Is the EU Reaching the Limits of Enlargement?

By Martha Otwinowski
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2011, Vol. 2011/2012 No. 1 | pg. 1/1

‘"Enlargement will extend Europe’s area of peace, democracy and prosperity"
- Tony Blair, 20021

Among European states in the aftermath of the Second World War, multilateral cooperation was seen as a long term stabilisation for peace. The European Union (EU), since its establishment in 1957 as the European Coal and Steel Community with six members, saw several enlargement rounds over the subsequent decades, driven by the idea that ever more members mean new markets and therefore increase economic benefit for everyone. The idea of EU enlargement as a means of foreign policy2 first found expression in the 1986 accession of Spain and Portugal. With both states just coming out of authoritarian regimes, the then European Community was successful in conditioning them towards political liberalisation and economic development. Accordingly, at the end of the Cold War, the EC again recognized its responsibility towards the former Soviet states of Central and Eastern Europe.4

However, since it was also aware of the impact a big Eastern enlargement would have on the EC,5 the so called Copenhagen Criteria were established in 1993, a system of clear conditionality on accession. Each applicant who is able to fulfil the conditions of stable democracy,6 an economy able to cope with the pressures of the European market, and also has the ability to adapt the acquis communautaire into domestic legislation, would have the prospect of EU membership. The current candidates Macedonia, Croatia and Turkey, as well as the applicants Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Iceland7 are judged, too, by the conditionality stated in Copenhagen. However, the attitude of most present member states towards enlarging the EU further, is anything but enthusiastic. With 27 members now, some claim that the EU cannot “digest” more member states.

This article argues that while there certainly are difficulties for the EU arising from an increasing number of member states, the EU is not reaching the limits of enlargement. After examining the financial aspect of enlargement as well as its impact on the EU institutions, this article will look at the controversy around the Turkish candidacy. Following that, it will illustrate that immigration has not had the expected impact in the past and it will finally analyse the effectiveness of enlargement as a tool of foreign policy.

Impact of Enlargements: Financial, Institutional and Cultural Burdens?

The main objection of the “anti-enlargement league” of the present EU members, when it comes to accepting new candidates is unsurprisingly of a financial nature. It is easy to identify that the current applicants, with the exception of Iceland,8 are less advanced than the current member states in terms of economic growth.

Turkey, where agriculture still occupies a third of the workforce,10 would benefit considerably from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the Union’s major budgetary commitment. Calculations of 2004 estimated an additional annual expenditure for the EU at 2.6 billion Euros.11 Further expenses for the EU budget would result from the structural funds the new members would receive. This, in turn, would necessitate raising the contributions that individual member states make towards the budget, which they are unwilling to accept, referring to their own financial straits since the “Credit Crunch”. Therefore, new applicants are increasingly seen as a burden rather than a partner for international cooperation. It remains to be asked ‘what kind of solidarity, in an ever bigger Union, can be achieved’?12, 13

Another problem the EU faces with every enlargement is tedious institutional reforms, where the difficulty of bringing all member states’ interests into accord is all too visible, and tensions become quickly exposed. Prior to and after the 2004 Eastern enlargement, several attempts to reform the Qualified Majority Voting system (QMV) in the Council of Ministers failed, with each state unwilling to see its own influence diminished. In 2007, when most member states seemed to have reached an agreement on the matter, the Polish Prime Minister at that time, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, seeing that the reform would bring a disadvantage for Poland’s comparatively powerful position,14 publicly attacked Germany, revealing resentments going back as far as to the Second World War. In such a climate, questions are raised as to the depth of mutual trust and genuine partnership among the members of the European Union.

A future accession of Turkey would have an ever bigger impact upon the EU institutions; not only is it the by far the largest current applicant, but it would be the state with the second biggest population, once in the EU. Accordingly, its institutional influence would amount to a considerable 14.5 per cent of the vote in the Council of Ministers,15 and in the European Parliament some small and medium sized members would have to give up some of their seats to Turkey,16 therefore weakening their own influence.

Furthermore, there is an underlying controversy behind the prospect of Turkish membership. The European public has expressed itself particularly negatively about this in the past. The vote against the Constitutional Treaty in France and in the Netherlands in 2005 by referenda has to be assessed primarily as a ‘’no’’ to Turkey.17 In several member states, political parties,18 mainly centreright, have recognised the populist potential of the issue,19 putting forward a pseudo-argument of cultural incompatibility20 of Turkey with the rest of Europe.

