Nothing remains static for long; you either change and move forward or you slip backwards. This simple truth has governed the thinking of those who shaped the European project since its earliest beginnings. From the first day in 1951 when the European Coal and Steel Community was established, change and progress have never stopped, bringing us today to a European Union of 25-plus, with a unified Single Market and a common currency for those in the euro.

Yet of late we can also observe signs of stagnation – or perhaps a fear of the future, to be more precise – among large segments of the population in countries that were among the EU’s founding states. This was the attitude that led to the ‘No’ votes in the referendums in France and Holland, when popular resistance to further enlargement and to badly needed EU reforms became so glaringly obvious. In other words, European reaction to the many revolutionary changes taking place around the world under the blanket term ‘globalisation’ has been mind-boggling, reminiscent of that famous cry “stop the world, I want to get off”.

Such fears may be understandable, but the dangers for Europe of standing still are greater than ever; the need to keep up the pace of change has never been so great. There is a clear need for Europe to meet two distinct challenges. First, to continue the EU enlargement process. Second, to adapt to globalisation by implementing all necessary reforms.

The founding fathers’ Treaty of Rome clearly stated that any European state may apply to become a member of the community, and that holds good today. But there is also no doubt that Europe is suffering from enlargement fatigue. The Copenhagen criteria clearly state that enlargement is dependent not only on the ability of the accession countries to meet the very strict requirements of the Union, but also on the ability of current members to digest further expansion.

The “big bang” enlargement from 15 to 25 members, and shortly to 27, has created not just fatigue but also fear. A significant proportion of Europeans, particularly the unemployed and those in the lower income groups, are afraid of further expansion. The spectre of the “Polish plumber” is a clear indication of the prevailing mood. Meanwhile, Europe’s political elite, backed possibly by a silent majority of the EU population, realises that it is practically impossible to call a halt to further enlargement. They are fully aware that refusing candidate and would-be candidate countries their right to try and join would create much greater problems for Europe. Fortunately, these further enlargements are not for tomorrow, as it will easily take between 10 and 20 years before the next big batch of countries that are ready to join – long enough for there to be a major change of mood.

Currently, we need to deal with only two tricky enlargement issues: the western Balkans and Turkey.

The countries of the western Balkans are part of Europe, whatever the definition used. No one can possibly claim that Greece, Bulgaria and Romania are European but that Albania, Croatia and so on are not. The issue therefore is not whether they are European but whether they are ready, willing and able to meet the Copenhagen criteria.

Right now, none of the Balkan countries meets the criteria. Even the most advanced, Croatia, needs several years before it can join the club. The others require substantial help and many years of hard work. But if we want to see this volatile part of the world stabilised, future ethnic explosions averted, democracy established and free market rules prevailing, we need to help them all. We have to offer them the perspective of joining the Union at some stage, and we have to help them achieve this objective. Whether it takes ten or twenty years is of no importance; what is important is for them to know that if and when they succeed in implementing the acquis they will be allowed to join. It is the promise of a better and safer future at the end of the road that will help them overcome their ethnic disputes.

The perspective that opened last autumn with the start of Turkish accession negotiations of Turkey joining in 10 to 20 years has frightened a lot of people. A significant proportion of voters in several EU countries cannot envisage Turkey becoming a full member, especially those attached to the idea that the EU is a Christian club. Others think that Turkey is too big to fit into the EU, or remember tales from school of Europe’s battles against the Ottoman empire. If referendums were held today, a majority in many European countries would probably vote against Turkey’s accession.

But the aim of both EU and Turkish leaders is to ensure its Europeanisation. They want to see the Turkey of tomorrow joining the Union, a country that will fully meet the Copenhagen criteria and provide much-needed support for Europe’s relations with the Muslim world and its fight against terrorism. The Turkish issue should therefore be addressed in the following way: Negotiations with Turkey should start, but at the same time both Turkey’s government and the public opinion should be aware of the challenges they are facing. No assurances of any kind can be given by the EU and it would be counter-productive to insist on them. It is nevertheless vital to start on the road to full harmonisation, which under any circumstances will be beneficial to Turkey. Europe should sincerely help and contribute towards this effort, and should address the issue of accession closer to the end of the process. Turkey’s image in Europe will certainly have changed for the better 15 or 20 years from today, especially if during this time sincere efforts are made to promote the country’s Europeanization, solve the Cyprus problem, improve relations with Greece and ensure respect for minorities. With this perspective in mind, I believe it is to everybody’s advantage to contribute so that Turkey ultimately joins the Union.

