EU enlargement: What comes after Copenhagen?

  • 2002-12-19
  • Daunis Auers
Last week the leaders of the 15 European Union member states fiddled with the rusted bolts and hinges of the membership door and heaved it ajar to potentially squeeze in 10 new members to their exclusive club. Of course, it wouldn't be the EU if there wasn't a frenzy of last-minute horse trading, haggling and brinkmanship. But, as expected, a deal was struck and invitations issued. Cue pictures of porky, smiling, back-slapping politicians from East and West issuing grand statements about the historic reunification of Europe.

But this is just the beginning of the story, not the end. First, the deal still needs to be ratified in the 15 member states' parliaments. Second, the three Baltic governments need to ensure that a majority of their citizens vote "yes" in the national referendums on EU membership to be held in 2003.

This will not be easy. While opinion polls show the number of people in favor of joining the EU steadily rising, voters remain volatile on the issue. Just this summer Kristiina Ojulaand, the Estonian foreign minister, told her Danish counterpart that she could not guarantee that Estonia would vote yes in a referendum.

The "no" segment of the population remains significant despite the lack of any organized euro-skeptic parties in the Baltic states. If these parties were to find funding and organization, then it is reasonable to suppose that opposition to joining the EU could grow. Indeed, there are many difficult issues that could be raised by a euroskeptic lobby. Three of the most controversial: (i) decision-making and sovereignty, (ii) brain-drain and immigration, and (iii) finance.

The loss of national sovereignty to secretive decision-making procedures of the EU is a well-worn argument against EU membership. The EU has always been an elite driven project with the secretive habits and traditions of a stuffy, traditional London private-members club. The accession of supertransparent Nordic countries in the mid-90s has done little to change this. So, the argument goes, why should a nation give away decision-making powers to unelected EU institutions, especially when these national rights and powers had been suppressed for half a century and independence regained so recently?

In truth, the geographical location of the Baltic states means that, just like Norway, they would be influenced by EU laws and regulations even as non-members. But as members they would at least be in a position to influence the formulation of these regulations.

Second, there is a real fear that joining the EU will lead to a brain-drain from the Baltic states, followed by a tidal wave of immigrants from the West. Bearing in mind the high rates of immigration experienced during the Soviet period, this is a potentially crowd-mobilizing issue. However, a transition period in the free movement of labor means that, barring a few hundred leading civil servants and a number of translators and interpreters, there will be little labor mobility over the next decade.

Third, while the original ideals of security and friendship are still kept alive in the hearts and minds of elderly French and German statesmen, the modern EU largely revolves around hard cash. There are great hopes in the Baltic states that EU membership will lead to rapid economic growth and a rush to Western living standards. However, these hopes are likely to be dashed. The EU is not being overly generous to the "Big Bang 10" invitees. It has been calculated that their total aid package over the first three years of membership will add up to around 0.07 percent of total EU GDP for that period, or less than 25 euros per EU citizen. This does not compare well to the generosity of the U.S.-sponsored Marshall Plan that rebuilt Western Europe after the World War II. Thus, while it is clear that there will be economic benefits to joining the EU, these are unlikely to be as great as many people hope.

All three issues outlined above are potentially populist and divisive, cutting to the very heart of the fears and hopes of the new Baltic democracies. Moreover, the "yes" campaign will be led by people whom Baltic citizens generally distrust – local politicians, their political institutions and the European Commission - spending over 100 million euros on an "information" campaign on the advantages of the EU membership in the candidate states.

Ultimately, enough Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians will probably vote "yes" to EU membership. The powerful symbolism of finally rejoining Europe and taking up a seat at the top-table of European government outweighs other arguments. But a qualitative debate on the pros and cons of membership would benefit both citizens and politicians alike.

* Daunis Auers is EuroFaculty political science lecturer and is writing his doctoral thesis on Latvian party politics at University College in London.