Academic research on the EU, Enlargement, Europe in the news, Euroscepticism, Future of the EU, the Netherlands

The contradictions of the Dutch referendum on the Association agreement with Ukraine

As the day of the advisory referendum in the Netherlands on the Association agreement with Ukraine nears, the bulk of the commentary seems to focus on the campaign, its trends and its context rather than the referendum question and the agreement it addresses. There have been lots of commentaries focusing on the geopolitics of the referendum, evaluating Russia’s possible attitude or role, as for example this recent piece  assessing a potential ‘no’ vote as a symbolic victory for Russia. Many analysts note the passive stance taken by the Dutch government and political parties of the government coalition who, after all, participated in the negotiations of the agreement that started all the way back in 2008. In a highly critical post, Judy Dempsey denounces the lackluster campaign by Dutch and European politicians and the lack of visible commitment to the  treaty and the values it embodies (rather than just trade) by the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte himself. In terms of the implications of the referendum results, there is little agreement on the significance of a potential ‘no’ vote. Some, consider the whole exercise to be meaningless, as given the advisory nature of the referendum, the government could ignore the results if they are negative.This post by Korteweg provides an overview of recent history of both the agreement and the Dutch referendum and of potential scenarios after the referendum.

Yet, as Kristof Jacobs pointed out in the SRV blog and also in a debate we held yesterday, the political consequences of ignoring a possible ‘no’ vote would be much wider  and harder to ignore than the legal ones. Both domestic and international consequences could be quite broad and far reaching. At least one of the government coalition parties, the Social Democrats, has committed to respecting the outcome of the referendum. Changing the wording of the Association agreement to satisfy the Dutch voters would also be quite problematic: in a total of 486 articles and 179 pages without the annexes, identifying which bits would have been found objectionable by Dutch votes in case of a ‘no’ majority would be difficult. The EU’s credibility in other international settings and policies, such as the revised European Neighborhood Policy or even ongoing enlargement process with the Western Balkans, would be compromised.

If we accept that future accessions or associations will become more and more politicized, as found in our enlargement assessment project maxcap (see here), we should try to take the question of the referendum seriously and evaluate, to the best of our current knowledge, what effects the Association agreement might have. Given its scope and the fact that establishing a Deep and Comprehensive Trade Area is quite a novel enterprise, as shown in this legal analysis, effects are difficult to estimate ex ante. The political reform provisions in the treaty, however, are both far-reaching and promising, in the clear commitment to domestic reforms in Ukraine (art 6), extensive requirements for transparency and the planned involvement of civil society (articles 299, 443). All other things being equal (which is not a given in Ukraine’s neighbourhood), the Agreement will provide both a roadmap and a set of incentives for reforms in democratic governance, as the EU has done in the past for countries like Bulgaria, Romania or Slovakia. It will be up to Ukrainian policy makers and politicians to take this opportunity. Yet rejecting the treaty by means of a negative vote in the Netherlands, or letting it exist in some kind of legal and political limbo while the Dutch government decides how to react to a potential negative result, would sap what energy and determination exist for reforms in Ukraine. So paradoxically, if we assume that at least some of the initiators of the Dutch referendum care about democracy and citizens, their democratic impulse might kill the attempts to make democracy mean something in Ukraine. This would be a strange outcome indeed.



The ‘reporting revolution’ in enlargement reports: will it help overcome ‘enlargement fatigue’?

The European Commission released its updated strategy and reports on the progress of candidate and aspiring states from the Western Balkans on 10 November 2015. The considerable changes in approach and even language of the reports amount to what the European Stability Initiative newsletter has called ‘a reporting revolution’. The strategy and reports aim to make comparisons between aspiring, candidate and negotiating states much easier and to give the process of enlargement, allegedly mired in ‘enlargement fatigue’, a new impetus.

First impressions are that the reports, one of the key monitoring and reform tools of enlargement policy goes, are indeed changed and much improved. The language of the reports is clearer, the recommendations more specific and it is much easier to judge at a glance whether a country has made progress or not and how it compares to others.

