Enlargement and Estrangement in Brussels

Miles’ Law of Administration, “Where you stand depends on where you sit“, seems to take a new twist when it comes to the EU’s Enlargement policy. Given the physical relocation of the European Commission’s Directorate-General (DG) for Enlargement from a central location to a spot at the fringes of the city’s EU quarter, one might extend the phrase to “Where you sit depends on what your policy is worth.” After all, what could be a mundane move of office furniture rather is a symbol of the state of affairs of enlargement policy in general.

Europhiles will recognize the Rondpoint Schuman as the “heart” of the EU’s executive decision-making by the Council and the Commission – the European Parliament is just a stone’s throw away around Place Luxembourg. There, the Council, the member states’ powerful institution, has its Secretariat opposite the Commission’s flagship building, the “Berlaymont.” Next to the latter, another prestigious building, the “Charlemagne,” houses a number of the Commissionls departments, or DGs. (Somewhat ironically, the Council Secretariat used to be located there until the mid-1990s because the Commission would not share the “Berlaymont” with its rival institution.)

This is the central area from which the officials working on the bloc’s relations with the countries from the Western Balkans and Turkey recently got expelled. Instead of residing in the “Charlemagne,” they now have to navigate the corridors of an inconspicuous modern building at a major intersection closer to the city. And, which other DG took their place instead? Well, isn’t there an economic and financial – and socio-politico-institutional – crisis going on in Europe these days? The answer is yes, and colleagues from the DG for Economic and Financial Affairs (ECFIN) apparently needed more space in a convenient location.

To add insult to injury, one might say, the Council itself is about to expand heavily thanks to three consecutive rounds of enlargement over the past ten years. Just across from where DG Enlargement used to be, it has constructed shiny new buildings with pompous names like
“Europa” and “Lex,” all needed due to the near-doubling of the EU’s membership. Moreover, the new External Action Service has its own brand new seat on top of the Rondpoint. Combining the external relations parts of the Council and the Commission – those of the latter used to work from, well, “Charlemagne” – the EU’s diplomats now call the “Triangle” their home.

Of course, politics is no game of Monopoly with fancy streets and big hotels. Yet, symbolism has always had its role in the EU’s enlargement policy, from the talk of “regatta vs. big bang” in the run-up to Eastern Enlargement to the branding of the 2004 accession as “reunification of Europe” to an elevation of Croatia’s most recent entry into the club as a sign that the door remains open to the other countries of the Western Balkans. This is why it does bear some meaning when DG Enlargement is physically relocated to a much less prominent position.

Add to this the persisting rumors surrounding the make-up of the next College of Commissioners following the election to the European Parliament in May 2014 and symbolism may look like a policy change. The first-ever Enlargement Commissioner was Günter Verheugen from Germany. He held this post from 1999 just until the Big Bang of 2004 when ten countries joined the club. While Verheugen went on to become a Vice-President and Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry, his Finnish colleague Olli Rehn took over the Enlargement portfolio. Having overseen the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, Rehn is now even better known throughout Europe as the Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs and the Euro (the crisis, again!). His colleague from the Czech Republic, Štefan Füle, took over the enlargement portfolio together with the EU Neighbourhood Policy targeting the countries in Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus, and the Southern Mediterranean that do not have a membership perspective. Füle had only one success to report since he assumed office in 2009 – that is Croatia’s accession this summer.

The future looks even bleaker. At its upcoming pre-Christmas summit, the European Council will greenlight the start of negotiations with Serbia. Given that Iceland recently halted enlargement talks, the EU will then be negotiating with only three countries: Turkey, Montenegro, and Serbia. None of these candidates will be ready to join the EU before the end of the upcoming Commission term in 2019.

Add to this that the Coalition Treaty of Germany’s new Grand Coalition makes only meager reference to the enlargement policy as a whole, and the perspectives become clear.

First of all, enlargement appears under the heading of the EU’s foreign and security policy, labeled an “active European peace policy” – whereas the English translation betrays the clunky Newspeak of grandiose but empty concepts. Secondly, although the coalition government promises to “actively promote” integrating the Western Balkans into both the EU and NATO, it is much more cautious about Turkey, referencing the passage from Germany’s previous center-right government about a “priviliged partnership.” Finally, there is no mention at all of any membership perspective for countries in Eastern Europe – which, distant as it may be, could be a beacon for the struggling societies in Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine.

All of this will undoubtedly make the Enlargement portfolio much less attractive. Rumor has it that it might even be combined with another DG, only to make it appealing for a member state – and the person that comes with it – to be in charge of it. If this were the case, the Enlargement officials might have to move again – finding a new place commensurate with the value that the EU places on this policy area.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

Cornelius Adebahr

Dr. Cornelius Adebahr was a Visiting Fellow at AICGS from October to December 2013. During his fellowship, Dr. Adebahr analyzed the transatlantic partners‘ current approach toward Iran and the country’s disputed nuclear program. Following a two-year stay in Tehran, he assessed the latest openings made by Iran’s newly elected president, Ayatollah Rouhani. In addition, he looked at ways how the United States—particularly Congress—could support a potential agreement that would see a gradual phase out of the current international sanctions. Ultimately, a compromise would have to see both sides giving up some of their more extreme demands in order to settle for the common ground around their respective core interests.

Dr. Adebahr is a political scientist and entrepreneur; he lives in Washington, DC, and Berlin, Germany. Since the end of 2000, he has been the owner of Wirtschaft am Wasserturm, a political consultancy firm. Among his clients are major company-affiliated foundations as well as not-for-profit associations and European institutions. In addition, Cornelius Adebahr has been affiliated with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) since January 2006, and is currently an Associate Fellow. He is also a columnist with the Global Policy Journal published by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

As a fellow of the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung from 2009 to 2011, Dr. Adebahr headed two research teams on “geopolitics and the financial crisis” and “raw materials strategy.” He has taught at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy at Erfurt University and the Faculty for World Studies of Tehran University. Furthermore, from 2003 to 2011, he was a member of Team Europe, an experts’ network of the European Commission.

Cornelius Adebahr was a scholar of the European Foreign and Security Policy Studies Program of the Volkswagen Foundation, Compagnia di San Paolo, and Riksbankens Jubileumsfond as well as of the Postgraduate Program in International Affairs by the Robert Bosch Foundation and the German National Merit Foundation. He studied International Relations, Philosophy, Public Law, and International Economics in Tübingen and Paris and earned his PhD at the Free University Berlin.