This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The accession of new Member States helps to promote security, stability and prosperity across Europe, based on a firm foundation of democracy, human and civil rights and respect for the law.
I am grateful for the invitation to address you this morning provided by the Albanian Institute for International Studies. I hope in this speech to set out the British approach to the enlargement of the European Union, obviously with particular reference to Albania, together with some background on the British government’s approach to the European Union more widely.
Enlargement is one of the EU’s greatest achievements. We also believe that it is firmly in the British national interest. The accession of new Member States helps to promote security, stability and prosperity across Europe, based on a firm foundation of democracy, human and civil rights and respect for the law. The European Union, alongside NATO, has proved itself to be an instrument of peace and reconciliation that has helped spread and entrench democracy and the rule of law across our continent. It has helped make armed conflict between EU members unthinkable.
At the same time, an enlarged Single Market, another of the key success stories of the EU, has opened up prosperity and opportunity to hundreds of millions of people. An outward looking approach and a continuing commitment to enlargement should be seen by all EU Member States as signs of strength and vigour. Membership of the EU is and should remain open for any European country that wants to join and can meet the rigorous accession criteria. Croatia’s accession in July 2013 will further demonstrate the EU’s continued relevance and the transformational power of enlargement, despite the ongoing economic crisis.
The EU Treaties are clear that any European state which respects the values of the Union and is committed to promoting them can apply for membership. The EU has made clear that all Western Balkans countries can join when they meet the criteria, a commitment that the British Government strongly supports, together with membership for Iceland and Turkey. Each country should make progress on the basis of its own merits. It is important too that we continue with the mission of enlargement by remaining open to all those European countries who share our values and interests. Moldova, Belarus and Ukraine are European nations whose future lies with Europe. The same is true of the three Caucasian republics, if that is the path they wish to take. The EU must ensure that it has a compelling offer: it is up to us to promote democracy and encourage them to embrace freedom fully.
The benefits of enlargement for the European Union can be described as a combination of three main factors: political, given the power of the accession process to drive reform; economic, as the benefits of political reform help create a larger and more prosperous single market, the collective economic influence of which can help shape a rapidly changing world economic order; and security, not only in terms of soft security, as better functioning states reduce the space for organised crime and corruption but also as regards hard security, and the potential costs we save as stability spreads to previously unstable parts of our continent.
First, political reform. If we compare the history of Europe in the twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall with the twenty years following the treaty of Versailles, there is a clear contrast. In earlier period, fragile new democracies collapsed under the strain of domestic political tension, dictatorship and invasion, but in the twenty years just passed, we have seen democracy, the rule of law and human rights taking root in ever more countries on our continent. In this difference we can see the advantage that European Union enlargement has brought.
The perspective of EU membership, combined with the application of political conditionality in the accession process, has been the catalyst for the substantial changes in rule of law and related governance issues vital to the successful functioning of the EU that took place in the twelve countries of the fifth and sixth enlargement rounds. While that process is not yet complete in all countries, the accession process has proved itself to be the best incentive for a country to undertake wide-ranging reform. For example, the Croatia about to accede to the EU is very different from the one that applied more than ten years ago. The incentive of EU membership provided the impetus to push through the far-reaching reforms that have delivered the stable institutions of an EU state.
Second, the economic benefits of enlargement are significant. Structural economic reforms to meet EU standards result in greater prosperity which benefits both the candidate country and existing EU members, as well as being essential to the establishment of a functioning market economy and to allowing the country to cope with the challenges of the Single Market. The accession process, even before countries join the EU, requires reforms that improve the business environment, making investment easier and more profitable.
Between 2004 and 2007, EU enlargement extended the European Single Market by an additional 104 million consumers, and it now represents a market of over 500 million people. By some estimates EU countries currently trade twice as much with each other as they would in the absence of the Single Market. British trade with Central and Eastern European countries continues to grow. Certainly, British exports to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have almost trebled over the last ten years, reaching around £14 billion in 2011 (compared to £5 billion of exports in 2001). Increased trade with Europe since the 1980s has added as much as £3,300 a year to the net income of the average British household.
Third, enlargement allows the establishment of security and stability across Europe. The 2004 enlargement represented a strategic investment against the risk of returning to a divided Europe. The conflicts of the 1990s in the Western Balkans demonstrated the very high human and financial cost to the EU of a region of instability on our doorstep. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the European Union Force has acted as a successful deterrent against a return to violence since it took over from the NATO Stabilisation Force in 2004.