The priorities and focus on certain areas of reform appear to have shifted further away from the EU acquis and to fundamental political institutional and economic  problems which citizens of the countries assessed would recognize as important. Rule of law, freedom of expression, the work of national parliaments and public administration reform are highlighted as key areas to be addressed for all candidates. Economic governance and competitiveness, as well as tackling unemployment are identified as serious challenges for all candidate countries, except Turkey. The refugee crisis and the imperative it creates for cooperation in the region is explicitly and clearly mentioned. In this way, this year’s reports address and incorporate much of earlier criticism concerning their lack of clarity and focus on acquis chapters relevant for the distant future instead of the real problems of the countries they monitor. By identifying and pointing clearly to the most important problems and challenges candidates face, the reports – and the Commission – aim to support mobilisation for reform, as it worked in the past with previous enlargement rounds of 2004-2007.

The main source of inertia for enlargement policy however cannot be eliminated by this improvement and this is arguably the member states. Governments in the existing member states need to be convinced it is worth spending political capital in discussing enlargement in national political debates and in actually making the case in favour of the Western Balkans. Having clear and objective reports, as much as this is possible, helps to make the case that certain countries have made more progress than others. But it is to the member states and their political elites to make the choice to move enlargement towards the front of their political agenda. Germany’s experience with migrants from the region will certainly bring more heated debates there and give enlargement policy more prominence, which is also recognized by the initiatives taken under the so called ‘Berlin’ process. But in the Netherlands next door, politicians and media respond to the reports with a deafening silence, even though Dutch policy makers must recognize that they need to engage in the region to share information and make policy in the current refugee and migration crisis that affects the Western Balkans and Western Europe alike. A more pro-active enlargement policy should provide an excellent forum to discuss these issues, as it had done in the past. To have the citizens on board, however, politicians should consider telling the public that the enlargement policy and process is a way to make sustainable policies involving their Western Balkan neighbours, also on migration, at a time when coordinated action is desperately needed.

Britain, Enlargement, Euroscepticism, Public opinion

Immigration from Central and Eastern Europe fuels support for Eurosceptic parties in the UK

Combining political, demographic and economic data for the local level in the UK, we find that the presence of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is related to higher voting shares cast for parties with Eurosceptic positions at the 2014 elections for the European Parliament. Evidence across Europe supports the connection between immigration from CEE and the electoral success of anti-Europe and anti-immigration political parties.

Immigration has become the top political issue in the UK. It played a pivotal role during the European Parliament elections in 2014 and it is the most-talked about issue in the build-up to the national elections in 2015.

The arrival of Eastern Europeans in the wake of the ‘Big Bang’ EU enlargement in 2004 and 2007  has a large part of the blame to take for the rising political salience of immigration for the British public. Figure 1 shows that ever since the EU accession of the first post-communist countries in 2004, immigration has been considered one of the two most important issues facing the country by a substantial proportion of British citizens, surpassing even concerns about the economy, except for the period between 2008 and 2012.

Data source: Standard Eurobarometer (59 to 82).
Data source: Standard Eurobarometer (59 to 82).

These popular concerns have swiftly made their way into the electoral arena. Some political parties like UKIP and BNP have taken strong positions in favor of restricting immigration and against the process of European integration in general. Others, like the Conservative party, have advocated restricting access of EU immigrants to the British labour market[5] while retaining an ambivalent position towards the EU. Parties with positions supportive of immigration and European integration have altogether tried to dodge the issues for fear of electoral punishment. Arguably, political and media attention to immigration (and East European immigrants in particular) have acted to reinforce the public concerns. In short, British voters care about and fear immigration, and political parties have played to, if not orchestrated, the tune.

But there is more to this story. In recent research we find evidence that higher actual levels of immigration from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) at the local level in the UK are related to higher shares of the vote cast for Eurosceptic parties at the last European Parliament elections in 2014. In other words, British Eurosceptic parties have received, on average and other things being equal, more votes in localities with higher relative shares of East European residents.

