Commentary: Sarko Wrong on EU Enlargement

The French president says the Lisbon defeat threatens EU membership growth. A critic says the old Nice Treaty is just as good

At the end of the last European Union summit, Nicolas Sarkozy said something that surprised hardly anyone after the Irish rejected the Lisbon Treaty: "For the enlargement of the EU to continue, we need the Lisbon Treaty." In other words, no treaty, no enlargement. How blunt.

And how wrong.

Let's clear the table and focus on the facts. Technically, legally, administratively, the old Nice Treaty can handle enlargement about as well as its Lisbon successor. It provides for entry of future members and the core issues—such as distribution of votes in the Council of Ministers for newcomers, the number of MEPs for each country, and so on—can be dealt with in the accession treaties. Should the Croats join the EU when Lisbon is still in limbo, their arrangements with the club would be written into their accession treaty that every member state has to approve. Even the masters of Brussels are admitting this truth although humbly, quietly, and off-the-record.

Why? Because it's politics, stupid, to parse a famous line. What Sarkozy has said about the Lisbon deal the Western Balkans, has nothing to do with the capacity of the EU to enlarge. What the French president probably meant is that without Lisbon, there is no political will to enlarge. And that is quite a different story from the legal and institutional means to expand.

If you put aside the strategic flavor of it, political will to accept new states means readiness of old members to reduce their relative power in the EU architecture. France, Germany and the other old-timers will have less relative influence if Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and others join. And no matter whether expansion occurs under the Nice Treaty or the Lisbon umbrella, logic tells us that the bigger numbers means more compromise and less power in the hands of a few influential states.

The Nice Treaty is very friendly to smaller states while very unfriendly to the biggest. Lisbon sought to adjust this imbalance. So Sarkozy's line might be glossed as, "I will not accept any more countries of 5 million or so to grasp five times more power than is appropriate, and more than a France of 60 million has."

It's quite understandable that Sarkozy, Germany's Angela Merkel and some of the other big states want Lisbon because it would protect some of their powers, especially given the growing queue of small nations now jostling for membership.


But funnily enough the Lisbon deal won't provide that tranquillizer quickly—if ever. Lisbon, a hard-fought compromise forged last year after the monumental failure of the European Constitution, allows a new voting scheme in its pure form only from 2017. By that time the Croats should already be in the union.

So is Sarkozy, whose country takes over the rotating EU presidency next month, blocking enlargement because of the "shake-up" the voting rights of Croatia (population 4.5 million) will have on the rest of the EU (population 500 million) and in particular France?

While defeat of the Lisbon Treaty doesn't have to stop enlargement, the document did try to sort out one lingering controversial issue: the size of the European Commission. Under the Nice Treaty, its members must be reduced to a number lower than the current 27 by late 2009. Lisbon sought to fix the size of the slimmed-down commission at 18, starting in 2014. But this issue as well, and each country's allotment of MEPs, can still be remedied separately without a new treaty—if there is enough political will.

Before the news of the Irish rejection of Lisbon, we had heard all this stuff about putting brakes on enlargement before. Every time something goes wrong in the EU, the first victim is enlargement. The Nice Treaty goes wrong? No further enlargement. The European Constitution fails? No more states can be admitted. Over and over again. Why? Because enlargement's an easy political target. It plays well at home, where surveys increasingly show Europeans are concerned about overextending the union. And it does little harm in a place like Croatia, where a Eurobarometer survey released this month shows only 32 percent of people have a positive image of the EU and only 30 percent see EU membership as a good thing.

Yet recycling the old arguments against enlargement, as the French president is doing, is very shortsighted. Enlargement is the single most successful project of Europe. Thanks to the open-door policy, the EU has grown in numbers and has been transformed from a toy for a select few to the biggest single market in the world. It is a major donor, increasingly respected as a player on the international level. The EU smoothes reconciliation on the continent, and offers hope for smaller, less prosperous and less lucky European countries.

Questioning enlargement means questioning the union per se. It means undermining its own strengths, exposing its weaknesses, and challenging its credibility.

Some 40 European intellectuals, activists and commentators including Timothy Garton Ash, George Soros, Stephen Wall and Bronislaw Geremek have written an open letter to the European media in which they call for enlargement not to be a hostage of the current treaty impasse. They are right.

But maybe they should have delivered their message more directly, by organizing a strike at the Elysée Palace. Strikes usually pay off in France.