The world economy has in recent years changed dramatically, and at an extremely fast pace. Technological and scientific revolutions have led to the introduction of a wide range of new products and production techniques, while the world’s markets have more than doubled in less than 10 years. First, the ex-communist economies of Europe introduced market rules and joined the free market world, and now China and India are also joining. Billions of dollars are being invested every day and we are witnessing a huge shift of production from the West towards the Asian economies.

This very rapid transformation has caused problems in the EU and in the US. It has led to increasing unemployment, particularly among less skilled people in labour intensive sectors, and at the same time negative demographic trends and declining investment and research spending have been contributing to the serious difficulties of most Western economies.

The effect of these new realities is that many workers and farmers, together with the politicians who represent them, are making desperate efforts to protect the status quo. They cling to the illusion that this is possible, and they try to blame the EU for any difficulties they continue to encounter. It has become useless to point out that nobody can stop the forces of globalisation.

I myself am convinced that the end-result of the globalisation process can only be beneficial to everybody, in developed and developing countries alike. But we will succeed only if we cease resisting and try instead to adapt to the new realities of globalisation. We should never forget that the industrial successes of Britain, the United States, Japan, Germany and France were all due to innovation and their adoption of new technologies 100 years ago or more. Most of these technologies are now available worldwide. Millions of people in the developing world are anxious to work hard and produce goods of equal quality but at lower cost than in the West, so we need to adopt a more positive attitude and try to take advantage of the new realities by transforming our economies, promoting education and spending significantly more on research. This may be easier to say than to do, but it is the only choice available.

Commentary

An end to banal policy-speak: Let’s get down to specifics

George Vassiliou warns that globalisation and the EU’s enlargement process together constitute the most serious challenges the Union is facing. He also argues that EU attitudes towards both challenges are somewhat lukewarm. Vassiliou claims that the EU is suffering from “enlargement fatigue”, and regarding globalisation he finds that a large part of both the EU’s political elite and the general population are more concerned to protect the status quo rather than support necessary reforms.

Enlargement and globalisation are the most important issues the EU has to deal with, but its determination to tackle both issues is significantly greater than George Vassiliou suggests. It is uncertainty about the consequences of the available political options that represents the greatest obstacle to action.

On enlargement, the EU’s willingness to act is particularly strong, so it is hard to describe the EU’s attitude towards the process as fatigue. The enlargement to the western Balkans and Turkey is likely to be a rather slow process, based on tough admission criteria, but the way the EU is approaching it makes it clear that it remains determined to push the process forward. Only a year had elapsed after its extensive eastern enlargement when the EU decided to open another enlargement round. The need to digest its eastern enlargement was advanced as a justification for delaying further enlargement. The whole process is clearly still a top priority.

Yet the implications of the next enlargement are very difficult to assess, especially with regard to Turkey. Ultimate national positions on the coming accession candidacies will only emerge very slowly and in many cases will probably remain unclear or undecided.

Is the EU’s attitude to globalisation truly characterised by a concern to preserve the status quo?. Globalisation has been identified in the EU’s political discourse as one of the most significant challenges to European integration, and a great deal of the current EU’s policy thinking, such as the Lisbon strategy, is in response to globalisation. But, once again, globalisation policies tend to be marked by considerable uncertainty about the political consequences involved. Changes are undoubtedly taking place in the global economic system, but their precise nature and implications are not yet apparent.

All these uncertainties can be made less daunting by serious reflection on the nature and implications of the two processes. A more intensive EU-level debate on both issues could also help EU actors to evaluate and refine possible solutions. The leaders of EU member states should go beyond their often banal declarations on the challenges of enlargement and globalisation by presenting specific solutions.