The relationship is not easy to uncover. Looking directly into the correlation between relative local-level CEE immigration population shares and the local vote shares of Eurosceptic parties would be misleading. Immigrants do not settle randomly, but take the economic and social context of the locality into account. At the same time, this local economic and social context is related to the average support for particular parties. For example, local unemployment levels are strongly positively correlated with the  vote share for the Labour party, and the local share of highly educated people is strongly positively correlated with the vote share for the Greens (based on the 2014 EP election results). Therefore, we have to examine the possible link between CEE immigration shares and the vote for Eurosceptic parties net of the effect of the economic and social local contexts which, in technical terms, potentially confound the relationship.

In addition, immigrants themselves can vote at the EP elections and they are more likely to vote for EU-friendly parties. This would tend to attenuate any positive link between the votes of the remaining local residents and support for Eurosceptic parties. Lastly, the available local level immigration statistics track only immigrants who have been in the country longer than three months (as of 27 March 2011). Hence, they miss more recent arrivals, seasonal workers and immigrants who have not been reached by the Census at all. All these complications stack the deck against finding a positive relationship between the local presence of CEE immigrants and the vote for Eurosceptic parties. It is thus even more remarkable that we do observe one.

Figure 2: A scatterplot of the relative share of CEE immigrants from the local population versus the residual share of the vote cast for Eurosceptic parties (UKIP and BNP) at the 2014 EP elections

Figure 2 shows a scatterplot of the logged share of CEE immigrants from the local level population as of 2011 (on the horizontal axis) against the residual share of local level vote shares of Eurosceptic parties (UKIP and BNP) at the 2014 EP election (on the vertical axis). Each dot represents one locality (lower-tier council areas in England and unitary council areas in Wales and Scotland) and the size of the dot is proportional to the number of inhabitants. A few localities are labeled. The voting share is residual of all effects of the local unemployment level, and the relative shares of highly educated people, atheists, and non-Western immigrants in the population. In other words, the vertical axis shows the proportion of the vote for Eurosceptic parties unexplained by other social and economic variables.

The black straight line that best fits all observations is included as a guide to the eye. Its positive slope indicates that, on average, higher shares of CEE immigrants are related with higher Eurosceptic vote shares. Formal statistical tests show that the relationship is unlikely to be due to chance alone.

While the link is discernable from random fluctuations in the data, it is far from deterministic. Some of the localities with the highest relative shares of CEE immigrants, like Brent, have in fact only moderate Eurosceptic vote shares, and some localities with the highest share of the vote cast for Eurosceptic parties, like Hartlepool, have very low registered presence of CEE immigrants. Nevertheless, even if it only holds on average, the relationship remains substantially important.

Does this mean that people born in the UK are more likely to vote for Eurosceptic parties because they have had more contact with East Europeans? Not necessarily. Relationships at the level of individual citizens cannot be inferred from relationships at an aggregate level (otherwise, we would be committing what statisticians call ecological fallacy). In fact, there is plenty of research in psychology and sociology showing that direct and sustained contact with members of an out-group, like immigrants, can decrease prejudice and xenophobic attitudes. But research has also found that the sheer presence of an out-group, especially when direct contact is limited and the public discourse is hostile, can heighten fears and feelings of threat of the host population as well. Both mechanisms for the effect of immigration presence on integration attitudes – the positive one of direct contact and the negative one of outgroup presence – are compatible with the aggregate level relationship that we find. And they could well coexist – for a nice illustration see this article in the Guardian  together with the comments section.

Is it really the local presence of immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe in particular that leads to higher support for Eurosceptic parties? It is difficult to disentangle the effects of CEE immigrants and immigrants from other parts of the world, as their local level shares share are correlated. Yet, the relative share of non-Western immigrants from the local population appears to have a negative association with support for Eurosceptic parties across a range of statistical model specifications, while the effect of CEE immigrants remains positive no matter whether non-Western immigration has been controlled for or not.

There is also evidence for an interaction between the presence of immigrants from CEE and from other parts of the world. The red line in Figure 2 is fitted only to the localities that have lower than the median share of non-western immigrants. It is steeper than the black one which indicates that for these localities the positive effect of CEE immigrants on Eurosceptic votes is actually stronger. The blue line is fitted only to the localities with lower than the median share of non-western immigrants. It is sloping in the other direction which implies that in localities with relatively high shares of immigrants from other parts of the world, the arrival of East Europeans does not increase the vote for Eurosceptic parties.

