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What is EU Membership all About?

19. December 2013, von Almut Möller, Comments (0)

This is my last entry in the Eurozone 2013 blog. I want to conclude with some general remarks tackling what sounds like a rather innocent question and is the subject of a paper I am working on: What is EU membership all about? The question was put to me for a talk at a summer school in Britain earlier this year. Needless to say, the British are particularly concerned with what I call the changing notion of EU membership. Is it essentially about the single market, Eurozone membership, or about a community of rules and values? All of them really, one might respond, but things are not that simple anymore.

Ever since the governments of the Eurozone started to repair the dysfunctional economic and monetary union the notion of membership has been blurred. This development is nothing new – we have seen that the essence of EU (formerly EC) membership shifted along with successive treaty reforms, most markedly with the Treaty of Maastricht that significantly widened the scope of joint policies. With the need to further integrate EMU in the course of the crisis we are currently seeing yet another shift of membership – one that might turn out divisive.

What kind of union are we talking about? This question challenges not only the political identity of euro and non-euro members of the EU-28 such as the UK and Poland. It also poses questions for countries eligible to or on their way to membership such as Serbia and the other non-EU Balkan states or Turkey for that matter. While the pre-crisis European Union was by no means the monolithic bloc as which it was often portrayed the notion of membership got even less clear cut in the course of the crisis.

Why does this matter? Has the union not been dealing with different layers (a colleague once branded it the “European Onion”) for quite some time, the euro and Schengen being the most prominent examples? From an outside point of view, the demarcation between Europe as a continent, the European Union of 28 members and the eurozone of 17 – 18 with Latvia joining in 2014 – is not that clear anyway and not so important. For EU Member States, however, the degree to which they participate in the union’s policies clearly matters. It determines the rules that countries have to adopt, their rights and obligations, their access to policies, institutions, decision-making and resources. It matters to the daily reality of citizens in the EU’s Member States – think, for example, of borderless travel granted only to Schengen members. And, one aspect that gained particular relevance in the course of the crisis: the degree of participation in the EU’s policies, in particular EMU, influences the overall clout of Member states in the Union. The power question is back.

Arguably the direction of the Union is defined by the members of the eurozone nowadays. True, most non-Euro members signed up to the new legal arrangements that were adopted since the beginning of the crisis, and countries within the eurozone tried to keep the ‘outs’ close to their bosom. A fragmented Union is risky for all Member States, and realising this has so far been the glue for cohesiveness. But will it hold as the eurozone continues to move ahead next year?

The notion of membership has also been challenged when it comes to the Union’s values. What role do Member States still attribute to the values of their founding treaties? How could Member States invite Greece to join the Eurozone with such obvious deficiencies in its state functions and its market economy? A question that not only the union’s newest member Croatia might ask after having been through a detailed and demanding fitness regime in preparation for accession. Then, how on earth was it possible that the most important countries of the eurozone, Germany and France, both on several occasions violated the Stability and Growth Pact ten years ago without being sanctioned by the European Commission – arguably the early kiss of death for the euro in its current shape? What makes the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán so confident in pushing his luck with fellow EU countries, turning his back on fundamental rights and freedoms at home?

While the EU has developed a sophisticated set of instruments to encourage good behaviour and to punish when its rules and values are disrespected in its enlargement policy, it struggles to pull similar carrots and sticks with fellow EU members. Overall, the respect of rules and values has been watered down – consequently, member states take a certain freedom in interpreting them these days. This is a most damaging side effect of the crisis that member states will have to deal with in years to come.

The upcoming elections to the European parliament will demonstrate how vulnerable the Union has become with regard to its values. Parties and movements that claim they want a different Union but that in reality don’t want the Union to work will manage to capitalize from this worrying development.

There are two lessons from 2013 that policymakers should bear in mind in 2014: EU membership must not be divisive, and it must bring values to the fore again.

Europe For Citizens

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Blog Authors

Adriaan SchoutAdriaan Schout

Dr Adriaan Schout is Deputy Director Research/Europe at Clingendael, Netherlands Institute of International relations. (read more...)

Alexandre AbreuAlexandre Abreu

Dr Alexandre Abreu is a 33-year-old Portuguese economist with a PhD from the University of London. Currently he is a lecturer in Development Economics at the Institute of Economics and Business Administration, Technical University of Lisbon, and a Researcher at the Centre for African and Development Studies of the same University.

Almut MöllerAlmut Möller

Almut Möller is a political analyst in European integration and European foreign policy. She is currently the head of the Alfred von Oppenheim Centre for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin. (read more...)

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