Next week’s summit of European Union leaders faces an important choice on Turkey.  Should the EU toughen existing measures that are holding up Turkey’s EU accession talks, because of Ankara’s refusal to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic?  Or should the EU recognise that this would send completely the wrong message, just when Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders are trying to reach a comprehensive settlement of the long-standing Cyprus dispute?

Precisely because the EU is divided on the Turkish question – the Greek Cypriot-run government of Cyprus wants a strong line, and other countries are split between supporters and opponents of Turkey’s entry into the EU – it seems unlikely that a consensus can be reached in favour of placing additional obstacles in the path of Turkey’s negotiations. Read more

Enlargement of the European Union is, almost imperceptibly, moving forward once more.  EU foreign ministers are expected next week to forward Albania’s membership application to the European Commission for an opinion.  This is a necessary technical step on the path to entry – small, but important.

The Commission is already preparing opinions on the applications of Iceland and Montenegro.  The opinions will take quite some time to deliver – longer for Albania and Montenegro than for Iceland – but the machinery is now in motion. Read more

Even before he was elected as president of France in 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy made it crystal-clear that he didn’t want Turkey to join the European Union - ever.  Now concerns are growing in Brussels that Sarkozy is contemplating a formal Franco-German initiative next year to offer Turkey a “privileged partnership” instead of, as now, the long-term prospect of full EU membership.

The idea of a “privileged partnership” has been around for a good few years.  Sarkozy likes it, and so does Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic party.  It also appeals to Angela Merkel, the CDU chancellor.  However, Merkel has up to now taken a nuanced approach, recognising that Germany, along with other EU countries, recognised Turkey as an official candidate for membership in 1999.  A responsible country cannot just wriggle out of agreements made in good faith, Merkel believes. Read more

According to Brian Cowen, Ireland’s premier, a No result in Friday’s referendum on the European Union’s Lisbon treaty would raise the prospect of a “two-speed Europe”, with some countries forging ahead with closer political and economic integration and others staying outside.  But isn’t a two-speed Europe the dog that is hauled out of its kennel every time there’s a EU institutional crisis but which, in the end, never barks?

After Irish voters rejected the Lisbon treaty in June 2008, a number of politicians were quick to assert that a two-speed Europe was the only way to keep the European “project” on the road.  Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg’s prime minister, who has lived through more EU crises than most of us have had quetsch plum tarts, mused in public that perhaps it was time for a “Club of the Few” to go ahead on their own. Read more

Slovenia’s announcement last Friday that it is ready to lift its veto on Croatia’s European Union entry talks gave a welcome boost to the EU enlargement process.  Other than Iceland’s decision in July to apply for membership, enlargement has been running into one brick wall after another in the past couple of years.

This is partly because of petty arguments such as the Slovenian-Croatian maritime border dispute (still unresolved, in spite of last Friday’s breakthrough) which held up Croatia’s talks.  But it is also because of a certain fatigue and disillusion in many of the EU’s 27 member-states, especially in western Europe, about admitting new entrants. Read more

After the fall of communism in central and eastern Europe, one compelling argument for bringing the region into the European Union was that the experience of prosperity, democracy and everyday multinational co-operation would ease national and ethnic tensions there.  Who knew, perhaps eventually it would get rid of them altogether, just as France and Germany were gradually reconciled after the second world war?

A flare-up of tensions last month between Slovakia and Hungary will serve as proof, to those western Europeans who were always hostile to enlargement, that such hopes were premature.  Worse still, it will confirm them in their opinion that, by admitting the two countries in 2004, all the EU succeeded in doing was to trap a nasty virus inside its own borders. Read more

Next Tuesday, Turkey’s bid to join the European Union will creep forward one more inch.  The EU and Turkey will open formal talks on taxation, one of the 35 “chapters”, or policy areas, that a candidate for EU membership must complete before joining the bloc.

