18 March 2011
The European Union borders are still a work in progress and many countries have joined the queue for accession to the magnetic trading bloc. But is the EU's poor economic outlook and political indecision making membership less attractive? Francesco Guarascio reports.
A recent poll carried out by the European Commission showed that public opinion in the two countries most likely to join the union, Croatia and Iceland, falls flatly against EU accession. Asked to give their view about EU membership, 46 per cent of Croatians said that their country would not benefit, against 39 per cent showing optimism. In Iceland, 48 per cent of those surveyed were sceptical while only 38 per cent thought that their island would gain advantages from membership.
Ironically, these are the only candidate countries which existing EU citizens favour as new members. Most interviewees of the latest Eurobarometer survey are in fact clearly opposed EU membership for the likes of Turkey, Montenegro, Macedonia and other "candidate" countries. In fact, the sheer volume of scepticism among the EU demos means 48 per cent are against Montenegro membership and an astonishing 59 per cent would vote against Turkish accession.
This negative attitude also pertains to the Ukraine and a number of Balkan countries, which have not reached yet the status of candidate, such as Serbia, Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina But despite popular opposition, the accession process is ongoing for all candidate and potential candidate countries - although at a different "two-tier" pace.
And still, Croatia is by far the front-runner in the race towards the EU. Negotiations between Brussels and Zagreb could end by mid-2011, paving the way for possible accession in 2012. Already, some 28 of the 35 chapters in the negotiation process have been closed.
But Croatia has still to convince the EU over its commitments in terms of judiciary reform, its fight against corruption and promotion of shipyard privatisation. This last issue is seen as a hot potato by EU competition authorities, which struggled to force privatisation of Poland's historic Gdansk shipyards after Warsaw's entry into the union. Learning from past mistakes, now officials want the matter being solved before accession.
Although, "the real big challenge for Croatia starts at home" as the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs stressed in a note. Croatians have indeed turned Eurosceptic. This may become a troublesome hurdle in Zagreb's path to the EU, since accession will have to be confirmed by a referendum. Parliamentary elections in November will be a crucial opportunity to take the pulse of the pro-European sentiment across the country – or not, as the case may be.
Iceland faces the same problem in terms of public support for accession, which remains low. But supporters have grown steadily in the last two years since the country's banks were severely hit by the global financial crisis in 2008 - and the Icelandic krona plummeted against the euro. After EU ministers gave Iceland the green light to start negotiations in June 2010, EU-enthusiasts in the island grew from 29 per cent to 38 per cent - according to the Eurobarometer poll.
Since then, no date has been set to start negotiations. Nevertheless, once talks begin they should not take long - being that the country's economic and legal system is already highly integrated with Europe. Iceland has been a member of the European Economic Area since 1994. It is also a signatory of the Schengen pact, which allows Icelandic citizens to freely move across the EU. A free trade agreement with the EU has also been in force since 1972, meaning that no tariffs are imposed on import of European products.
Turkey has also a long history of integration with the EU economy, but its European perspectives look increasingly gloomy. Ankara obtained the status of candidate in 1999, and accession negotiations started in 2005. But they have progressed at a very slow pace with Turks often accusing France and Germany of continually moving the goalposts. Out of 35, only one chapter of the negotiations has so far been successfully closed – in the science and research field. Negotiations are ongoing on the other 12 issues and most have not been addressed at all as yet.
The EU requires a reform of the country's constitution "to transform Turkey into a real democracy," said the European Parliament recently. In the last resolution about Turkey, adopted in March, the EP expressed regret at "the deterioration of press freedom, the situation of women and rising rates of honour killings and forced marriages - and the lack of protection of religious minorities".
The long-standing dispute over the Cyprus partition - the island still viciously split between Greek and Turkish territories - is also a serious hurdle on Turkey's path towards the EU. The rise of right-wing parties in Europe is hampering the dialogue too. Most Europeans oppose Turkey's accession, with disapproval rates at 91 per cent in Austria and 78 per cent in Germany - where the biggest EU Turkish community lives. With so much uncertainty, it is clear that the big bang EU enlargement of 2004, which saw 10 new member states gain accession, is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.