinking how it operates within the framework of the Convention on the Future of Europe. This enlargement is not the first for the Union and it will not be the last. Nevertheless, more than the others this enlargement will be, without doubt, the moment of truth for the European Union: its success depends on the ability of the Union to reform itself, defining European identity and the meaning people want to give to Europe.

Enlargement has sometimes been described by its detractors as a relentless pursuit. By enlarging Europe, the 15 (current member states) would have liked to have accelerated reform of the Institutions. It is actually proving necessary to rethink how the Institutions operate in order to avoid paralysis. The Commission will no longer be able to operate effectively with 25 members and proposals run a great risk of being forced into weak consensus.

Similarly, at the decision-making level in the Council, extension and reform of the areas where Qualified Majority Voting is used will be essential if the Council is to avoid blocks. These reforms will be all the more necessary since debates risk being intense and consensus rare.

The candidate countries have interests, and are in an economic and political situation, that differ much more than those of the 15. Certain issues such as agriculture, public assistance and States' contributions could all become the objects of passionate debate. Certainly, entry into the Union will be a powerful factor in picking up economies and strengthening democracies: precedents in Spain, Portugal and Greece prove this out. Nevertheless, at the time of these earlier enlargements the European Community was not simultaneously experiencing the institutional reconstruction it faces today. The economic and political success of enlargement is, therefore, closely dependent on the ability of the Convention to effectively reform the Institutions.

People do not fall in love with markets

Enlargement will also drive rethinking of the meaning and content of European construction. The formula adopted by the Convention of inviting representatives from the candidature countries to participate in reform was, in this regard, a politically legitimate and strategically necessary solution. It is right that the candidate counties can contribute to the development of the rules that will shortly apply to them. It was equally strategic to learn to work as a group of 25: the diplomatic traditions and worries of the candidate countries are largely similar to those of the 15. There is, therefore, no reason why enlargement will undermine the EU, as has sometimes been suggested.

Nevertheless, at the time of this rethink about the meaning of European construction, enlargement also underlines the importance of the unresolved debates surrounding European identity and the choice between Europe as a zone of free exchange and a political Europe with its own place in the world, and especially opposite the United States. Here, again, the institutional solutions given by the Convention on European citizenship, the Institutions and the CFSP will be decisive. But it will not be enough. Beyond the institutions, it will be necessary to arouse support from the people which, without a doubt, will face difficulties: finally creating Europe-wide public opinion, calming the worries that enlargement arouses as much within the 15 as in the candidate countries, and defining together what each expects from the Union.

"People do not fall in love with markets" to quote Jacques Delors. Enlargement reminds us that Europe is still finding it difficult to be more than just a market. Europe requires profound political reform; it is even the first condition of its success. But it also requires longer-term political awareness by the national opinions who form real opinion and the European political classes.

Translated from L'élargissement, instant de vérité de la construction européenne.