Enlargement is also an effective tool for tackling soft security issues over the long term. Better functioning states will reduce the space for organised crime. Cross-border crime, terrorism, illegal immigration, energy security and environmental issues are all dealt with at EU as well as national level, and the enlargement agenda allows us to tackle such transnational issues more effectively
The balance between these three factors (political transformation, prosperity and security) varies between candidate countries. It is therefore important that the enlargement process remains flexible enough to deal with the differences in balance and focus between the enlargement countries. Some Member States are now reluctant to support further enlargement and argue that there is a limit to the capacity of the EU to absorb new members. The British Government disagrees strongly with this attitude, believing that the risks to our collective security and prosperity will be greater if we slam the door on European countries that are prepared to commit themselves to the accession process. Rigorous conditions and a tough-minded approach to conditionality will remain essential both to prepare new member states for the obligations that membership entails and to reassure existing members that the essential elements of EU membership are not compromised.
Of course, further enlargement will change the EU, just as every previous round of enlargement has done. The already diverse EU will become even more so: by the time all the Western Balkan nations join there will be more than thirty countries in it, whose peoples do and will want different things from the EU. We should recognise and embrace that diversity.
The enlargement process continues to evolve as lessons are learned from each accession round. In the early stages of Central and Eastern Europe’s accession process the political desirability of enlargement was prioritised by many over the need for technical readiness. In more recent years, there has been an increasing emphasis from both Member States and the Commission on strict conditionality and the need to meet technical benchmarks. In order to maintain the EU’s capacity to integrate new members, the process needs to be robust and credible, with tough conditionality from start to finish.
Croatia has therefore faced the most demanding negotiations yet. Strengthening the rule of law and democratic governance is central to the enlargement process. Following the sixth enlargement to Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, the accession process was improved to provide greater focus on the development of a strong track record on the rule of law, with strengthening of conditionality for key political criteria such as rule of law, anti-corruption, judicial and administrative reform.
Regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations also remain central to the enlargement process. Bilateral disputes cannot be allowed to undermine these key principles or to interfere with the enlargement process, either by holding up accession or being made part of the accession process. At a time when the EU faces major challenges, continued focus on enlargement remains an essential investment in the security and prosperity of Europe.
So that is why we think that enlargement is good for the European Union. So why is it good for Albania? Albania since 1991 has experienced a process of political, institutional, legal, social and economic reform and transformation that is still not complete, with the objective of bringing the country into the European mainstream. There is in theory no reason why such a reform process cannot be achieved without any external influence at all. But in practice the goal of accession to the European Union provides an incentive to taking forward the process rapidly and efficiently. It provides a focus around which public support for transformation can be built. It also provides access to the institutional and financial resources of the European Commission and of the Member States in support of the process. So the goal of EU accession is not just an emotional symbol of the country’s reintegration into the European family. It is also a practical mechanism for improving the lives of the Albanian people.
But the process of accession is long, complicated and, because the European Union is very much a legal construct, full of legal jargon. So it is easy for the political class, the media and the public to lose their focus on the objectives of the process and what it really means for the country. Unfortunately, certain of the institutions of the European Union provide numerous niches for pompous and patronising bores, many of whom have visited Albania or given interviews to the media to share their tedious rhetoric with us. My personal least favourite images are those of Albanian “homework” or “examinations”. This partly because I think it an inappropriate attitude to take to a democracy and NATO ally. Also it is partly because I remember that when I did homework at school, I always left it to the last minute, did as little as possible, and forgot it once I had handed it in. I would not want the Albanian parliament to take that approach to EU requirements, although to be honest sometimes I think they do.
This has led us to the much-discussed issue of the “three laws”, that is to say the laws on the High Court and Civil Service and the proposed reform of parliamentary procedure. These have sometimes been portrayed as in some way central to Albania’s continued accession process. Clearly in terms of their substance they are not. While the structures of the High Court and Civil Service are in need of improvement, they are already functioning with a reasonable level of efficiency. Parliament seems to have no difficulty in conducting debates comparable to those of EU Member States, even if there is room for improvement. Instead, the three laws are a litmus test of the ability of the Albanian
political class to put aside party political debates in the wider interest of the country’s accession process, by voting through laws which they promised the European Commission they would deal with. So far this has not been possible. I understand the reasoning of those who have found themselves unable to vote for this legislation. But I hope that circumstances will arise in the near future in which this legislation can be passed and the process restarted.
