BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 09.06.02

Film: PAOLA BUONADONNA reports on the remaining hurdles facing the European Union's attempt to recruit 10 more nations in to the EU.

PAOLA BUONADONNA: The pressure is on for the ten Central and Eastern European countries which are in the running for membership of the EU. For more than ten years they've competed fiercely with each other and overcome a gruelling series of legal, bureaucratic and economic obstacles placed in their path for entry. Now that they're within sight of the finishing line new barriers have emerged that could seriously affect their chances to succeed in their quest by 2004. JAN KAVAN: There is a limit to people's patience, you cannot tell them for twelve, thirteen, fourteen years that your joining Europe is imminent, and then it's not going to happen. At some point the patience will snap or the people who offer this vision, will simply not be believed. PETER HAIN: If we don't achieve it then our own security will be injured, the threats of increased migration will increase. The far right in the countries that want to join us, and we want them in, will rise because they will say Europe's turning its back on us so we will go elsewhere. That'll be dangerous for our stability and for our security. BUONADONNA: Haddath and his stablehand Paddy are looking forward to their big moment at the Lepardstown racecourse in Dublin. Haddath is not exactly the odds-on favourite today but he might be in with a chance. Ireland has always been very keen on racing and until recently very enthusiastic about the EU too. But when the Nice Treaty, which paves the way for enlargement, was put to a referendum here last year, against the odds people voted 'no.' Now the hopes of the ten applicant countries are pinned on the success of a second referendum to be held by the autumn. But concern is mounting here in Dublin, as well as Brussels and other European capitals about the chances of reversing the 'no' vote. And the Nice dilemma will be looming large at the Seville summit of EU heads of state in twelve days time. TOM ARBUTHNOTT: I get a real sense that policy makers throughout the European Union, in the European Commission, are absolutely terrified that Ireland is going to say 'no.' It's going to say all the wrong things about Europe, not just to the candidate countries but also to the people in the European Union who are currently rather sceptical about it, who are voting for parties which are campaigning against the European Union. BUONADONNA: Getting Haddath ready for a race can be tricky but keeping the EU in working order after it expands to twenty-five members is a massive challenge. The Nice Treaty re-balances the voting power of each nation and makes more decisions possible by majority voting but there's vigorous debate in Ireland, as to whether the result is undemocratic and threatens the interests of smaller EU members. PATRICIA MCKENNA: We're not against the Nice Treaty because of enlargement, we're in favour of enlargement, but we are against the Nice Treaty because it's making the EU even less democratic. It's presenting us with a treaty under the guise of enlargement but in actual fact the technical changes have more to do with removing power from individual member states. In particular the smaller countries are losing a huge amount of power, and also the fact that the EU will then be divided in to sort of first class, and second class members and a number of areas are being, where we have decision making power, are being removed from us. BRIAN COWEN: What I find intellectually dishonest by many on the 'no' side is the idea that they're in favour of enlargement, but they don't seem to agree to the democratic compromise which was reached by democratic heads of state at Nice to facilitate that enlargement. So I think that's an important point that we will be putting against the campaign. BUONADONNA: It's not that hard to get the punters to the races, especially on a sunny day. But many of these people didn't show up to vote for the Nice Referendum, and those who did were worried that foreign policy provisions contained in the treaty might threaten the country's neutrality. So the Irish government will ask the other member states at the Seville summit for a declaration that Ireland will remain neutral. But will it be enough to persuade people to change their minds? COWEN: The declaration will bring clarity to the legal text. The legal text are the treaties, and if we have confirmation in clear and unambiguous language that our military neutrality is in no way compromised by the ratification of the treaty of Nice, then the people I would respectfully suggest will take that on board and we have a right in entitlement as a people to come back and consider these issues again on the basis that our essential national interests are at stake here. MCKENNA: All he's getting is a little piece of signed paper, signed by all the leaders to sort of fob off to the Irish people saying - oh well now we're giving you something different. But the treaty itself, not one single word, dot, comma will be changed in that treaty, it will still be the exact same treaty and that's where the problem lies. BUONADONNA: Well very few of the bookies here today would stake a lot of money on a 'yes' vote. So if the Irish government lose their gamble what can be done to save enlargement? While not wishing to be seen to interfere in the Irish political debate, behind the scenes EU diplomats are already considering alternative strategies. But they all have their pitfalls. Partial reforms already agreed by all would allow a limited enlargement of the EU admitting only five new members. This implies a very difficult choice. KAVAN: This would really mean that for administrative reasons, somebody and I wonder who, on some criteria, I wonder which ones, will suddenly say, these five will join now and these other five will join God knows when. I think this would create so much tensions, problems, etcetera that I find that option unacceptable. GUNTER VERHEUGEN: It would be politically impossible now to create groups. We have organised the whole process in a way that all the candidates countries have the same chance, the same opportunity to become members, if they are sufficiently prepared and it is absolutely impossible to tell a candidate country that is sufficiently prepared, that it has to wait because we have not been able to do our homework. BUONADONNA: If that's not a runner it might instead be possible to come up with a legal sticth up, whereby the main Nice reforms are incorporated into the separate treaties that the EU will sign with each new member. These only need to be ratified by the different parliaments in Europe but will not be put to the people. KAVAN: This could be a kind of roundabout way, how to solve the problem which could be created by a repeated, 'no.' It's