EU enlargement - a UK perspective

Minister for Europe David Lidington speaks on the merits of EU enlargement during his visit to Vienna.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon David Lidington CBE

Chancellor Schussel, Dr Tiroch, Governor Nowotny, Ambassador Christiani, your Excellencies, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

The first thing to say is that it is a great pleasure to have this opportunity to speak here on my first visit to Vienna as the British Minister for Europe. And it is a rare pleasure to be the guest of three different institutions all at the same time. So I’m glad to be part of what I still think of as the re-launch phase of the Austro-British Society - and my thanks go to Dr Tiroch, and to Ambassador Christiani, and all the Presidium of the Society who have worked so enthusiastically to bring the Austro-British Society back to life.

And I’m honoured too to be a guest in these elegant surroundings at the heart of the Austrian National Bank. I understand that this building was originally intended as a place in which to print money, but it assumed its function as the Bank’s headquarters just at the point where, with the introduction of the Schilling, the key task was to break with the era of money printing and the crippling inflation that came with it.

And last but not least I am grateful, Chancellor Schussel, to you, and to the Austrian Foreign Policy and UN Association for co-hosting this event - and I salute your association’s role as a focal point for discussion and ideas about the broad European and global issues for which Vienna - with its place at the centre of Europe and as the location for so many international organisations- acts as an effective forum.

Now of course there is nothing new about Vienna as a meeting point for international affairs.

I’m a keen historian as well as politician and no historian can come to this city and be indifferent to buildings that still resonate with the echoes of the Vienna Congress whose 200th anniversary is now just a few years away.

And I had a great treat this afternoon because the Ambassador generously squeezed 30 minutes out of my official diary after lunch and we went to the Staatsarchiv to see the original documents of the Congress of Vienna with the seals of all the leaders in place, Metternich at the head. And of course the long list of European leaders who swept into town for that Congress is as familiar to many of you here in the audience as is, I suspect, the caustic summary of their roles quoted in Egon Friedell’s “Kulturgeschichte der Neuzeit”:

“Der Kaiser von Russland liebt fur alle; der Konig von Preußen denkt fur alle; der Konig von Danemark spricht fur alle; der Konig von Bayern trinkt fur alle; der Konig von Wurttemberg frisst fur alle …. Und der Kaiser von Österreich zahlt fur alle.”

“The Tsar of Russia falls in love for everyone; the King of Prussia thinks for everyone, the King of Denmark speaks for everyone; the King of Bavaria drinks for everyone; the King of Wurttemberg eats for everyone … and the Emperor of Austria pays for everyone”

Now I will leave it to the Austrian members of this audience to reflect on the value-for-money. But I’d observe that there’s no role attributed at all to the British presence. This may have been because the British monarch wasn’t there in person, but was represented by his Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. A portrait of whom I have hanging behind my desk at the Foreign Office now. Or perhaps it was because the British delegation was attracting attention in - how shall I put it - other ways. A contemporary British historian, Adam Zamoyski, in a recent study of the Congress, quotes a contemporary diarist’s view that:

“Everyone is complaining about the lack of breeding of the English and their ladies. There is no kind of rudeness and gaucherie which they do not commit.”

And he continues with the disturbing comment:

“The image of the British delegation was not improved by the behaviour of the British Ambassador.”

I hope that, in that respect too, times have now changed.

Fascinating though it is to recall the Congress and the way it reshaped the map of Europe, my focus tonight is on the future, not the past. And it’s on our current shared efforts to set out and implement a vision for a Europe of strength and stability.

It’s a future from which, once again, Vienna looks out on the world from a central position; from the perspective of a city for more than 40 years of the post war age confined at the eastern end of Western Europe. But a city now, once again, at the centre of a united Europe, in a country at the heart of a region where the old barriers have come down and new opportunities have multiplied.

And I will argue tonight that today’s Europe - notwithstanding the serious economic challenges we face - is above all a region of opportunity. Above all, of opportunity for countries like Austria and Britain, whose economies rely heavily on export success and on an ambitious approach to investing in emerging markets.

For both our countries, the opportunity lies not in a European Union that is standing still, but from being part of a dynamic European Union that is on the move and which is active in exercising its transformational power.

