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Jean Monnet, one of the European Union’s 1950s founding fathers, foretold that in a globalised era, size would count. “Our countries have become too small for the world...measured against America and Russia today and China and India tomorrow,” he once said.

Europe’s leaders have since sought to expand the EU in line with this vision. But enlargement, often cited as the club’s most successful policy, has become a political liability. On Thursday, at a summit in Brussels, the EU’s member governments will clash over how much further – and how quickly – the Union can extend to the east.

The debate will raise questions about what it means to be European and whether the EU can carry on growing without grinding to a halt or further alienating its citizens. The outcome and tone of the talks will have hard-edged consequences: is it going to become even tougher for candidates to join the club?

Senior EU officials say this is a dangerous moment. If the bloc sends out negative signals to future members, what consequences could it have for reformers in Turkey, the politically unstable Balkans or former Soviet republics such as Belarus or Ukraine? The world has a stake in the message that comes out of Brussels.

The end-of-year summit gives European leaders a chance to take stock of the club’s “big bang” expansion of May 2004, which saw it expand from 15 to 25 members. By the time Bulgaria and Romania join on New Year’s day, the EU will have taken in 10 former communist countries and increased its population to 490m, almost half as big again as the US.

So what went wrong with the latest enlargement? The simple answer is: not very much. While some western European countries, including Britain and Ireland, experienced unexpectedly high levels of immigration from Poland and other new member states, economic studies say the migrants filled skills shortages.

Indeed, the creation of a mobile pool of labour – giving Europe’s economy some of the flexibility taken for granted in the US – seems to have played a role in pushing EU economic growth above 2.5 per cent, outstripping America. Unemployment across the bloc has at last started falling.

While there has been political instability in central Europe and Poland has proved an awkward partner, 10 dynamic new member states are being integrated. Europe is using its “soft power” to spread democratic and economic transformation and stability. Even France, the most vocal advocate of slowing the pace of enlargement, has in an official paper called this ambitious reunification of east and west Europe a “remarkable success”.

Yet this week’s summit takes place against a backdrop of public anxiety, typified by fears that western companies will relocate jobs and production to the east and that cheap eastern workers will take jobs in the west. A Eurobarometer poll this year found that only 45 per cent of EU citizens want to see other countries join, a proportion that falls to less than one in three in France, Germany, Luxembourg and Austria.

Concerns about the pace of enlargement were cited by both French and Dutch voters as reasons for their rejection of the EU’s proposed constitutional treaty in 2005. Sergey Stanishev, Bulgaria’s prime minister, admits the atmosphere has soured. He says: “Enlargement is a great success story for Europe but has been very badly communicated.”

To allay public concerns, some European politicians want the EU to agree its final political borders now, arguing that the club risks getting so big it will no longer be able to act. “A Europe without borders will become a subset of the United Nations,” Nicolas Sarkozy, the French centre-right presidential candidate, has said. Wolfgang Schüssel, Austria’s chancellor, argues that former Soviet-bloc countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia and Armenia should be told now to forget about full membership and develop other forms of partnerships with Europe instead.

Most advocates of a “final borders” strategy also share the view of Mr Sarkozy and Mr Schüssel that the line should be drawn west of the Bosphorus, excluding 80m largely Muslim Turks, whose European destiny will dominate summit headlines. “We have to say emphatically who is a European and who is not,” Mr Sarkozy has said.

Mr Sarkozy’s proposal would have legal teeth because of an existing EU treaty declaration that says: “Any European state . . . may apply to become a member of the Union.” If it meets the club’s political and economic rules and its human rights standards, it should be able to join, although it needs unanimous support from existing member states: each has a veto. Defining what is a “European” country is therefore both vital and elusive. Only once has the EU denied membership to an applicant country on such grounds, when in 1993 Morocco was told that it “was not a European country”, in spite of its historic and cultural links.

Europe’s eastern boundaries are notoriously imprecise. Geographically the continent’s boundary is usually put at the Urals – a huge post was once erected on the main trail across the mountains to mark the boundary with Asia, a poignant sight for prisoners en route to Siberia. Turkey’s prospects for EU membership have been acknowledged since 1963, in spite of the vast majority of its land mass being in Asia. Cyprus was admitted in 2004, in spite of its being only 150 miles from Syria and 500 miles from the European continent.