Egemen Bagis, Turkey’s chief EU negotiator, is pleased but, unsurprisingly, not overwhelmed.  After the taxation talks start, only 11 of Turkey’s 35 chapters will be open.  The EU froze another eight chapters in December 2006 in retaliation for Turkey’s refusal to open its ports and airports to vessels and aircraft from the Greek Cypriot-controlled government of Cyprus. Read more

So exciting are European Union summits that they sometimes distract attention from developments that, though perhaps less eye-catching, tell you a lot more about what’s going on in the EU.  For example, the latest two-day summit is concentrating on financial regulation, guarantees for Ireland’s sovereignty so that it can hold another referendum on the EU’s Lisbon treaty, and the nomination of José Manuel Barroso for a second term as European Commission president.

But a more interesting story was the breakdown on Thursday of EU-mediated talks between Slovenia and Croatia over their bilateral maritime border dispute.  This makes it virtually certain that Croatia will not complete its EU accession negotiations by the end of this year – the goal that Barroso and Croatia’s government had originally set themselves. Read more

The Czech hosts of Thursday’s European Union summit with six ex-Soviet states are not happy bunnies. The list of the EU leaders who couldn’t be bothered to show up for the Eastern Partnership event in Prague, a highlight of the Czechs’ six-month EU presidency, was embarrassingly long.

Let’s take them one by one. Read more

When Olli Rehn, the European Union’s enlargement commissioner, underwent his confirmation hearings in 2004, he was asked what goals he hoped to achieve by the end of his five-year spell in office. He named six: a) a EU of 27 member-states, b) Croatia’s entry negotiations in their final stage, c) other western Balkan states put on a EU path through association agreements, d) Turkey firmly on the European track, e) Kosovo’s status settled, and f) Cyprus reunified.

Speaking last Friday at a conference in Prague to mark the fifth anniversary of the EU’s “big bang” expansion from 15 to 25 (and later 27) members, Rehn claimed that he had met five of his six targets. Only Cyprus’s reunification was missing. But even on Cyprus it wasn’t all doom and gloom – talks on a comprehensive settlement had been going on since last September. Read more

The European Union is truly a weird and wonderful thing. Take the question of enlargement into the western Balkans (an area once known as Yugoslavia and Albania).

As is well-known, France, Germany and other western European countries have been reluctant to move the enlargement process forward as long as the EU’s Lisbon reform treaty remains blocked. Among their concerns is the fear that their electorates will not take kindly to the prospect of yet more eastern Europeans piling into the EU at a time of extraordinary economic crisis. Read more

Once upon a time a certain corner of Europe was known as Yugoslavia. Then it became former Yugoslavia or, for pointy-heads, the Yugoslav successor states. Now, with Slovenia in the European Union, Brussels has packaged what’s left of the old Yugoslavia with Albania and relabelled it “the western Balkans” – but the problems remain as intractably Yugoslav as ever.

Take Bosnia-Herzegovina, where EU foreign ministers today named Valentin Inzko, a high-ranking Austrian diplomat, as the bloc’s new Special Representative. Inzko will wear two hats – he was named the world’s High Representative for Bosnia last week. But it will be something of a miracle if he makes any progress towards bringing the Bosnian state off the international life support machine on which it has depended since the end of the 1992-95 civil war. Read more

Last week I met Ivan Simonovic, justice minister of Croatia, whose bid to join the European Union in 2011 or 2012 depends to a great extent on how well the EU authorities judge the nation’s struggle against organised crime and corruption is going.  Simonovic, an energetic reformer of Croatia’s judicial system, told me that Croatia now had “a stronger system of prevention and suppression of organised crime than in many European Union countries”.

He didn’t mention any countries by name, but it may have been no coincidence that on the same day the European Commission published its latest reports on Bulgaria and Romania, easily the two most corruption-ridden EU member-states. The report on Bulgaria struck me as surprisingly mild, permitting Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev to describe it as “a clear, encouraging signal that we are on the right track”. Still, the report’s final sentence pulled no punches: “No major court decisions on high-profile cases of organised crime have been taken in recent months.” Read more

In his recent inaugural address in Washington, President Barack Obama said “the time has come to set aside childish things”. Evidently the leaders of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia weren’t listening.