And it’s that dynamic, outward-looking aspect of the European Union that I want to talk about tonight. In particular, I want to set out Britain’s strong commitment to an ambitious agenda for enlargement, and not least to rebut two false propositions:

The first, that the EU should set more modest enlargement aims. The phrase “pause after Croatia” is one too frequently heard - that it should rather just concentrate on putting its own house in order; and

Second, the charge that the UK supports enlargement only because it wants to overburden the EU and make it less successful.

Now it will be no shock to you to hear me say that I believe that the EU has its faults, and my country, my Government is determined to work within the EU to improve those shortcomings. But those deficiencies need to be set in the balance against the truly historic achievement of establishing a model for a community of nations governing relations among themselves according to the rule of law. That is a model of political development that has enabled the EU through its policy of enlargement to entrench democracy, the rule of law and human rights in parts of our continent where those traditions were crushed for most of the 20th century.

British support for enlargement goes back a long way. Margaret Thatcher is not normally thought of as an enthusiastic European. But in her famous Bruges speech she declared at a time when it was is not fashionable, nor even believable, that it was important for all to remember that Prague, and Warsaw and Budapest were also great European cities. And I was delighted when I went to the opening of the new headquarters of the Commission and the European Parliament in London recently, to be told that they included Mrs. Thatcher’s speech in their selection of great speeches on the subject of Europe made by British political leaders.

And as Chancellor Schussel said, I was working in the Foreign Office at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, as Political Adviser to our then Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd. I remember watching the news bulletins and I remember each day receiving the telegrams from our Ambassadors reporting the changes that were sweeping across Central and Eastern Europe. And I remember the pivotal role played by Austria. The reports of Foreign Minister Alois Mock symbolically cutting through the border fence with his Hungarian counterpart - an act that then paved the way for that Pan European picnic, came to be a significant milestone on the path to the reunification of Germany. And what I recall from that time was a real sense of the continent of Europe at last coming together again after the fracture of 1914, a division that had been made far worse and more deeply entrenched by the events of World War II and then the Cold War.

I am not exaggerating if I say that this was probably the single most exciting and welcome set of international events in my lifetime. During this time of great change, the artificial political barriers between East and West in Europe were swept away. The peoples of East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Baltic States and others shared the values and the aspirations of their Western neighbours and they demanded the same democratic and political freedoms.

When I compare the history of Central and Eastern Europe since 1989 with that of the continent in the 1920’s and 30’s what is striking is that this time around freedom, democracy and the rule of law have been sustained and strengthened instead of being a passing illusion. The key to this was the magnet of attraction that is the EU, proving how effective and dynamic EU enlargement can be. Yes, there were experiments with democracy in Central and Eastern Europe after the First World War but for reasons that you will understand better than I, they did not take root and work. But it was different after 1989, because it was in the context of a European Union where vital support and encouragement was offered to those countries as aspirant member states. That is why we in Britain were and are so enthusiastic about enlargement, because it is a momentum that builds stability, security and prosperity across Europe.

I believe it would be a profound mistake to let this momentum stall. We are a continent steeped in history, but we must not become mired in it. In a changing world, whose economic and political weight is swinging eastwards, the European Union will remain strong only if it is outward-looking and continues to grow. That is why we in Britain are strong supporters of the EU neighbourhood policy and believe that membership of the EU should be open for any European country that wants to join, and can meet the rigorous accession criteria.

Today both Croatia and Iceland are well on track to meet those criteria and I know that both the UK and Austria look forward to welcoming them as member states in the near future. But tonight I want to consider the case for some prospective member states, whose accession is a little further down the line:

When I speak of the fracture of Europe in 1914, it was of course in the Balkans that the first crack appeared with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Both Austria and the UK share the strong conviction that an active and activist EU has an essential role to play in the Western Balkans: promoting modern, reformed states and institutions, and entrenching stability there.

We are unequivocal in our support for all the countries of the region achieving future membership of the European Union. This is the vital strategic goal: shared security and prosperity built on a firm foundation of democracy and the rule of law. We want to see the Western Balkans back in Europe, extending stability and success to a part of the world where conflict is still an all too recent memory.

To achieve this I believe that the governments of the Western Balkans need to display real political leadership and demonstrate that concrete steps are being taken to fulfil the membership criteria. We are very clear that the region must meet these criteria. We will not countenance the criteria being adapted to the region.