It is interesting to note the recent statement by UKIP leader Nigel Farage that he prefers immigrants from form former British colonies like Australia and India to East Europeans. Focusing rhetorical attacks on immigrants from CEE in particular fits and makes sense in light of the story told above.

We (with Elitsa Kortenska) also find that CEE immigration increases Euroscepticism at the local level in other countries as well. In a recently published article (ungated pre-print here) we report this effect in the context of the referenda on the ill-fate European Constitution in Spain, France, and The Netherlands in 2005 and on the Treaty of Lisbon in Ireland in 2008. In ongoing work we argue that local level presence of CEE immigrants is systematically related to higher vote shares cast for Eurosceptic parties in Austria, The Netherlands, and France, in addition to the British case discussed in this post.

Why does this all matter? The process of European integration presupposes the right of people to move and work freely within the borders of the Union. This is not only a matter of convenience, but of economic necessity. People from regions experiencing economic hardship must be able to move to other EU regions with growing economies for economic integration to function. In an integrated economy like the EU or the US, a Romanian or a Greek must be free to seek employment in the UK or in Poland the same way an American living in Detroit is able to relocate to California in search of work and fortune.

This is especially true given the lack of large-scale redistribution between EU regions. Economic Integration creates regional inequalities. One way to respond is to redistribute the benefits of integration. Another is to allow people and workers to move where employment chances are currently high. If none of these mechanisms is available, economic and political integration are doomed. Therefore, if immigration within the EU indeed fuels Euroscepticism, as our study suggests, the entire European integration project is at risk.


Time for a different approach to enlargement: can accession in the Western Balkans be given a new impulse for change?

The Western Balkans accession process is getting some new energy and commitment these days, but not from the ‘usual suspects’ responsible for enlargement negotiations and reforms. A group of academics and analysts from the region and further afield in Europe, united in the platform entitled ‘Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group’ have produced a new policy paper, containing an analysis of the state of play of enlargement talks with the Western Balkans candidate and aspirant EU members.

The paper is good news: but not because the analysis they present in it gives us much cause for optimism. Just the opposite: they present a harsh picture of rent seeking elites that, despite paying lip service to the twin objectives of reform and EU membership, still use ethno-nationalist rhetoric to mobilise eletorates and preserve their own political power. The authors are no more optimistic about the European Union, which in its turn, according to them, is playing a game of ‘conditionality stretching’ that, by making conditions for moving to the next stage of accession negotiations ever more elaborate, reinforces the feeling of stagnation and backsliding in the Western Balkans accession process. EU elites, as the paper suggests, are preoccupied with EU’s own crisis and the consequences of the financial and economic crisis make immigration and free movement questions especially sensitive. And still despite this bleak picture which any scholar and commentator working in the region would recognize, the paper is good news because its pro-active stand, its willingness to name obstacles and to propose scenarios for moving forward, represent much of the independent drive that is needed to make enlargement a success against the odds.

In the MAXCAP project and in various other research networks and policy analysis centers, scholars and analysts are still trying to evaluate the Eastern enlargement and highlight its lessons. Yet it would not be premature to say that the lessons of enlargement in the past (especially the 2004-2007) rounds teach us that the process only gets a positive dynamic if there are reform minded elites of some kind who persist of pushing it forward. Testimonials of participants in the Eastern enlargement – negotiators, key policy makers – suggest that there were many points where the European Union’s leaders mistrusted accession candidates and were reluctant to allow them to move to the next stage, yet commitment to the goal of joining the EU by reformist politicians went a long way to overcome obstacles and initiate reforms. So even though the Eastern enlargement – consisting of the 2004 and 2007 rounds and Croatia in 2013 – started in a much more favourable geopolitical context than the current Western Balkans process, it also had its bottlenecks and setbacks and moments when it seemed it was going nowhere. The efforts of all kinds of people and organizations – from the negotiators that played such an important role in this process to working groups in ministries, to NGOs, businesses in the EU and in the candidate states, and not least, citizens were needed to make that enlargement happen.

