No shortcuts to Europe

Here is a small letter I recently sent to NIN, regarding a comment in December, but I am not sure it will be published. It comments an idea Boris Begovic launched namely that Serbia should no join the EU, but instead join the European Economic Area. The original article is behind the NIN paywall, but this idea is also discussed in B92, Vecernjie Novosti and elsewhere.

Cartoon from Novosti, 29.12.2012

In his comment “U Evropu bez unije” on 13 December 2012 Boris Begović makes a tempting suggestion: Serbia should abandon the difficult accession process to the EU with its supposedly changing criteria for membership and instead join the European Economic Area (EEA), Europe’s large zone of economic integration that includes all EU members, Norway, Island, and Liechtenstein.

His idea might sound tempting, but is nothing but an illusion.

It is true that the EEA creates freedom of movement, free trade, free movement of capital and services among its members and thus offer a key component of EU integration to non-members. The idea that Serbia could join this agreement without EU membership is, however, rather absurd.

Countries cannot join the European Economic Area directly. The economic area was established in 1994 between the EU and the European Free Trade Agreement (EFTA) and most their members. There is no possibility foreseen for a country to join that is not either a member of the EU or EFTA. So let’s consider the only option Serbia would have to enter the EEA without joining the EU.

First, it would have to join EFTA. EFTA has only four members, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Of the four members, only three are part of the EEA, Switzerland rejected membership in 1992 in a referendum. Serbia would be an odd partner for some of the richest countries in Europe. Furthermore, no country has joined EFTA since 1991 when Liechtenstein joined. The previous accession was that of Iceland in 1970, all others were founding members in 1960s. Countries left EFTA rather than joined it in recent decades to become EU members (UK, Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Portugal were original members). Thus, EFTA is composed of a rather odd and small number of countries. Since no country has joined for such a long period there is no clear accession process, but membership would require agreement among all four member states. At the moment, there is little reason why Switzerland, Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein would be interested in free trade with Serbia. Now for the second obstacle: A country joining EFTA is not automatically member of the EEA.  The EEA agreement states clearly in Art. 128 that “… any European State becoming a member of EFTA may, apply to become a party to this Agreement. .. The terms and conditions for such participation shall be the subject of an agreement between the Contracting Parties and the applicant state. That agreement shall be submitted for ratification or approval by all Contracting Parties in accordance with their own procedures. “

What this means is that a member of EFTA can apply to join the EEA, but there has to be an agreement between that country and the European Union and all its members and needs to be ratified by all of them.

If Serbia abandons EU accession and then would join EFTA in the unlikely case that Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Iceland find Serbia an attractive partner, the EU and its members would have to agree to join the EEA. It does not take a lot of imagination to see that the EU and its members are not going to eager to see Serbia access key EU benefits (such as freedom of movement of workers) by skipping the accession process and the conditions. The only scenario under which it would be imaginable for the EU to accept Serbia as a member would be if it had abandoned offering a membership perspective for the Western Balkans and saw this as a viable alternative. Still, Serbia would not be accepted without fulfilling numerous conditions, in particular in terms of adhering to the acquis communitaire, the EU legislation, that is relevant for the free movement of goods, people, services and capital before the EU and its members would be willing to accept Serbia. In brief, if Serbia decides not to opt for full EU membership and go for the EEA, it will still end up negotiating with the EU.

I am not going to comment in any detail the suggestion that an independent Kosovo is a problem of the EU, as if it had nothing to do with Serbia or the argument that the conditions of EU membership keep changing, or the suggestion that the financial contributions of the EU are “very, very small”. Croatia for example has 687.5 Million Euros set aside for the second half of 2013 alone, which is around 1.45% of the GDP of Croatia or some 4.2% of the Croatian state budget planned for 2013, hardly negligible amounts.

It is true that enthusiasm for enlargement among its member state is decreasing and that individuals members might make sometimes unreasonable demands. However, this is largely linked to the current economic crisis inside the EU. By the time Serbia is close to joining, it is realistic to expect that crisis to have passed and member state taking a more positive view towards enlargement. If Serbia pursues EU membership, it will be have an easier time to join then. Of course, Serbia can decide not to join, but it is a dangerous illusion to believe that the EEA is a viable alternative or easy way to get some of the benefits of free trade and movement without joining the EU.

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3 Responses to No shortcuts to Europe

  1. Ah it is refreshing to see such a clear substantiated piece. My country is full of people happy to offer their opinions on questions they haven’t researched enough at best and know almost nothing about at worst.

  2. Pingback: SERBIA: Non ci sono scorciatoie verso l’Europa

  3. Pingback: Europe without the Union « Florian Bieber

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