But we need to match their commitment by providing support, encouragement and technical assistance to the Western Balkans. We have underlined that the European Union and the wider international community should sharpen its focus on the region, and pursue an active approach that will deliver results.

So how do things stand? As you know the countries of the Western Balkans have made good progress, though problems remain. The European Union has a critical role to play in supporting the search for resolutions to these problems. It is fundamentally in our interest to have secure, prosperous neighbours and to help remove obstacles to these countries’ accession. We can help resolve disagreements between countries and promote necessary reforms within them.

Take, for example, Bosnia and Herzegovina, where we are urging political leaders to form new coalition governments quickly and with the EU reform agenda at the heart of their programmes. The UK believes that the EU will then need to take a proactive and further role in driving forward reform progress. And we see an equally important ongoing role for the EU and the wider international community in preserving stability and in upholding the Dayton agreement in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Or look at Serbia and Kosovo. We strongly support the dialogue facilitated by the EU between Belgrade and Pristina that is now beginning, and the opportunity which it offers to build a positive relationship that moves both countries, and I stress both countries, along their paths to EU membership. Last year’s work on a United Nations General Assembly resolution and the agreement to establish a dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo demonstrates how the EU can exert a stabilising and forward-looking influence in region.

A third telling example is the internal situation in Albania where a co-ordinated European and international approach is crucial.

Ambassador Lajcak has been instrumental in recent days in trying to calm a dangerous political crisis. We now need to urge Albania’s political leaders to resolve peacefully the long-standing political stalemate in that country and put Albania back on track to accession.

I know that both Austria and Britain will continue to work within the EU to help all the countries of the Western Balkans to realise their potential as prospective member states. Indeed, the Western Balkans provides the key test of the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy.

But now I’d like to make the case for another country of immense potential and test slightly more controversial waters by moving to discussion of Turkey.

Clearly, Turkey is a hugely important partner for the European Union. It is a market full of opportunity for European business and a pivotal country in its reach and influence into the Middle East and the Islamic world.

I think it is hard to challenge any of those propositions. But clearly current EU member states find it harder to coalesce around a view that these facts add up to an argument for Turkey joining the European Union.

We in Britain will continue to argue that they do: that membership for Turkey would enhance Europe’s economy, strengthen Europe’s influence and offer Europe the opportunity to extend and entrench democracy, human rights and the rule of law through modernising and reforming Turkey’s political and economic structures in harmony with European institutions and European values.

Let me take these factors briefly in turn.

The economics are plain: Turkey is already Europe’s 6th and the world’s 16th largest economy. The OECD estimates that Turkey will be the third fastest growing country after just China and India by 2017. Turkish membership would play a major part in Europe’s long term prosperity. The European Union already has a Customs Union with Turkey and accession would resolve many of the current problems businesses are experiencing with that Agreement.

Second, Turkish membership would make the EU a weightier actor on the global stage, increasing its influence in international relations. Turkey’s regional influence is considerable, for instance in the Balkans it has far greater leverage than many individual EU countries, and its position at the intersection of three areas of strategic importance, the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus, would contribute significantly to the European Union’s growing security capabilities. Turkish membership could also make a real difference to tackling security and terrorism issues, helping to combat the radicalisation of Muslim communities within Europe and to reach out to the Islamic world.

Today in North Africa and in the Middle East we hear the demand of a new generation for political reform, for the right to have their say in shaping the destinies of the countries in which they live. At such a time I would far rather the Islamic world, and particularly the young people of the Arab and the wider Muslim world, looked to Prime Minister Erdogan as their model political leader rather than to a Mr Ahmedinejad, and a Turkish voice in EU decision-making would give us far greater credibility in our dealings with our North African and Middle Eastern neighbours.

And third, the path to European Union accession has prompted the most dramatic democratic reform process in Turkey in decades, with improvements in freedom of expression, human rights and rule of law. Turkey is on the move, its population is young, dynamic and forward-thinking - Turkey is now the world’s 4th largest Facebook network- we need to help it to continue in the right direction.

I do not believe that these benefits can be fully captured if we are not prepared to focus on Turkish accession as something that - in time - really can and should happen. The British government believes that the European Union must work hard to keep Turkey’s accession on track. Of course, like all prospective members, Turkey must meet the accession criteria and take the difficult decisions to implement the reforms necessary to join, for example, by making the changes needed to meet the tough benchmark requirements to open Chapter 8 on competition.

