The Utility of Euroslaps

28 April 2006

The Utility of Euroslaps

 By Gwynne Dyer

“Sofia gets Euroslap,”shrieked the headline in the Bulgarian newspaper Trud in early April, and it was true. Olli Rehn, the European Union’s Commissioner for Enlargement, reporting to the European Parliament on Bulgaria’s readiness to join the EU next January, had said that “the jury is still out,” and that Sofia needs to do much more about fighting high-level corruption and organised crime if it hopes to get in next year.

This sort of foreign criticism provokes nationalist outrage in most countries, but the Bulgarians took it almost meekly. Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev warned that postponing Bulgaria’s entry by a year would send the wrong message to countries in the western Balkans (i.e. former Yugoslavia) that hope to join in the next decade, but he also promised to work hard to meet the EU’s standards and deadlines. And he has been working hard: in his first eight months in office, his government has passed sixty new laws. Euroslaps work.

Romania, also scheduled to become a full member of the EU next January, has done even better. Just two years ago, it was still seen as the more problematic of the two candidates, with high levels of corruption, an easily bought judiciary, and even rigged elections. But the combination of euro-sticks and euro-carrots worked so well in Romania that it is now no longer seen as a problem candidate.

Bulgaria still has some distance to go. There have been 157 contract killings in public places in Bulgaria since 2000, as gangsters battle it out over the proceeds of organised crime, and no high Bulgarian official has ever been convicted on corruption charges. But the threat to postpone its EU entry by a year is having the desired effect, and now Bulgaria is also scrambling to fix things in time.

“Enlargement”, as the EU calls the process of bringing in new members, has been an amazingly effective tool for getting the former Communist countries of Europe to root out the corrupt systems and arbitrary habits that they inherited from their former rulers. Millions of people who served the Communist states are still serving their successors today in the government, the civil service and the judiciary, but the European Union has found a way to impose reform from outside without generating nationalist resentment, resistance and sabotage.

“The heart of the EU’s enlargement policy is conditionality,” as Olli Rehn wrote in the Financial Times recently. “The conditions for membership are clear and rigorous, and…require nothing less than a top-to-bottom reform of a would-be member’s institutions and policies.” But the benefits of membership are so attractive that the candidates jump through the hoops willingly, and the system is flexible enough to allow for the occasional hiccup.

If Bulgaria doesn’t fix its justice system in time, it will almost certainly be allowed to join next January anyway, but with EU monitors to keep track of how many organised crime figures actually get prosecuted and how many corruption cases are brought against senior Bulgarian officials. It’s a bit undignified for a sovereign state to accept such supervision (which will last until the EU is satisfied that Bulgarian justice meets the EU standard), but the Bulgarians will doubtless decide that it’s worth it.

The job is almost done: with the admission of 30 million Romanians and Bulgarians next January, all of the former Soviet satellites in Europe (plus the three Baltic states, once part of the Soviet Union itself) will have been brought into the family. The EU will have grown from fifteen to twenty-seven members in less than five years, and all that remains to do to clear up the mess left over from the Communist era in eastern Europe is to bring in the “west Balkans”: Albania and the countries of former Yugoslavia.

That’s only 25 million people, but it already consists of six separate countries and the total will grow to eight if Montenegro and Kosovo get their formal independence from Serbia this year. (They are already separate in all but name.) Moreover, most of these countries are deeply scarred by the nationalist wars and massacres that ravaged the region in the 90s.

Nobody needs the EU process more than they do — except maybe Turkey, already an official candidate for European Union membership, which is also using EU standards as a justification for forcing democratic and human rights reforms on reluctant generals, judges and mandarins. But with the final goal almost in sight, “enlargement fatigue” is now sapping the will of some existing members (notably France and Germany) to continue with the process.

Hence Olli Rehn’s passionate plea to the existing EU members last month: “Our conditionality works only if it is credible. Countries have to be sure that they have a realistic chance of joining the EU — even if it is many years away — if reformist leaders are to convince their public that it is worth making enormous efforts to meet the EU’s conditions….In the (west) Balkans this encouragement is critical, given the region’s very recent experience of ethnic hatred and armed conflict….This year is the worst possible time for the EU to go wobbly on its commitment to future expansion.”

He’s right, and the “enlargement fatigue” is probably just a temporary phenomenon. But if it deprives the “west Balkans” of hope at this point, all of Europe will regret it for a long time to come.


To shorten to 725 word, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“Bulgaria…time”; and “If…worth it”)