Olli Rehn, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, argues that the term “European” combines geographical, historical and cultural elements. “This cannot be condensed into a simple timeless formula – it is subject to review by each succeeding generation,” he said in a recent policy paper. But even supporters of fixing Europe’s final borders admit that this will not be possible this week. Instead they are looking for other tools to “master” – or slow – the accession process.

European diplomats say the summiteers will agree on at least one key point: the EU should honour its commitments to Turkey and Croatia, which have started membership talks, and to the countries of the western Balkans, whose membership aspirations are officially recognised. But one ambassador admits the club is “split down the middle” over the pace at which membership talks with Turkey and the Balkan states should proceed, or indeed whether they will ever end in success.

France, the Netherlands and Austria are among those who want to define the EU’s “absorption capacity”, including whether an expanded Union can deliver the deeper integration envisaged by Monnet. It would also look at the impact of enlargement on the Union’s budget and its institutions.

Mr Rehn prefers to talk of “integration capacity”, a phrase that he argues applies equally to the candidate country and the Union itself. But he insists it should not become a new “condition” for entry, a view supported by pro-enlargement countries such as Britain, Spain, Italy, Sweden and Poland.

This is likely to be the subject of skirmishes at the Brussels summit. Paris wants the European Commission, as the executive arm, to conduct fuller impact assessments and to take more account of political developments and public opinion during the entry negotiations. “What they are trying to do is build up an armoury of tools to stop any enlargement they don’t like,” says one senior EU official. France also has a “nuclear weapon” to halt future expansions: each new member after Croatia will be able to join only if French voters say Yes in a referendum.

But France is not alone in wanting to increase political control over enlargement. The Netherlands has been particularly vocal, while Austria and other neighbours in what is dubbed in Brussels the “Habsburg bloc” have concerns over Turkish accession. “The pace of enlargement depends on the absorption capacity of the Union and not only on the preparations of the candidate country,” says one French official. In Paris they talk of putting a “pilot” in the cockpit, to reassure people that someone is in control of enlargement.

That position is seen as “ironic” in Brussels, where officials argue it was French President Jacques Chirac himself who put the process on autopilot when he insisted that Bulgaria and Romania should be guaranteed entry by 2008 at the latest, regardless of whether they were ready, so that the two, both linguistic affiliates, could inject a dose of Francophonie into the latest expansion.

Dutch officials meanwhile say that although Europe has a strategic interest in extending membership into unstable regions, that has to be balanced against the risk of enlargement creating instability inside the Union. That could take the form of a breakdown in integration or the rise of xenophobic political parties in the west.

There is also wide support for the idea that future expansion can take place only after the EU has updated its institutions – a task that involves reviving parts of the stalled constitutional treaty. A painful review of the club’s budget, including the farm subsidy regime, is also seen as essential.

The problem for potential EU members is that these all appear to be hurdles over which they have no control. The message seems to be: you can meet all the criteria but, if the EU has not sorted out its budget, or its constitution, or if public opinion is hostile, then you cannot come in. “Of course, that is the conclusion some member states will take from the summit,” says one EU diplomat. “Others will argue that all of this is blah, blah, blah and there are no new conditions. The truth is probably somewhere in between.”

Whatever the final summit text, equally important will be the political signal sent to the countries in Europe’s waiting room. It is unlikely to be positive. Turkey’s refusal to open its ports to shipping from Cyprus, a 2004 entrant, will result in its membership talks being partially suspended.

Although Mr Rehn points out that some parts of the negotiations can continue, there will be some at the summit who believe or hope these will never be concluded. Mr Rehn fears the negative mood, whether expressed in the legalese of a summit communiqué or by the likes of Mr Chirac in closing press conferences, will also send a message to others – including the 25m people of the western Balkans – that
their path towards the Union is

With Kosovo’s future status due to be determined next year, Mr Rehn argues Europeans have a “major responsibility” for providing stability in the region – including keeping open the possibility of membership for countries such as Serbia and Bosnia.

Matti Vanhanen, the Finnish prime minister and summit host, as his country holds the EU’s rotating presidency, had also hoped to insert a line into the communiqué hinting that the door was still ajar for other future members, but he was rebuffed by a number of member states. But does this mean that Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia – and possibly Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan – will be denied their claim to be “European” for ever? As
Mr Rehn notes, different generations have different perspectives.

Napoleon Bonaparte, whose imperial ambitions stretched well beyond the eastern limits of today’s EU, also took a wider view. Brooding in exile on St Helena, he wrote: “I wished to found a European system, a European code of laws, a European judiciary. There would be but one people in Europe.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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