Today we are much more fixated on policy conditionality and what the EU can do to stretch out the process even further so that candidates may be pushed to reform. But being stuck on a specific condition or a bilateral issue that has become so fossilized it is impossible to resolve – makes this extensive conditionality part of the vicious circle of enlargement. Where in the past it was about pushing a government in the direction of reforms, nowadays it appears almost that EU governments insist on more and more conditionality as a way to channel their mistrust in future enlargements. Processwise, conditions become institutionalized when they have played a role in negotiations with one country and then past conditions have become a part of the enlargement method. Between all these conditions and the politics of setting them, comparison between countries becomes a lost cause. In the absence of a common push from the EU side, bilateral problems dominate the process.

So in this bleak moment the Balkans in Europe Policy group offers four scenarios for the future of the accession process in the Western Balkans: 1/ business as usual, 2/following Turkey’s path and alienation from the EU 3/ abandoning enlargement and new unpredictability in the Western Balkans and 4/ the Balkans Big bang. The authors argue that creating conditions for a Balkan big bang, their preferred scenario, should not be impossible even in today’s unfavourable EU context. Fewer conditions, posed after talks have started and not prior to their start and more transparent competition between the aspiring and candidate states may be the way to reinvigorate the process. Despite the criticism for conditionality, in my view such a change would require a shift in the member states’ approach and not so much the Commission’s. What is clear is that the current approach to enlargement – as the paper’s authors call it ‘business as usual’ – is not leading to much progress in reforms that would make the countries of the Western Balkans more democratic and prosperous or better neighbours for the EU. Time to try something else?


‘Do not blame the crisis on enlargement’

After his remarkable speeches in Berlin and Oxford, which we have commented on in this blog before, Leiden University had the pleasure of hosting the third European integration speech by Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. The speech he gave today in the Academiegebouw in Leiden was dedicated, as is only fitting, to Dutch-Polish relations, but also, like the previous ones, managed to combine the diplomatic pleasantries with a passionate plea for European integration and solidarity between the European Union’s member states. Many of the arguments and quotes deserve a special mention and we will return to them in the coming days. For now, I wanted to highlight two themes close to several of this blog’s key discussions: his understanding of the role of political leadership for promoting the EU and the look back on the Eastern enlargement.

The role of political leaders in Europe according to Sikorski: to promote European integration and to keep explaining that Brussels is us. He specifically mentioned several times that Prime Minister Rutte has recently said that he would need to sell ‘Europe’ to the Dutch public. Diplomatically, Sikorski stressed how much he agreed with this statement, but, as watchers of European politics in the Netherlands, we had to wonder whether the Prime Minister has ever really taken this task to heart. We have been waiting for him to do this for quite some time. In fact, most of the time he returns from a meeting in Brussels, he expresses to the media his satisfaction that he had been ‘fighting really hard’ for Dutch interests. This approach, as Sikorski noted with respect to all political leaders playing such two level games, has exhausted its logic. And I think we can safely add it is getting more and more dangerous if we want the European Union to survive.  In any case, we hope the Prime Minister would take the hint and the start indeed promoting Europe and its benefits to the public. As we have witnessed in the Leiden speech, there are enough good things to say: Dutch pragmatism, it was said, has put European integration back on track at its very beginning.

The Polish vision of the EU as having at its core the internal market underpinned by the four freedoms, especially freedom of movement of labour, was not new or controversial, but it needs repeating in the current context in the Netherlands. From this point of view, the movement of citizens between EU member states is not immigration, but an exercise of fundamental rights. These rights of course, stem from the core bargains at the heart of European integration, the establishing of the internal market. But also from enlargement and all the work done by the member states from central and Eastern Europe to comply with EU standards. The Polish view on this, we can safely say, is shared among the EU’s member states from Central and Eastern Europe. The moment of accession to the EU – 2004 for Poland and other Central European states, but also 2007 for Bulgaria and Romania – was seen as the end of history for post communist states, a return to freedom and ability to move around Europe, to  innovate and create new things. Freedom and independence are the ideals of United Europe which Poland saw as a return to Europe that they have always belonged to.

