Growing together: enlargement — a key ingredient of the EU peace project or a positive sum game. This kind of illuminating messages appears when you search on the European Commission’s website for information on enlargement. From a historical perspective, the EU enlargement process is indeed impressive. It has resulted in a Union of Member States that have almost doubled in number since 2004, with the last accession — Croatia — dating back to five years ago. This ‘doubling’ also required new approaches for assisting and guiding this enlargement process, not only because of the sheer size of the enlargement but also because of the different situations many of the (potential) candidate countries of 2004 faced compared with previous accessions. The EU developed pre-accession instruments to help these countries on their path to democracy and a functioning market economy, with stable institutions guaranteeing certain rights and a private sector able to compete properly. Instruments that had to be accounted for, ensuring that these countries arrived where they were meant to be and the intended effects were achieved in a sustainable way.
I participated as an auditor in on-the-spot visits which contributed to this accountability process. I recall that, during one of my visits to Montenegro, in 2003, a major concern was in the area of corruption and organised crime. In 15 years, things have changed to the positive. Nowadays the news about Montenegro is much more appealing: Welcome to Montenegro and enjoy. Where all good things come in small packages. And this small country on the Mediterranean coast seems to be the first candidate country in the line to join the EU, having risen through the ranks of ‘third country,’ ‘potential candidate country,’ ‘candidate country,’ to eventually become — envisaged for the future — ‘EU Member State.’
What makes it so appealing for a country to move up in that ranking? Or, as I heard it put more bluntly during an audit visit to Serbia about 15 years ago: ‘Why change the old five-year plans from communist times for seven-year plans from Brussels?’ The question is all the more pertinent in the light of the Copenhagen criteria, referred to regularly elsewhere in this Journal, which are not easy to meet. These criteria represent conditions which many countries strive to fulfil one way or the other. As I see it, these criteria stand for certain values. Apparently, many citizens feel that these values are better protected under an EU umbrella than only by a national constitution… and national actions. Because, no matter how well these values may be reflected in a constitution, will and stamina are needed to live up to them. This is what citizens expect from politicians when they elect them and express their choice in favour of EU accession.
How important this political will is comes out clearly in a number of reports, by the ECA and the European Commission, and in analyses by other experts in the field. The political will to accomplish the actions required to meet the Copenhagen criteria is a key element, if not THE key element on the road to accession. Such political will is not always easy to put into practice. But as Nelson Mandela once put it: ‘Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.’
We have made EU Pre-accession Aid the main theme of this Journal. Not least because looking into this topic also reveals which core values the EU stands for and what efforts (potential) candidate countries undertake to meet the expectations the EU has of potential Member States. The EU‘s Pre-accession Aid not only relates to tangible issues, like building roads and bridges, which are relatively easy to address. Building the political infrastructure to meet and uphold the Copenhagen criteria is significantly more challenging. Creating a market economy that really works and institutions which have the status, means and independence to meet the Copenhagen obligations towards citizens takes time and perseverance. In the end, the strength of a democracy depends on the political and economic freedom of its citizens. The ambition to achieve that freedom is something political leaders should keep in mind in their efforts towards accession, while taking comfort in the examples provided by the history of EU enlargement. After all, it always seems impossible until it is done.
This article was first published on the August-September 2018 issue of the ECA Journal. The contents of the interviews and the articles are the sole responsibility of the interviewees and authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the European Court of Auditors.