The Impact of Immigration From New to Old Member States: Myth and Less Profound Reality

The paranoia of mass immigration is certainly one explanation for the European public’s negative attitude in respect to Turkish EU membership or other further enlargements. However, experiences from the past have proven that the expected mass immigrations after several enlargement rounds21 have, by and large, failed to materialise. Particularly the phobia of an influx of Eastern European workers severely driving down the wages of the native ones or even totally displacing them from work22 has to be seen, in retrospect, as highly exaggerated. There is ‘little evidence’23 that this happened to any worrying extent at all. Therefore, it is doubtful whether a further enlargement round would be fundamentally different in this respect. In addition, member states are still able to individually regulate the free movement of workers. When looking at the enlargement round of 2004 as an example, the United Kingdom opened up its market unrestrictedly straight away, while states like Germany and Austria kept theirs protected first, only gradually admitting international workers.24 Therefore, it is certainly not the case that the “old” member states are left helpless in controlling the movement of people.

Enlargement as a Key Foreign Policy tool: Success is Guaranteed

One aspect which cannot be stressed enough is the high significance of enlargement serving as a tool of EU foreign policy. Previous enlargement rounds have proven very successful in terms of political and economic stabilisation of the former neighbouring countries of the EC/EU.25 This should come as no surprise: the EU is, whilst negotiating with the applicant countries, in a very powerful position. It establishes the framework surrounding the prospective membership, the rules and the timetable of accession,26 leaving the candidates only the options of compliance or non-compliance. Even in the case of the latter, the EU possesses effective means. In Macedonia,27 where reforms were repeatedly delayed by the national authorities, the EU simply postponed the starting date of accession negotiations until the country had fulfilled fundamental requirements.28 It is self-evidently in the candidate’s interest to continue its application process, and consequently, looking at examples from the past, they will eventually comply. Authorities in Romania and Bulgaria had little interest in solving legislative weaknesses and problems of corruption in their countries, but ultimately felt compelled to do so as accession negotiations would not have progressed otherwise.29 In fact, the prospect of membership of the European Union was the direct stimulus for the continuous reforms to improve the overall economic and political situation in Romania and Bulgaria.

A transforming impact can, indeed, also be observed with countries that the EU has officially started membership negotiations with. In terms of preservation of rights of the Serb minority as well as with respect to political liberalisation in general Croatia considerably improved;30 the latter also applies to Turkey.31 In that context, Turkish authorities also endeavoured to improve the country’s relations with Greece and Iraq, especially with the Kurdish regional government there.32 Indeed, more and more concessions made to the Kurdish minority have been observed over the years.33 A determination to fight corruption has been announced by all official and prospective candidates.34 The numerous improvements in terms of political liberalisation in the candidate countries, prompted by the motivation to join the EU, are quite obvious.

The lack of a means of pressure on the side of the the EU is immediately evident with a country like Ukraine, which was granted a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, but not given the prospect of eventual membership. Judging European influence on the Ukrainian implementation of civil rights or economic development therefore proves extremely difficult. Accordingly, the EU has to accept that while it would like to intensify economic cooperation with Ukraine, the latter - bewildered by the fact that the EU has offered ‘very little’35 - turns towards Russia in that respect, discussing details of a prospective free trade zone.36 Clearly, the most effective way for the Union to turn the situation to its advantage would be to approach Ukraine with more promising offers.

A clear stimulus, especially in terms of economic growth through the EU, can certainly also be observed once membership already has already been granted, as demonstrated by the 2004 enlargement round. Countries struggling to fulfil the Copenhagen requirement of a stable market economy prior to their accession, experienced a rapid growth in their GDP per capita, even exceeding that of the EU15.37 Economic growth resulted in higher wages in those countries which led to the improvement of living standards overall. Certainly, these improvements were also partly borne by resources within the EU budget. However, sceptics arguing on this basis that the EU could not afford supporting new members seem to look exclusively at the short term reduction of EU member states’ average GDP that took place after almost every one of the enlargement rounds.38 The general stability in the whole of the EU resulting from every applicant’s economic, steady if occasionally slow, progress, exceeds any short-term difficulties for the EU.

The integration of currently neighbouring countries into the EU, beyond the positive economic implications, is furthermore vital in terms of EU security policy, as well as for decisive impact in humanitarian issues. Integrating the countries of the West Balkans into the EU rather than accepting continuing hostilities among them, is certainly much more meaningful. With the lack of EU influence, these conflicts are more likely to continue, possibly even to exacerbate.39 After all, the argument that the EU does not have any financial responsibility for non-member states, and thus is not liable for the instability in the region, would necessitate the Union’s support for development projects there. It is not least the Union’s commitment to democratic values such as freedom of the individual that precludes the EU’s indifference towards insecurity and oppression of people living in its direct neighbourhood.

