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EU enlargement and the ‘power of transformation’: Europe’s point man on the issue makes his case

He may not have come brandishing a bag of quick-fix solutions to all that ails the European Union, but EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn did bring a disciplined approach, an advocate’s spirit, a subtle wit, and impressive insight into the European project to a special talk at Greece’s Foreign Ministry on Thursday. Rehn, at 43 the youngest of the 25 commissioners, gave the annual lecture of ELIAMEP, the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, on «Deepening and Enlarging: The False Dichotomy.» The soft-spoken but tough-minded commissioner from Finland – whose actions will help shape Greece’s foreign policy environment for many years to come – discussed the recent EU enlargement, surveyed the current state of European play, and looked unflinchingly yet sympathetically at the challenges awaiting those knocking on Europe’s southeastern door. Most expected a dormant enlargement portfolio following the 2004 expansion from 15 to 25 members, the treaties of accession for which were signed in Athens in April 2003. Instead, his efforts kept it on the boil in 2005 – a year Rehn, a self-confessed functionalist, otherwise calls «a sad year… an annus horribilis» after the virtual collapse of the European Constitution and declining support for the Union itself. He remarked wryly that his job title could just as well be «commissioner for Southeastern Europe» since this region, at least in terms of his current brief, is where all the action is. Calamity averted Rehn began with a robust defense of the recent big-bang enlargement, which came with «fears and prejudices» that it would take jobs away, paralyze decision making, increase organized crime, and bring sundry other horrors; these, he held, were «mostly unjustified, if not complete fantasy.» Even the much-feared financial burden «will remain within limits that are very compatible» with the revised budget ceiling of 1.04 percent of Europe-wide GDP. Free movement of workers, a second concern, «did not open the gates… as some had predicted» – including his countrymen who feared a human wave from Estonia that never materialized. EU institutions have faced «difficulties,» but these were «peanuts» compared to the 1980s shake-ups, and it would be «utterly unfair» to blame new members such as Poland. Since May 2004 Europe is «safer, more democratic, more peaceful… and more prosperous.» Still, the Union must be «very cautious» before assuming new commitments; not just from enlargement fatigue but because fulfilling existing pledges is crucial for its very credibility. «Can widening grow while deepening is stuck?» is a useful rephrasing, yet he said the EU has always pushed both objectives in parallel during its expansionary phases (1973, 1981/86, 1995, and 2004). While defying the gloomiest prognostications, the EU, Rehn agreed, had to set aside theoretical debates for now. It must «focus on concrete measures… and produce concrete results,» by promoting prosperity, jobs and competitiveness – a reasonable view given Europe’s lukewarm economic performance. «A strong economy brings security to citizens… it is goals that count,» he insisted. Even so, he continued, the EU has actually stretched its international security remit. «Who would have believed,» he asked, that it would be running a peacekeeping contingent (in Bosnia), a border post (Egypt-Gaza) or keeping the peace in troublesome Kosovo? Enlargement, he held, will not stop it from meeting its future security responsibilities. Reviewing the Western Balkans (ahead of this weekend’s Salzburg meeting), he said of the governments in both Belgrade and Pristina that «we expect realism» in advancing stability and democracy in a tolerant, multiethnic setting. The arrest of war crimes suspects in Serbia and Bosnia will help immensely in this. The EU, he underscored, «takes the implementation of standards extremely seriously.» Multiple European Councils have underscored the European future of the sub-region, via a path of stability and growth leading to integration. Accession talks with Croatia opened in October, while in December the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia received EU candidate status. Last year a stabilization and association agreement was signed with Albania and association talks were started with Serbia-Montenegro and Bosnia. Much, however, remains to be done in terms of enhancing industrial production and easing the way for Serbian students and scholars – 70 percent of whom have never traveled abroad – to visit the EU. Rehn agreed with ELIAMEP head Loukas Tsoukalis (who once taught at St Antony’s at Oxford, where Rehn later studied), who asked if the «long and difficult» road to membership was attractive enough, that ways could be found to shorten the path a bit, for example by better agreements to sell their products in Europe. He pronounced himself «agnostic» on whether Montenegro should split from Serbia, as long as all parties agree to the rules and support any outcome of the upcoming referendum. «The journey has value in itself,» was his philosophical take on their distant EU hopes. «Incentives are only credible» if the EU keeps its word regarding the eventual, if distant, prize of membership – something Bulgaria and Romania should taste by end-2008 at the latest. Big issues The commissioner was surprisingly bold on the need to restart the constitutional debate and push reforms; by June there could be agreement on how «to relaunch serious discussion» and, beyond this, «a goal-oriented debate» on the document in 2007. It was «a fact of life» that a centralized state is not possible in an EU of 25 or more, and that some policy areas (Schengen, the eurozone) have shown that multiple speeds are possible. As for eventual Turkish membership (after a 10-15 year accession process), Rehn called the start of negotiations last October 3 no less than a «turning point in European history.» The EU, he insisted, regards a stable and prosperous Turkey as «a key player, which is absolutely needed» as a moderator between civilizations. This rhetorical carrot was followed by the inevitable verbal stick: Turkey needs, «much more vigorously,» to implement reforms toward openness, citing recent court cases on freedom of expression that have aroused disquiet in the West. He also said that «clear conditions» had been given to Turkey, which was «expected to normalize its relations» with the Republic of Cyprus during the accession process. He noted hints of recent progress, post-Annan Plan – «after,» he couldn’t resist adding, «a certain period of passivity» on the UN’s part – but ended on a plaintive note on Cyprus’s anomalous division. «I feel like I’m using a time machine» when visiting Nicosia’s Green Line, which he likened to Checkpoint Charlie, once a critical flashpoint in divided Berlin but now a museum. «It is better,» he concluded, «to export stability… than to import instability,» a sentiment few could fault.