As Sikorski has also stressed before, the economic growth among a number of the new member states is also the best proof that enlargement was not the cause of economic crisis in Europe. In fact, Poland has been one of the few states in the EU that has not had a recession in the last 5 years. Still, to this very day, it is quite difficult to convince even my students in the classroom that the economic crisis had nothing to do with the accession by the less wealthy countries from the East. His call for solidarity in Europe was strengthened by his reminder that drawing new dividing lines in Europe might result in unexpected results: not a division of old and new Europe but one between growth and non growth Europe. Wise warning, worth the repetition.

Last but not least, a categorical statement from Sikorski regarding attempts to change the rules of free movement in Europe, ( and this, I think, includes Schengen): Poland will veto any attempt to challenge the fundamental four freedoms in the EU.

Disclaimer: This post is written in personal capacity and does not represent the official view of Leiden University and the Institute of Public Administration

Enlargement, Euroscepticism, the Netherlands

EU-uitbreiding en het Nederlandse debat: No lessons learned?

[This is a guest post from our colleagues at Leiden University Hans Vollaard  and Caspar van den Berg]

Europa is ineens hot in parlement en media door de Euro-crisis. Wat tijden onmogelijk leek, is nu aan de orde van de dag: uitgebreide berichtgeving over de EU. De redding van de Euro is het gesprek van de dag. Ook het kabinet-Rutte laat zich er duidelijk over horen. Gek genoeg staat deze aandacht voor Europa in schril contrast met een ander actueel EU-dossier van zwaar gewicht: uitbreiding. Het toetredingsproces van nieuwe lidstaten onttrekt zich bijna volledig aan het oog van journalist en burger, maar gaat gestaag door. Opvallend genoeg lijkt de Nederlandse regering geen moeite te doen om steun voor uitbreiding te verwerven. Dat is een gevaarlijke koers, want nog maar 11% van de Nederlanders wil namelijk meer EU-lidstaten erbij, meldde Synovate onlangs.

In december ondertekent de EU het toetredingsverdrag met Kroatië, waarna het Europees Parlement en alle nationale parlementen (dus ook dat van Nederland) zich over Kroatische toetreding moeten uitspreken. Tegelijkertijd lopen onderhandelingen met IJsland, en officieel ook nog met Turkije. In december beslist de Nederlandse regering samen met de andere EU-lidstaten over de start van onderhandelingen met Macedonië en Montenegro. Albanië, Bosnië-Hercegovina, Kosovo en waarschijnlijk ook Servië zullen nog moeten wachten op de status van kandidaat-lidstaat.

De Nederlandse regering vindt dat uitbreiding van de EU de stabiliteit, de veiligheid en het investeringsklimaat in Europa kan bevorderen. Wel stelt ze zich strikt op bij de toetreding van nieuwe landen. Een land mag pas kandidaat-lidstaat zijn als die volledig heeft voldaan aan de zogeheten Kopenhagen-criteria. Die criteria toetsen onder meer of een land democratisch genoeg is en aan de Europese markt kan deelnemen. Over toetreding van een kandidaat mag van de regering pas definitief besloten worden als over alle Europese regelgeving harde afspraken zijn gemaakt, inclusief extra toezicht als het land nog niet op alle punten klaar is.

Regeringen van andere landen zijn soepeler, en verwijten Nederland onvoldoende rekening te houden met het effect van zo’n strikte opstelling. Het kan afkeer tegen Europese integratie in een kandidaat-lidstaat opwekken, zeker als het zicht op een EU-lidmaatschap verdwijnt. Maar de Nederlandse regering wijst erop dat als de EU zich op het vlak van uitbreiding niet strikt aan de regels houdt, het draagvlak onder het grote publiek slinkt. Ze vindt die steun zelfs “essentieel”.

In het parlement zal steun niet het grootste probleem zijn. De PVV is tegen alle uitbreidingen, en zou het liefst ook nog Roemenië en Bulgarije weer eruit sturen. Maar er is geen parlementaire meerderheid tegen uitbreiding. De vraag is vooral wat de Nederlandse regering doet om onder het grote publiek draagvlak te bevorderen. De SP en SGP vroegen er afgelopen februari in de Tweede Kamer de regering al naar.