Building a stable Europe was in fact the very reason for the founding of the EU and should therefore not be given secondary status only after financial considerations of the “old” member states. This commitment necessitates the Union’s actions to have strong moral grounding: certainly, an institution like the EU which has the influence and effective means to considerably improve the situation for citizens of states that struggle in some way or another, has to do so. Seeing the numerous benefits the Union presents its members with, a permanent exclusion of the current candidates and applicants would inevitably cause a stagnation of development for those states.

Let us look, for example, at the education sector. Higher education at University level is very much supported by the EU; students who are citizens of one member state are also encouraged to study in another.40 The Union furthermore offers various grants and loans in order for students to afford international education.41 Young people living in non-member states do not receive these benefits and therefore have to depend on financial support from their family. Considering the comparatively low incomes of citizens in the states of the West Balkans for instance,42 a lot of them will long not have the means to support their children with something that is taken for granted within the EU. Skilled employees, however, are a crucial factor in the development of every country43 and standing in the way of their education would mean the denial of the very same.

‘The enlargement of the European Union to me ... is the fulfilment of a vision ... that is too easily forgotten in times when security and prosperity within Europe are taken for granted’.44 Even if a shared European identity is utopian, an adjustment of living standards and respect for human rights is not. This goal should be pursued by the European Union which has clearly not reached its limits of enlargement.


The challenges posed to the EU through successive enlargement rounds are to be taken seriously. Member states are particularly concerned about the additional expenses enlargements inflict upon them, as well as with diminished influence through institutional adjustments. The Turkish accession has caused public debate, with European citizens concerned about immigration issues. This article has, however, illustrated that the EU possesses effective means to exercise considerable control over immigration. Furthermore, it analysed the Union’s success in pursuing enlargement as a way to improve overall stability in Europe. Looking at the indisputable benefits that come from EU membership, the article concludes that many European states which currently do not have EU membership, remain in need of the very same. Thus, the Union will not have reached the limits of enlargement until its goal of an economically, politically and socially stable Europe for everyone is achieved.


