EU enlargement

Turkey’s bid to join the European Union is expected to make a little progress today.  I stress “a little”.  In most respects, the cause of Turkish membership of the EU is in worse shape than at any time since EU governments recognised Turkey as an official candidate in 2004.

The progress, minimal though it is, takes the form of an agreement by the EU and Turkey to open formal talks on food security. This is one of the 35 chapters, or policy areas, that a country must complete before it can join the EU.  It means that Turkey will have opened 13 chapters in total.  Of these, however, only one chapter has been closed.  If this is progress, the snail is king of the race track. Read more

After spending three days in Reykjavik and the northern town of Akureyri, just below the Arctic Circle, I am starting to get the feeling that Iceland’s entry into the European Union is anything but guaranteed.  I have met government ministers and officials who are eager to steer their country into the EU.  But I have met a fairly wide range of private sector businessmen, teachers, students and other Icelanders who are either flatly opposed or at best non-committed.

The most passionate opposition I’ve encountered has come from representatives of the powerful fisheries industry and the less powerful but politically influential agricultural lobby.  Here’s what the manager of the national dairy farmers’ association said: “If we entered the EU, our tariffs would have to go.  Our home market share would drop by 25 to 50 per cent.  The number of farmers would drop by 60 to 70 per cent.  EU membership would deal us a tremendous blow, there’s no doubt about it.” Read more

Will Iceland really join the European Union?  I have come to Reykjavik in search of answers.  In one sense, it’s the right time to be here: the skies are white for almost 24 hours a day at this time of year, appearing to throw light on everything.  But in another sense this promises to be a frustrating trip - Iceland itself doesn’t seem to know if it wants to be in the EU or not.

The opinion polls are not good.  After a long period in which a solid majority of about 60 per cent of Icelanders supported EU membership, things have turned upside down in recent months.  Support for EU entry was estimated to be as low as 28 per cent in one recent survey, whilst opposition now runs at about 60 per cent.  If Iceland is serious about joining the EU, it will have to hold a referendum, so these numbers matter.  Right now, however, we are a long way from a referendum – at least two years, and perhaps longer.  Much can change.

Enthusiasm for the EU was high when Iceland’s banking system and currency collapsed in 2008, prompting the introduction of a drastic austerity programme conducted under the beady eye of the International Monetary Fund.  But Iceland’s dispute with the UK and the Netherlands over how to repay British and Dutch savers who lost their money in Icesave, the failed online Icelandic bank, has changed public opinion. Read more

One little-noticed side effect of the Greek debt crisis is that it is playing into the hands of those who oppose faster progress on enlarging the European Union.  Western Balkan countries such as Albania, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are queuing up at the EU’s door, but only Croatia has any chance of membership in the next three years.

Among the reasons is that Greece, the first Balkan state to enter the EU (in 1981), has been exposed as a country that not only ran ruinous and reckless fiscal policies for many years, but deceived its partners with false data in order to join the eurozone at the start of this decade.  Rightly or wrongly, some policymakers in EU national capitals argue that this unhappy experience demonstrates that, when it comes to public probity, Balkan states are just not to be trusted. Read more

Yulia Tymoshenko’s refusal to acknowledge Viktor Yanukovich as the legitimate winner of Ukraine’s presidential election is starting to embarrass her friends in the European Union.  The White House, Nato and the EU have all congratulated Yanukovich on his victory.  The longer Tymoshenko maintains her defiant stance, the more it will cost her in terms of prestige and contacts in Europe.

Only last December I saw the red carpet rolled out for Tymoshenko at a congress in Bonn of the centre-right European People’s Party, the biggest party in the European Parliament.  Everyone was there – German chancellor Angela Merkel, EU president Herman Van Rompuy, French premier François Fillon, Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi, etc.  Tymoshenko was one of the star attractions from the “new” eastern Europe. Read more

A potentially decisive moment is approaching in the Cyprus settlement talks that started in September 2008.  Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, is to visit the divided island on Sunday and stay there until Tuesday.  He does not, of course, have the authority to impose a settlement or even seriously to bang heads together.  But what he can do is impress on the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot leaders that the world is watching them and that a great deal hangs on the outcome of their negotiations.

A sense of urgency hangs over the talks because presidential elections will be held in Turkish Cypriot-controlled northern Cyprus on April 18.  Mehmet Ali Talat, the leftist president who helped revive the effort at reaching a comprehensive settlement more than 16 months ago, looks vulnerable to the challenge of Dervis Eroglu, the nationalist prime minister. Read more

Tuesday’s murder of Bobi Tsankov, a young Bulgarian journalist who wrote about his country’s over-mighty gangsters, took place in broad daylight in a crowded street in the centre of Sofia.  As a statement about the power of organised crime in Bulgaria, it could hardly have been more explicit.

Moreover, it could hardly have come at a worse time for Prime Minister Boyko Borissov’s government.  Borissov came to power in July facing the arduous task of regaining the trust of Bulgaria’s European Union partners.  Some of them bitterly regretted their decision to let Bulgaria join the EU in 2007 before it had properly confronted the scourge of organised crime.  A 2008 European Commission report on Bulgaria’s progress in tackling corruption and organised crime was, in my view, the most negative ever produced about a EU member-state. Read more

What does 2010 hold in store for the European Union?  With people in Brussels only just drifting back to work after a couple of weeks of snow, sub-zero temperatures and seasonally adjusted flu, it seems too brutal to plunge straight into topics such as the “2020 Strategy“, the “Reflection Group“ and other elusively named EU initiatives of which we are certain to hear more as the year moves on.

What one can say is that the EU ended 2009 feeling rather more pleased with itself than perhaps it had expected 12 months previously.  Despite suffering the most severe economic contraction in its history, the EU avoided a meltdown of its financial sector, stuck fairly well to its rules on fair competition and free trade, and even witnessed a return to growth in certain countries. 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