They have just done an unbelievably childish thing and named their section of a major north-south trans-European highway – known in Eurospeak as “Corridor 10″ – after Alexander the Great. In 2007, they renamed Skopje airport after him. Read more

Turkey should almost be pleased. On Friday the European Union agreed to open two new “chapters”, or policy areas, in Turkey’s EU accession negotiations – on the free movement of capital and on information society and the media. The Czech Republic, which takes over the EU’s rotating presidency from France on January 1, hopes to open two more chapters during its six-month spell in charge.

So out of the 35 chapters that need to be completed before a country can join the EU, Turkey now has 10 open and could have 12 open by June 30. Whoopee! At this rate, all 35 will be open by some time in 2015. Except, of course, that certain western European governments have no intention of letting Turkey into the EU at all. Moreover, eight of Turkey’s negotiating chapters were frozen two years ago because the EU disapproves of Turkey’s refusal to open its ports and airports to trade with Cyprus. All in all, far from moving steadily forwards, Turkey’s accession talks are going nowhere fast. Read more

The European Commission’s latest annual report on Turkey is striking for its kind words on Turkish foreign policy and its harsher language on internal Turkish political developments. It describes progress in some areas towards meeting the criteria for joining the European Union, and little or no progress in others.

In short, there is something for those who want Turkey one day to be in the EU, something for those who do not, and a lot for those who prefer to let the whole thing just drift along. Read more

Among the lessons to be drawn from the Russian-Georgian war is that the next flashpoint between the European Union and Russia may turn out to be Ukraine. There is a particular risk of trouble over Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula where ethnic Russians are in the majority and where Russia’s Black Sea fleet has a 20-year lease on bases that is due to expire in 2017.

To help avert a crisis in Ukraine, the EU badly needs to come up with a convincing strategy for rescuing the country from the geopolitical no man’s land in which it has languished since the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991. Russia’s military intervention in Georgia underscores the Kremlin’s determination to rebuild its influence in former Soviet republics on its western and southern borders. Ukraine – with 46m people and a culture and history intimately connected to that of Russia – is the biggest prize of them all. Read more

Those who say Turkey must never be allowed to join the European Union should meet Mehmet Simsek, the Turkish economy minister. His family and career background may surprise some people. But it is a story that serves as a reminder not to lock modern Turkey in a box of tired old stereotypes.

Simsek was in Brussels this week for a meeting of the European Policy Centre think-tank. After bombarding his lunchtime audience with fiscal and trade data, he turned to the attacks being launched on Turkish targets by the PKK, the Kurdish separatist movement. Read more

The last time Serbian and European leaders really got together, they seethed at each other. So why is the EU dusting off its plans to cuddle up to Belgrade? And why do I think it is a good idea?

I remember that last meeting in October, when, bunkered down in a conference centre in Luxembourg, Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia’s prime minister, proclaimed his country’s heartfelt desire to hang on to the province of Kosovo – whatever the wishes of the EU or US.

Olli Rehn, the EU’s enlargement Commissioner, said Serbia had done nowhere near enough to track down Gen Ratko Mladic, the man blamed for Europe’s worst massacre since the second world war – the killing of up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995.

The air was thick with recrimination. Rehn made clear that unless Serbia did much more on handing over Mladic, there was no chance that talks would resume on deepening Belgrade’s ties with Brussels,  negotiations supposed to open the way for Serbia to join the EU.

Now, however, Rehn is giving off much more positive signals, making clear that, if Serbia’s parliamentary elections on Sunday go well, the talks could pick up where they left off and make up for lost time.

 Read more

Britain has been traumatised in recent months by stories about a tidal wave of Polish and Lithuanian workers coming to the UK. Given the tone of much of the media reporting of the issue, it is hardly surprising that British support for the EU enlargement process has fallen by eight points to 36 per cent in just six months.
Such a response would seem bizarre in the United States, where it is far more common for workers to cross state lines in search of jobs. In fact, such labour mobility is a vital part of the US economy’s success.

 Read more