De regering heeft onder het grote publiek twee grote hobbels te nemen. Grofweg de helft van de Nederlanders is bezorgd over het politieke machtsverlies van Nederland in Europees verband. De regering zal hen moeten overtuigen dat toetredingen van Kroatië, IJsland, Macedonië, Montenegro, en later wellicht ook Servië en Turkije de Nederlandse invloed niet benadelen. Daarnaast moet de regering een grote groep Nederlanders aanspreken die voor Europese integratie zijn zolang een effectief functionerende EU wat oplevert. Tweederde van de Nederlanders vond al dat de uitbreidingen van 2004 en 2007 de EU minder bestuurbaar heeft gemaakt. Juist nu de EU al moeite heeft de euro-crisis aan te pakken, en gezien het feit dat de meeste toetredingskandidaten relatief arm zijn, heeft de Nederlandse regering bij deze groep heel wat twijfels te overwinnen.

Deze hobbels zijn allebei hoog. En er is nog niks te merken van een actieve campagne voor steun aan uitbreiding. De regering kan ervoor kiezen geen steun te werven voor EU-uitbreiding. Ze kan er op gokken dat kiezers net als bij eerdere verkiezingen hun stem niet of nauwelijks laten bepalen door hun standpunt over Europa-kwesties. Dat is echter een gevaarlijke gok, want door de Euro-crisis blijven die kwesties nadrukkelijk op de agenda van de kiezers staan. En zeker als de regering zelf stelt dat publieke acceptatie “essentieel” is voor EU-uitbreiding, mag ze daarvan wel werk beginnen te maken.

Een eerdere versie van dit artikel is verschenen in het Nederlands Dagblad.

Central and Eastern Europe, Euro, Uncategorized

Greece, Slovakia and the little ironies of life

In 2003, the Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis had two special moments. First, he unveiled a ‘social package’ worth 1.7 billion euros which included measures to reduce fuel costs for farmers, raising farmers’ base pensions, abolishing a tax on agricultural land’s transfer,  an annual subsidy of 1,000 euros for every child studying in other cities, reducing a tax for buying new cars by 20 percent, raising a supplementary pension and creating 25,000 part-time jobs in the public sector. Second, he presided over the historic meeting in Athens during which 12 new member states signed the Accession Treaty to join the EU.

Eight years later, he might have some regrets. About the second one, I mean. Slovakia, one of the countries that Simitis welcomed into the EU, now threatens to unilaterally torpedo the ESFS (European Financial Stability Facility) expansion by refusing to ratify it in its Parliament (here is Simitis advocating a bigger role for national parliaments in European integration). Even if Slovakia eventually approves the deal, one can only admire one of these bitter-sweet ironies that life so often offers.

During the 1990s and early 2000s, the former communist countries from Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) were subject to rather ruthless and unapologetic economic conditionality. The old member states, Greece included, insisted on the strict application of the Copenhagen criteria which included “the existence of a broad consensus about essentials of economic policy” and “sustainable public finances and external accounts”. There were no attempts to solve the post-communist economic crisis that all CEE countries went through by pumping billions of borrowed euros in their economies. No, the CEE governments were expected to swallow the bitter pills of austerity, privatization, and public service cuts. And they did, slowly emerging by the economic debris of post-communism with reformed economies and public sectors.

That’s why today it is hard not to sympathize with Slovakia which is asked to contribute 7.7 billion euros (which amounts to approx 8% of its 2010 GDP) to the ESFS.

In the words of the Speaker of the Slovak Parliament Richard Sulík: “How am I supposed to explain to people that they are going to have to pay a higher value-added tax (VAT) so that Greeks can get pensions three times as high as the ones in Slovakia?” (interview by Spiegel, noted via Marginal Revolution). Which is why his party, although part of the ruling coalition, is expected to abstain and bring down the ESFS expansion proposal and with it the Slovak government, which tied its fate to that of the vote.



Update, 11/10/11, 22.30h The Slovak government has lost the confidence vote…