Enlarging the European Union: Stuart McMillan discusses the likely impact of projected accessions to the European Union and foresees significant challenges for New Zealand.

Author:McMillan, Stuart
Position:European Union's projected expansion and impact on New Zealand' export market

On 1 May 2004, the European Union is expected to admit ten more countries as members. Three years after that it is expected to admit two more and possibly another one shortly afterwards. For New Zealand this means that there will be a major change in the membership of the economic and political grouping which, among other things, forms New Zealand's second largest export market. The enlargement, which was finally negotiated in Copenhagen on 12 and 13 December last year, has been years in the planning but as it progresses towards fulfilment coincides with the war in Iraq and divisions in views among Europeans towards that war.

Three important questions present themselves. Will the enlargement change the European Union significantly? What influence will the war in Iraq have on the future European Union? To what extent does New Zealand need to adapt to the enlargement?

The deals settled at Copenhagen are not the final step towards enlargement. Each of the acceding countries has to hold a referendum to test whether their populations support joining the European Union. At the time of writing (end of March), Malta and Slovenia among the new countries had held their referendums and the voters supported entry. Some of the acceding countries are confident that their referendum will support membership, but others are less certain.

In addressing the question of whether the present enlargement will change the European Union significantly one can look at history. The enlargement is the fifth of the European Union and its predecessors. The original members--France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg--admitted Britain, Ireland, and Denmark in 1973. Greece was admitted in 1981, Portugal and Spain in 1986, and Austria, Finland and Sweden in 1995. These enlargements resulted in the alteration of some balances between southern and northern members. The enlargements added to the number of those who believed in a strong federal centre and they added to the number of those who believed that the European Union should simply be a loose collection of sovereign states. Yet the European Union remained very much the same. This was despite a considerable growth in the numbers of EU citizens and in the area covered by the European Union.

For its part, the present enlargement will mean very considerable changes in population and area. An initial enlargement by ten will mean that the European Union will have more than 450 million citizens in 25 countries rather than its present 370 million in 15 countries. In area, the European Union will increase by 34 per cent, compared with the present area of the European Union of the 15. The ten new countries will represent about 16.5 per cent of the population of the European Union of the 25. If Romania and Bulgaria are admitted in 2004 and Turkey not long after, another 97 million plus people will be added.

Significant differences

Does the historical experience mean that, after the initial gulp, there will be little change in the European Union? The thesis of this article is that it does not. This is not a matter of history repeating itself. There are significant differences between the present enlargement and the previous enlargements.

In the first place, not only is it the biggest enlargement that the European Union and its predecessors have ever undertaken but also it exceeds all previous enlargements put together. There are always periods of adjustment when the membership of an organisation is changed. In this case the membership is being increased by 66 per cent. If there are 27 members within a few years the change will amount to 80 per cent.

Secondly, the new entrants are more diverse than previous countries that joined. While the previous entrants were long-established democracies with market economies, the new entrants, with the exception of Cyprus and Malta, are Central and East European countries, formerly part of the Soviet bloc and some part of the Comecon trade grouping. These Central and East European countries all have democratic governments and market economies now, but these are not yet a decade and a half old. They have made rapid progress in changing old ways and they have all had to meet the criteria of the acquis communitaire, the set of principles and laws relating to their legal systems, their human rights records and their treatment of minorities which the European Union requires of applicant states. Nevertheless, their historical experience has been different from that of the countries that previously joined the European Union.

Politics driver

Thirdly, although politics played a role in the previous enlargements, in the present enlargement, politics, not economics, has driven the process, at least from the EU side. In previous enlargements it made economic sense for the applicants to be incorporated into the trading bloc. By...

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