De-constructing the European Union's 'absorptive capacity' edit

Nov. 15, 2006

The tendency in some political discourse now is to say that, because the Constitution that was meant to prepare for enlargement failed to be ratified, this shows that the enlargement process has now hit a roadblock called 'absorptive capacity', with the European polity suffering from a malady called 'enlargement fatigue', and therefore it would be best to call a stop and define the EU's 'final frontiers'.

-->An alternative narrative is that the Constitution proposed some useful but marginal systemic changes. However its ratification was badly mismanaged by some political leaders, first by overselling it as a Jeffersonian Constitution to last for 50 years, secondly through compounding this with the choice to put it unnecessarily to referendum in France for reasons of domestic political tactics; hardly surprisingly the operation back-fired. Yet in the meantime the EU has not hit gridlock, and its current major political issues such as re-invigorating economic growth in the eurozone in the face of globalisation, immigration from the South and global terrorism have nothing to do with enlargement.

The case for a pause after the 2004 and 2007 enlargements is undeniable. EU27 has to settle down. The institutional imbroglio after the ratification failures of the Constitution has to be sorted out. It is also desirable that the new member states further catch-up economically before any further major enlargement. However the plausible time horizon for any next major enlargement is many years ahead, maybe 2015, with various transitional arrangements pushing the real date in important respects beyond 2020 (e.g. for the labour market). While political leaders have to take into account public opinion, there have been huge swings in views on the EU (up and down) over the last two decades, and it is hardly possible to try to forecast public opinion on the enlargement question for the years 2015 and beyond, which is the relevant time horizon.

The vague term 'absorptive capacity' is better de-constructed into more precise and objective components, with each to be discussed in relation to the hypothesis of a continuing enlargement process.

The capacity of the EU's internal market and eurozone to absorb new member states is positive. The tendency in some public debate to confuse the positive economic effects of enlargement with the much more problematic challenges of globalisation need to be corrected by effective communication.

The labour market has seen some bubbles of migratory flows to those EU states that opened their labour markets from the new member states without delay. However this is already translating into labour shortages in the countries of emigration, which will lead to positive self-correcting adjustments, including rising wage levels in the new member states. By the time the EU's labour market might become completely open to a major further enlargement (i.e. beyond 2020), the EU will be confronted with very serious demographic problems of labour shortages and social security deficits, for which some immigration could be helpful, with Turkey as the only plausible source among potential accession candidates (other potential candidate states in Europe have their own grave demographic deficits).

The EU's budget is allocating about 1/3% of GDP to redistributive policies in favour of the poorest regions (especially those with GDP per capita under 75% of the EU average). Since the new member states are growing fast and therefore catching up at an appreciable rate, there is no reason to be alarmed at the prospect of a gradual continuation of the enlargement process on account of the budget. Of the recently acceding countries, several are already graduating out of the poor category, as Greece, Portugal and Spain have done in the last twenty years.

The failure of the Constitution may have held back some useful institutional improvements, but in its absence the EU's decision-making processes have not run into a state of gridlock. Partial improvements under the Nice Protocol ease the problem of enlargement for the Commission and Parliament, and in the Council there are some signs of adaptation to the new situation with many more member states. Various improvements (e.g. for the Foreign Minister) now have widespread support, and efforts should be directed to finding astute solutions to a number of the outstanding institutional issues in due course, well before any major next enlargement.

Society's capacity for absorbing immigration is today under tension in a climate of fear of terrorism, Islamophobia and uncertainty over Europe's models of multi-culturalism. Particularly with regard to the new Turkish minorities, public opinion appears at present to overdo the Islamic identification, since these communities are largely secularised, and sources neither of Islamic radicalisation nor terrorism, while Turkey at home is a strong democracy. In due course, European public opinion should become better informed about these objective facts, while the pursuit of new positive models for European multi-culturalism has to go on.

The EU's capacity for assuring its strategic security is also at stake in any discussion of 'final frontiers'. For the Balkans reneging on the Thessaloniki commitments would mean renewed threats of inter-ethnic conflict. Deep integration of EU and Turkey's foreign and security policies with Turkey is of exceptional importance, given the evident hazards in Turkey's neighbourhood. For Ukraine denial of its European aspirations would undermine the prospects for democracy, already shown to be fragile with the failure of the Orange revolution, and encourage hegemonic tendencies in Russia.

Above all, these various component parts of absorption capacity are not static, and can change over the long time horizon that is relevant. Changes in public opinion may be expected to follow as new realities become evident. The dynamics of enhancing capacities for change deserve priority attention, rather than fixation on static notions of absorptive capacity.

Moreover in some key respects the EU's absorptive capacity for further enlargement is going to be what its leaders choose it to be, especially as regards institutional factors. For EU leaders to ask the Commission to report on future absorption capacity becomes a circular argument, since it is for EU leaders to decide notably on institutional changes to enhance this absorption capacity.

The 'final frontiers' proposition (presumably to the exclusion of both Turkey and Ukraine at the least) is a thoroughly bad idea, since there are well-established outer limits in any case to the map of Europe (e.g. Council of Europe membership). It would be a strategic blunder for the EU now to invent a new irreversible dividing line within this map between 'real Europe' and an imagined 'other' (uncivilised?) Europe beyond. Such a move would undermine years of patient attempts to build up a unique European doctrine, reputation and practical capacity for the projection of enlightened soft power. It would damage the fundamental long-term objectives of extending Europe's democratic space and of working out a new multicultural synthesis, with viable models of multiculturalism to be sought in society within and across European frontiers.

The term 'absorptive capacity' should not be used in official texts without better specification, and de-construction into objective elements. Otherwise it gives the impression of some pseudo-scientific and static reality, and plays into the hands of populist political rhetoric.