Harry van Bommel: EU must work towards alternative forms of cooperation

30 November 2016

Harry van Bommel: EU must work towards alternative forms of cooperation

The European project is under threat of collapse, and from every side. Instead of further enlargement, the EU should be working on alternative forms of cooperation, argues Harry van Bommel.

It’s not a common occurrence, but I’m in complete agreement with Dutch European Commissioner Frans Timmerman when he says that Europe finds itself in a “perfect storm”. It’s just that he made this statement a year ago, and since then the storm, at best, hasn’t abated. One of the most important member states, the United Kingdom, decided this summer to quit the European Union. Euroscepticism, precarious employment and opposition to immigration formed the most important causes of this.

These tendencies can also be seen in other countries, such as France. In the east and the south as well, there’s disquiet. Hungary and Poland are distancing themselves ever further from European constitutional principles, while in eastern Ukraine a civil war is to this day raging and Greece is far from having redeemed its burden of debt.

Meanwhile there looms the possibility of an "Italexit" in anticipation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's referendum this coming Sunday. In short, the European construction finds itself in a critical condition.

Happily, the European Commission, at the time in relatively calm waters, recognised at the start of its mandate that the coming years ought to see no new countries acceding to the EU. Friend and foe agree that the rate at which the EU has been enlarged since 2004, with thirteen new member states in a decade, was much too rapid, and that it was making the Union unmanageable and undermining any confidence in it.

But the Commission’s view of European enlargement in this year of 2016 is uninspired. All it is proposing is to “recalibrate” the enlargement policy, seeking at the same time to open accession negotiations with Albania.

It is, however, high time that the EU reconsidered both existing and new forms of cooperation between the Union and third countries. The UK, Ukraine, Turkey, the “Balkan Six” - Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro - are all countries which feel an affinity with the EU, but for which membership is, for various reasons, not on the cards.

There is more widespread taste for entering into some form of European relationship. And to avoid any misunderstanding: there is, of course, nothing wrong with that. Europe is also a community of values, where strong welfare states, democratic principles, the rule of law and human rights bind countries together. But now that the European project is beginning to come apart at all of its seams, it’s time to move on and develop new forms of cooperation.

Last year the Netherlands Advisory Council for International Affairs published a report which states that “differentiated integration”, or a multi-speed Europe, would continue to be the trend. The EU must anticipate this and offer more space for alternative forms of membership.

There are already a large number of possibilities. Countries can participate in the European Economic Area (EEA) and the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), as Norway does, have a customs union with the EU, as is the case for Andorra, or, in common with North African states, maintain an intensified trading relationship in the form of an Association Agreement.

The EU should elaborate these models, under which the reinforcement of regional cooperation between countries takes centre-stage. For most candidate members the overhasty adoption of the whole package of legislation and regulation is undermining cooperation and cohesion in Europe, instead of strengthening it, as is shown by the cases of Romania and Bulgaria. These countries were admitted far too soon, with all the consequences that this has brought with it.

In the case of Turkey the accession procession has been fast-tracked as a result of the refugee deal, though the country has not met EU demands. Far from it. In Ukraine the Association Agreement with the EU, the most ambitious such agreement ever, has exacerbated internal division.

In the meantime there is nothing to stop countries from violating European standards, because there is a lack of any effective mechanism to guarantee the rule of law. In this way the EU is undermining

Its own credibility.

European Commissioner for enlargement Johannes Hahn suggested recently that an internal market in the western Balkans could be realised within a few years. That would benefit economic growth and thus political stability in the region, without the EU either turning its back on these countries or admitting them to untimely membership. Let this be the first of more new forms of cooperation.

This opinion piece was first published, in the original Dutch, in the national daily Reformatorisch Dagblad. Harry van Bommel is a Member of Parliament for the SP and party spokesman on EU affairs.


You are here