The most important obstacle on Turkey’s path to accession is of course the division of Cyprus. Divisions on the island are deeply entrenched. But it is important that we help the leaders of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots to show statesmanship and courage in the months ahead. The status quo in Cyprus is a profoundly unattractive option - everyone loses. In contrast, the rewards of a settlement would be enormous - political, economic and security benefits not only to all Cypriots, of both communities, but to Turkey itself, to the rest of the Europe, and to the entire eastern Mediterranean region. The UK is strongly committed to achieving a settlement and we will continue to support the UN and work closely with the parties involved.

I’ve focused so far on a range of countries with which an accession negotiation is either under way or is at least in prospect in the near to medium term. But the European vision should not stop there. We should commit ourselves I believe, with renewed energy, to a European perspective for the countries of the Eastern Partnership.

The EU should seize this opportunity to apply its transformational power over a still wider area, giving incentives for change, encouraging transparent and accountable practices in both business and government. There is a lot at stake: we’ve seen what has happened in Belarus over the last two months; and I have seen for myself that in Ukraine in the last ten years there has been progress, but it is progress that we cannot take for granted.

The Eastern Partnership can deliver these changes, and that is why the UK strongly supports it. But I believe that Europe needs to change its rhetoric: if the Eastern Partnership is to achieve its potential, it needs to generate enthusiasm for participation amongst its partners. Too many of them see it as an alternative to membership, and that is because we’re spending too much time telling each other that it is not an accession instrument. It isn’t; that’s true. But nor is it, or should it be, a dead end for our partners in the East of Europe. It can help them further along the path to an eventual membership application, if that is what they want. We need to be open and welcoming about this. Engage in our ambitious Eastern Partnership, embrace reform, commit yourselves to the acquis, and in due course you will be in a better position to apply for full membership and will be encouraged to do so. No-one should be under any illusion, this is not going to happen overnight, but we owe it to our partners and to ourselves to leave that door open. And when you talk to political leaders, most obviously at the moment in Moldova, you see that the appeal of the EU, the magnets that I referred to earlier, of EU membership, is what continues more than any other factor to drive forward support for both political and for economic reforms.

That is the British vision of a dynamic, outward-looking Europe. I hope it is clear to you that we see this as a profoundly positive agenda; not a negative one. It is focussed on a shared strategic objective: a continent of Europe reunited, prosperous and confident on the world stage. So let me finish by returning to those two false propositions. To those who argue that we should be taking a more modest approach to enlargement, I counter that a bold enlargement programme plays to Europe’s strengths. The entrenchment of stability and democracy, the Single Market, the free movement of workers, the collective approach towards developing a low carbon economy - these great successes of the European Union are founded upon the principle that together the countries of Europe are greater than the sum of our parts. I believe that principle still stands. Of course the workings of the European Union can be improved, and we are determined to be actively engaged in doing so, but halting the momentum of enlargement is absolutely not the solution to Europe’s internal problems.

And when pessimists and cynics suggest further enlargement would overburden the European Union, would grind it to a bureaucratic halt, I am reminded of a memorable line of the great Austrian writer and intellectual Robert Musil, who satirized the naysayers of artistic innovation with the words:

Man mochte sich gern uber den Fortschritt freuen, wenn er bloß ein Ende hatte.

Let us not be short-sighted in seeking to place limits on the potential of the European Union. We have seen since 2004 that enlargement has extended the Single Market by an additional 104 million consumers. This has created greater trade and investment opportunities within Europe and made us more competitive in the global market. We need to continue along this path if we are to build and maintain a stable, prosperous European space. Far from diluting or degrading the European Union, successful enlargement and neighbourhood policies are a testament to its enduring coherence and strength. In Britain it is our recognition of the great benefits of belonging to the European Union that motivates us to champion extending those benefits to all countries in our continent who meet the accession criteria.

Not many years from now we’ll be looking back on the role Vienna played 200 years ago in setting out a vision for a new Europe. Two centuries on, I look forward to Britain and Austria working together again to realise our shared outward-looking ambition for a modern and successful Europe.

Updates to this page

Published 15 February 2011