How large can the European Union be? Is there a limit to its enlargement? And if so, what is that limit? If the EU were to include 30 or more member states, will it still have unity? Parliament recently voted a resolution on future EU enlargements. Two MEPs give their views: Elmar Brok (EPP-ED, DE), who chairs EP's foreign affairs committee and prepared the resolution, and Jan Marinus Wiersma (PES, NL), who is his group’s spokesman for foreign affairs and wrote a book on the borders of the EU.
The resolution adopted on 16 March says that if the EU wants to take in new member states, it will have to be certain that it can absorb them. The resolution also says that at the moment this is not the case, because – after the “no's” in the referendums in France and the Netherlands – there is no new EU treaty.
Brok: The draft constitution rejected by France and the Netherlands was meant to allow the EU to continue to function after its enlargement with 10 new member states. But in 2004 those 10 countries joined and there is now still no constitution. The EU is seriously lagging behind in its internal development. We must therefore make sure that the EU does not expand too quickly, because otherwise its political project will be lost.
When the EU governments in 1993 laid down the political and economic conditions which new member states need to fulfil before joining the EU, they also set the EU’s own “absorption capacity” (its ability to take in any new member states) as a criterion. This criterion has so far been ignored. But a limit has now been reached and therefore Parliament has asked the European Commission (the EU’s executive body) to define clearly what the EU’s “absorption capacity” is.
Wiersma: I agree with Mr Brok that we should pay more attention to the question of whether the EU is able to take in new member states. Without a new EU treaty and internal reforms to make the EU operate efficiently, it will be difficult to assure a smooth accession of new countries. The 2004 enlargement with ten new countries has been a huge success, but it is a fact that there is now a need for more clarity on what the EU’s “absorption capacity” actually is.
But if you are saying that the EU is already lagging behind in the necessary internal reforms for taking in new members, does that mean that after Bulgaria and Romania will have joined, the EU may stop its enlargements?
Wiersma: No. Parliament’s resolution says that the EU must keep the promises it has made. And the EU has clearly promised Turkey, Croatia and Macedonia that they can join if and when they fulfil all the criteria. Accession negotiations have already started with Croatia and Turkey. But again, they do need to fulfil the conditions. Other countries in the Western Balkans have been given a “European perspective”, which means that they may at some point become EU members. These promises must be kept, even if it is going to take a long time, as in the case of Turkey. We must not forget that the prospect of EU membership has been the most important stimulus for reform in Turkey and in the Balkans.
What it does mean is that the EU has to do its homework as well. It will have to introduce the necessary changes to make it capable of absorbing new member states.
Brok: Well, it remains to be seen where enlargement stops. If the criterion of the EU’s absorption capacity is taken seriously, the EU will have to refuse even a country which respects all the political and economic criteria, simply because the EU is not ready itself. It is for that reason that I have proposed a new model, something like a European Economic Area “Plus”.
Countries may want to participate in such a new multilateral structure because it may be a long time yet before they can actually join the EU, or because they will never be able to join or because they do not wish to join. For the countries concerned there will be the huge advantage that they will never be left empty-handed. Accession negotiations are now an all-or-nothing process: a country may negotiate hard for many years, but in the end it is either yes or no and nothing in between. And the risk of a no has become greater now that some countries have said they will have a referendum on all future enlargements. Countries with an accepted membership perspective must decide themselves whether they want to use this option as an intermediate step or not.
Wiersma: I agree that a new multilateral structure could be a good alternative to full EU membership for countries which may only be able to join in the far future or even not at all. Countries such as Ukraine and Moldova might benefit from it. But such a half-way house must not affect the commitments which have been made to Turkey and countries in the Western Balkans. They are engaged in a process which is intended to end in full membership, even if in most cases that will take many more years.
 The process with which candidate members adopt all the EU laws and implement them in their own country.
 The EEA was set up in the early nineties between the EU and member countries of the EFTA, including Norway, Austria, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, to allow these countries to participate in the internal market without having to join the EU.