One of the laws that was passed last year was the Electoral Code. We are now seeing the implementation of this law tested in practice. It is vital that all involved in this process, whether the technical experts or the political parties, do everything they can to see that this process is fully free and fair, and also perceived by all involved as free and fair. An election held under the best of circumstances this June will give a new and positive impetus to Albania’s EU accession process. Conversely, an election that is perceived by Member States as dubious will set back the process by years.
I would like to make two suggestions in respect of the election process. In any democracy, there are loopholes or ambiguities in the system. Inevitably the political parties exploit them to the absolute limit in the hope of political advantage. This always leads to party political acrimony. It often looks bad to the public, and may be unethical in principle. But provided it stays within the law, it cannot be said to invalidate the democratic validity of the election.
On the other hand, there is actual election fraud. An individual who deliberately acts fraudulently in an election is a criminal. An individual who sets out to organise the subversion of the democratic will of the people through election fraud is a traitor to his country. It is as simple as that. But it is important to keep these two phenomena separate in any discussion of the elections. Allegations of fraud, or insinuations that certain measures invalidate an election, are easy to make but difficult to prove or disprove. Even in the heat of party political debate in a closely fought election, it is important not to tarnish the election process itself in the eyes of the electorate or the international community. By all means, fraud should be denounced if it is detected, but allegations of fraud should not be a routine part of election rhetoric.
The second suggestion is the importance of participation. All actors, whether the political parties, civil society or Albania’s international friends, should encourage the widest possible participation in the elections as an indicator of the democratic enthusiasm of the Albanian people. Sometimes voters are led to believe that all party candidates are of no value, or that the system does not fairly reflect their vote, or that voting cannot change their lives in a concrete way. This is wrong. There will be a wide choice of candidates in the June elections, from parties with experience of holding office, from new parties, from small parties with very specific programmes and objectives. Even if a voter thinks they are all bad, there must be one that is slightly less bad than the others. Even if the system itself has its imperfections and anomalies, a strong turnout will overcome them. And in any democracy elections do affect our lives and those of our families. The man who stays at home during an election out of a mistaken disillusionment with the system has the same effect on his country’s future as the man who is too drunk to find his way to the polling station ie zero. One difference between Britain and Albania is that in my country my ancestors fought for the right to vote. But in Albania, there are still people walking about the streets who risked their lives for the right to vote. So it is important that everybody makes use of that right, that we all encourage them to do so and that we all do what we can through election preparations to make it possible for them to do so.
Of course talking about EU enlargement and Britain’s support for it can seem strange in the light of media reporting of attitudes in Britain towards the EU and my government’s policies towards it. Some people tell me that it seems that Albania is banging on the front door of the European house while the United Kingdom is trying to climb out of the back window. So let me briefly clarify what our position is. In his 23 January speech, David Cameron, our Prime Minister, set out a vision for a more competitive, adaptable and flexible European Union.
He is concerned by the challenges of the Eurozone crisis and the changes it is driving in Europe, European competitiveness in the face of a transformed global economy, and the gap between the institutions of the European Union and the peoples of Europe.
He wants to see an open debate among European partners on what changes would improve the EU, support business and support jobs. And he has also made clear that he thinks it is time for the British people to have their say on the UK’s membership of the European Union, through a referendum process. He proposes five principles for reform to overcome these challenges: Competitiveness: a serious effort to deepen the Single Market, cut red tape, open up trade and reform the EU’s institutions; Flexibility: embracing the diversity of the EU, rather than insisting on one size fits all. He has offered some initial ideas on what that means. Power must be able to flow back to Member States: we should examine what the EU should do and should stop doing; Democratic accountability: there has to be a bigger role for national parliaments and Fairness: the changes brought by the Eurozone crisis must not undermine the integrity of the Single Market.
The British Government is committed to help shape the future of an open, flexible and adaptable European Union, to achieve not just a better deal for Britain, but a better deal for Europe too. We remain fully committed to the enlargement process. We think this is in the interests of our own country. It is in the interests of our Albanian friends and allies. And it is in the interests of Europe as a whole.
Thank you for your attention.