not as straight forward, crystal clear and comprehensive as it would have been if Nice is ratified but it may work, it may work. VERHEUGEN: I'm strictly against the idea that we could use legal tricks to, to overrule the democratic decision of a nation. That in my view, the whole idea in my view is a non-starter. You cannot use tricks to by-pass what a nation obviously wants, so I am absolutely not prepared to discuss that. BUONADONNA: The most radical option is to postpone enlargement until a brand new treaty with the necessary reforms can be agreed by all, in 2004. This would delay the whole process by several years, and there are few takers. VERHEUGEN: If we have to tell them there will be a delay and we do not know when it will happen or whether it will happen in the future then the disappointment would be so strong that the leaders of these countries would lose the public support and I think that those populist leaders which also exist in these countries would win the argument saying - that's what we have always told you, the Europeans are not really interested in us, they are only interested in our markets and they have them already. BUONADONNA: But the populist threat to enlargement comes from within the EU too. Far-right and populist parties have recently built up a big electoral following in Austria, Denmark, France and the Netherlands by tapping into the voters' anxiety about crime and immigration. And throughout Europe the political mood is hardening against admitting new and poorer contenders into the ring. Enlargement, many say, will be expensive, divert resources away from the existing members and might lead to an influx of cheap labour from the East. Another failure to ratify the Nice Treaty here in Ireland could be seized upon by some as an excuse to delay or even cancel enlargement altogether. ARBUTHNOTT: I think the key political debate that's developing is about immigration and there are fears in some member states, very, very potent fears about bringing down the borders with central Eastern Europe and an influx of cheap labour which is going to come over from those countries. There is a link there, there is a danger that this change in politics that we've seen, been seeing happening across Europe, may be enough to put a spanner in the works of the whole enlargement process, unless we go forward with it very, very quickly now. HAIN: Everybody needs to understand how much is at stake. If this enlargement is sabotaged, the far right in our own countries will increase their strength, the existing European countries, and the far right in the applicant countries will increase their strength as well, because there'll be more migration, less prosperity, more insecurity, more opportunities for crime. In those conditions the extremists, the neo nazis and others and the racists, thrive. BUONADONNA: But it doesn't stop there. According to some, there's a further, hidden obstacle to the negotiations - the main EU countries themselves might have a vested interest in delaying new entries, as they're worried about the cost of kitting-out the rural economies of Eastern Europe with the generous agricultural subsidies enjoyed by the West. MCKENNA: The problem is that the bigger and more powerful countries in Europe, like in particular France and Germany, don't want enlargement to go ahead until the rules are changed to suit themselves and that's the big problem, that the applicant countries are being misled and the governments in those applicant countries are allowing themselves to be misled because of course they're desperate to get in, and in at any price, so take whatever kind of deal they can get. VERHEUGEN: It is it is definitely not the case that the member states, especially the bigger member states have hidden agendas here, definitely not. They have created such a strong political momentum, they have made so strong multi-lateral and bilateral commitments and they know exactly that the enlargement is in their interest. No country in Europe has a stronger interest in political and economic stability than they have, for instance Germany and France, so this is definitely not true. BUONADONNA: As the moment of truth approaches for Haddath the pressure is also mounting for all EU Governments to kick-start the fight against illegal immigration and at the Seville Summit Britain hopes to take the lead in devising a common strategy. The challenge will be to persuade people that enlargement has to be part of the course. HAIN: Enlargement's an absolutely vital weapon against human trafficking, because those countries that are going to join us, if it all goes well, will see increased prosperity. People always want to remain at home if they can, they'll have more job opportunities because every country's, it's been true of Spain, Portugal and Ireland itself that has joined Europe has seen its increased prosperity results. There'll as be tougher border controls and common asylum procedures, and tougher measures to crack down on gangs that are trafficking people. BUONADONNA: The final obstacle to enlargement comes from the candidate countries themselves. They've asked huge sacrifices of their people and feel they're being rebuffed time and time again. Leaders there have staked their political survival on the enlargement goal and have become increasingly vulnerable to populist voices who will seize on any further delay to the timetable as proof that the European membership race has been fixed and Europe is not worth joining after all. KAVAN: If you thwart the expectation of millions, and I mean millions of people, at the last minute with such an unsubstantiated bureaucratic argument as would this one be then very likely it will not happen in two or three years time. Most people will suddenly turn and say all right, if you don't want us, we don't need to join. It would give scope for not only Euroscepticism which is already growing because of all kinds of problems which occur during negotiations, it would provide fertile soil for the very populist right-wing tendencies which you now see in Western Europe. HAIN: The applicant countries have invested an enormous amount of their own credibility and made huge changes and reforms and gone through complicated and difficult decisions. For us to just shut the door on them, would damage their credibility, would damage the reputation and credibility of the rest of us in Europe for ever and it is absolutely vital that we give them the support that they need and to reunify Europe. Let's remember what this is about. BUONADONNA: All those preparations must have paid off. After a final sprint and to the delight of its supporters Haddath wins by a neck. For the applicant countries there's no happy ending, no finishing line in sight yet. But if they're left behind there may be no winners, the whole of Europe will have failed with them.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.