  1. Blair, T. (2002) in Hay, C.; Menon, A. (2007) European Politics Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 374.
  2. Bomberg, E.; Stubb, A.(2003) The European Union: How Does it Work? New York: Oxford University Press, p. 187.
  3. Kesselman M., et al.(2006) European Politics in Transition: 5th edition Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p. 64.
  4. Kesselman M., et al.(2006) European Politics in Transition: 5th edition Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p. 64.
  5. The reforms put forwards by the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 included renaming the European Community to the European Union.
  6. With respect to civil liberties like freedom of speech and adequate minority treatment.
  7. European Commission (last updated 09 March 2010) Enlargement en.htm (accessed on 15 March 2010).
  8. Which, applying in 2009, after being hit by the financial crisis, wants to join the EU solely for the reason of stabilizing the own economy. (Unknown (09 March 2010) ‘Commission: Icesave doesn’t prevent Iceland from starting accession talks’ EurActiv http:// iceland-starting-accession-talks-news-322398 (accessed 15 March 2010)); The main difficulty with Iceland’s application is the country’s plan to adopt the Euro in order to recover economically. The European currency, however, is already weakened at present with Greece domestic financial crisis spilling over to the rest of the EU. Another economically weak state accessing the Union would probably bring, at least short term troubles for the EU.
  9. Schimmelfennig, F. (2009) ‘Entrapped again: The way to EU membership negotiations with Turkey’, International Politics, 2009 Volume 46, Number 4. journal/v46/n4/pdf/ip20095a.pdf, p.413 (accessed 04 March 2010).
  10. Schimmelfennig, F. (2009) ‘Entrapped again: The way to EU membership negotiations with Turkey’, International Politics, 2009 Volume 46, Number 4. journal/v46/n4/pdf/ip20095a.pdf, p.413 (accessed 04 March 2010).
  11. Schimmelfennig, F. (2009) ‘Entrapped again: The way to EU membership negotiations with Turkey’, International Politics, 2009 Volume 46, Number 4. journal/v46/n4/pdf/ip20095a.pdf, p.413 (accessed 04 March 2010).
  12. Andoura, S. (2005) ‘The EU’s capacities to absorb Turkey’ Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations (Belgium) http://www.irrikiib. be/papers/06/eu/EU-Turkey.pdf (accessed 18 February 2010), p.6.
  13. Bomberg, E.; Stubb, A. (2003) The European Union: How Does it Work? New York: Oxford University Press, p. 191.
  14. Bomberg, E.; Stubb, A. (2003) The European Union: How Does it Work? New York: Oxford University Press, p. 191.
  15. Small and medium sized states used to be over proportionally represented in the Council of Ministers. (Bomberg, p. 189)
  16. Andoura, S. ‚The EU’s capacities to absorb Turkey‘ (2005), p. 8.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Hay, C.; Menon, A. (2007) European Politics Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 369.
  19. Schimmelfennig, p. 416 ff.
  20. During Chirac’s presidency he experienced so much pressure from his own centre right party that he felt compelled to announce a referendum prior to Turkey’s accession, the first one that were to take place on a membership candidate. (Schimmelfennig, p. 418 f.) The French example reflects how much success some parties have with their anti-attitude.
  21. Schimmelfennig (2009) ‘Entrapped again’ p. 414 ff.
  22. Be it after the “Southern” enlargement with Spain and Portugal or the Eastern ones of 2004 and 2007.
  23. Unknown (published 20 August 2009; updated 29 January 2010) ‘Free movement of Labour in the EU 27’, EurActiv http://www. article-129648 (accessed 18 February 2010)
  24. Spidla, quoted Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Noutcheva, G.; Bechev, D. ‘The Successful Laggards: Bulgaria and Romania’s Accession to the EU’, East European Politics and Societies 2008; vol. 22: 1, p.114.
  27. Bomberg, E.; Stubb, A.(2003) The European Union: How Does it Work? New York: Oxford University Press, p. 184.
  28. An official membership candidate since 2005. SeeEuropean Commission (last updated 12 March 2012) ‘Enlargement à Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ , enlargement/candidate-countries/the_former_yugoslav_republic_ of_macedonia/eu_the_former_yugoslav_republic_of_macedonia_ relations_en.htm (last accessed 20 April 2012)
  29. Buxhaku, A. Interview by Forissier C; Clarisse Bargain (published 10 March 2010, last updated 15 March 2010), Euractiv http://www. 322895 (accessed 18 March 2010)
  30. Noutcheva, G.;Bechev, D. ‘The Successful Laggards’, p. 116 ff.
  31. European Parliament (last updated 3 February 2010) ‘European Parliament resolution on the 2009 progress report on Croatia’, do?type=MOTION&reference=B7-2010-0067&language=EN (accessed 02 March); Schimmelfennig (2009) ‘Entrapped again’, p. 422.
  32. Schimmelfennig (2009) ‘Entrapped again’, p. 422.
  33. European Parliament (last updated 1 December 2009) ‘European Parliament resolution of 12 March 2009 on Turkey’s progress report 2008 ‘, EP//TEXT+TA+P6-TA-2009-0134+0+DOC+XML+V0//EN (accessed 20 February 2010).
  34. Schimmelfennig,(2009) ’Entrapped again’, p. 424.
  35. European Parliament (last updated 3 February 2010) ‘European Parliament resolution on the 2009 progress report on Croatia’; Unknown (Published 10 January 2009, updated 29 January 2010) ‘Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro to break visa barrier’, EurActiv with agencies serbia-macedonia-montenegro-break-visa-barrier/article-183950 (accessed 18 March 2010).
  36. Unknown (19 February 2010) ‘Moscow daily: Ukraine to join customs union with Russia’, EurActiv east-mediterranean/moscow-daily-ukraine-join-customs-unionrussia- news-260388 (accessed 20 February 2010).
  37. Ibid.
  38. Kesselman M., et al.(2006) European Politics in Transition: 5th edition Boston: Houghton Mifflin, p. 67.
  39. Lewis, P. (2001) ‘The Enlargement of the European Union’, in Bromley S. (ed.) Governing Europe London: Sage, p. 230.
  40. Vachudova, M. (2003) ‘Strategies for European Integration and Democratization in the Balkans’, Slovak Foreign Policy Affairs.
  41. Altbach, P. G.; Knight, J. (2002) ‘The Internationalization of Higher Education: Motivations and Realities’, Journal of Studies in International Education, Vol. 11, pp. 289-305. (pp. 293-94)
  42. European Commission (2012) ‘Erasmus Mundus: Funding for higher education institutions and other bodies’, Education, Audiovisual and Cultural Executive Agency, eu/erasmus_mundus/funding/higher_education_institutions_ en.php (last accessed 10 April 2012)
  43. Global Perspectives: A Remote Sensing and World Issues Site (2002) ‘The Balkans: Economy’, Wheeling Jesuit University/Center for Educational Technologies, balkans/BKeco.html (last accessed 10 April 2012)
  44. UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (2007) ‘Higher education and development’, Newsletter Vol. XXV, N° 1, January-March, upload/pdf/jane07.pdf (last accessed 10 April 2012)
  45. Kok, W. quoted in Hay, C.; Menon, A. (2007) European Politics Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 373

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