From Dublin to Dubrovnik: Reflections on 40 years of EU enlargement


Guest post by Michael J. Geary

Croatia on Monday becomes the 28th member of the European Union, marking a historical transformation for a country at the crossroads of central Europe, the Balkans and the Mediterranean.European_Unioncroatia

The second former Yugoslav country to join the European Union (following Slovenia, also a eurozone member), Croatia declared its independence in 1991, an event that led to the breakup of the union of Yugoslavia, an event that the United Nations and the European Union may have hastened in 1992 Croatia’s independence when they provided international recognition to a sovereign Croatia.  At the same time, the Croatian War of Independence broke out between Croat forces loyal to the newly independent Croatia and the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army and local Serb militia, the latter determined to prevent Croatia from breaking away. Between 1991 and 1995, when the conflict finally ended,more than 20,000 people had died and much of the country was destroyed.

Croatia, however, has marked major progress since the mid-1990s.  Successive Croatian governments have edged closer (albeit, sometimes with a gentle nudge from Brussels) to the European Union and the country formally applied for membership in February 2003.  A year later, the European Commission endorsed its application, and the European Council granted Croatia candidate status.  Enlargement negotiations proved difficult — not least because Slovenia, already an EU member state since 2004, had insisted that certain border disputes be resolved before Croatia could be accepted as a member.  The Slovenian veto stalled the negotiations for 10 months in the late 2000s before finally the two former Yugoslav nations agreed to settle border issues bilaterally.  Yet the extradition of Croatian citizens to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia proved to be a far thornier issue dominating the EU-Croatia enlargement talks.  The United Nations established the Tribunal in 1993 to deal with war crimes that took place during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. Croatia’s full cooperation with the Tribunal (reluctant at times) was a prerequisite for EU membership.

2013 is a year of contrasts for the EU enlargement process — arguably one its most successful policies, and one of the reasons that the European Union received the Nobel Prize for Peace last year.  Aside from Croatia’s pending membership, the European Union is set to open negotiations with Serbia and possibly sign a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo after those two countries signed a landmark agreement in April normalizing relations between Belgrade and Pristina after almost two decades of hostilities.

Yet 2013 also marks the 40th anniversary of the first enlargement of the present-day EU. In 1973, Britain, Denmark and Ireland join the then European Economic Community (EEC) after more than a decade of failed attempts at membership.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, very few in Brussels today will pause to rejoice at that decision.  Although largely seen as a pro-European country during its three decades as a member, Ireland has increasingly turned against the European project.  Irish voters initially rejected the Nice Treaty in 2001 and again said ‘No’ to the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 only to accept both treaties in second referenda.  Denmark, likewise, from a relatively early stage, has displayed dark shades of post-membership euroskepticism, most evident during the Maastricht Treaty negotiations in 1992 when Denmark emphasized its semi-outsider status nearly from the beginning of its EU membership after securing opt-outs from Economic and Monetary Union (i.e., the eurozone).  Denmark, moreover, has since remained cool on the idea of further integration.

But among the first three countries to join the founding six, Britain has pursued the most erratic EU policy, widening the gulf between the UK and the EU.  London has been at war with its EU partners at each decade since accession.  Each British prime minister since Harold Wilson won re-election in 1974 has felt almost a national sense of duty to attack the European Union, its policies and the integration process. Starting with the Maastricht Treaty, London has opted out of many of the EU’s policy fields including economic and monetary union and the Schengen Agreement on open borders, and it has adopted a clear preference for an intergovernmental approach to EU foreign policy.  Earlier this year, current UK prime minister David Cameron made clear that he wants to renegotiate Britain’s terms of EU membership, and he plans on holding an ‘in or out’ referendum on continued EU membership in 2017.

The second and subsequent rounds of EU expansion have each caused their own post-accession problems.  Greek officials were less than fully honest when Greece sought membership in the eurozone in the late 1990s, while Sweden immediately backtracked on joining the eurozone a year after it entered the European Union in 1995. More recently, the Hungarian government has attempted to exert state control over the country’s central bank, judiciary and reign in the media.

All of which indicates that Croatia’s accession may perhaps not exactly be an opportunity to celebrate 40 years of EU expansion.

Yet in a union with 28 countries (with more waiting to join), the integration process was never going to run smoothly, especially with so many competing national outlooks.  But through its enlargement policy, the European Union has made real gains in pacifying the continent by extending democratic norms and establishing links with, first the former Mediterranean dictatorships in southern Europe in the 1980s, then the former Soviet satellites in central eastern Europe in the 1990s and 2000s. It will now extend its reach to the troubled Western Balkans where the promise of membership will act as a stabilising agent for those countries hoping to join the EU.

Enlargement has become a vehicle through which the European Union can exert considerable soft power in the pre-accession period.  Despite the doom and gloom that pervades most of Europe today, Croatia’s imminent accession proves that there are still incalculable political, economic and social benefits to be gained from membership.

Dr Michael J. Geary is a Global Europe Fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC and Assistant Professor of Modern Europe and the European Union at Maastricht University in The Netherlands. He has just published his second book with Palgrave Macmillan entitled Enlarging the European Union: The Commission Seeking Influence, 1961-1973.

Photo credit to Paul Doran — Split, Croatia. 

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