The EU's Capacity for Further Enlargement

September 13, 2010 - nr.71


The European Commission has defined the term ‘absorption capacity’ in very general terms as ‘whether the EU can take in new members at a given moment or in a given period, without jeopardizing the political and policy objectives established by the Treaties’.

The AIV prefers the term introduced by the European Commission – ‘integration capacity’ – because it better expresses the link with the political objectives of European cooperation and the positive and dynamic nature of the European project.

In the AIV’s opinion the current official term, ‘absorption capacity’, is problematic for four reasons.

Firstly, the term is not precise. It may therefore give rise to subjective interpretations depending on the political needs of the day.

Secondly, it is a dynamic term. The EU’s capacity to take in new members changes over time. It can also be fundamentally influenced by the policy pursued and by financial and economic circumstances. Previous enlargements accelerated the integration process in a number of ways. Many of the benefits of EU membership increased as more countries joined the Union.

Thirdly, absorption capacity is not an abstract given but a product of each acceding country’s size and specific circumstances. The countries that could currently be considered for EU membership can be divided into several groups: a number of highly developed West European countries (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland), the countries of the Western Balkans, and Turkey. There are considerable differences between these countries’ prosperity, population size, political stability and institutional development. Relations between some of them are also often difficult. The enlargement strategy must therefore be well thought out.

Fourthly, absorption capacity is determined by a variety of factors. The AIV has identified the following five dimensions:

  1. the institutional and administrative dimension: the EU’s capacity to act;
  2. the economic dimension: the general development of prosperity;
  3. the budgetary dimension: the consequences for the EU budget;
  4. public acceptance: identification with and support from the EU’s citizens;
  5. the geopolitical dimension: the impact on stability in the direct vicinity of the EU and on the EU’s standing in world politics.

These five factors can point in different directions depending on each individual case of enlargement.

For all these reasons the AIV concludes that the term ‘absorption capacity’ is intrinsically highly politically charged and careless use of it could easily give rise to a spurious argument in the enlargement debate. It can nonetheless be a useful instrument to prevent enlargement based on shaky grounds.

In the AIV’s opinion, the enlargement process has on the whole been successful. By offering the prospect of membership, the Union has helped stabilise a large number of countries with major political, economic, social and moral problems. The process has contributed to the continent’s security and facilitated national development processes. It has also created new export opportunities for the old member states. The enlargement process has therefore had very important results and the EU would have missed a historic opportunity if it had neglected its responsibilities. It cannot be denied, though, that mistakes were made in the enlargement process. It will be some years before a final opinion can be given on this historically unprecedented undertaking. That opinion will be based in part on how and how quickly the Union overcomes the current financial and economic crisis and whether it can develop sufficient coherence to play a significant political and economic role on the international stage. The AIV thinks the latter’s importance is still often underestimated.

Provided the EU itself is capable of handling the accession of new member states, and the accession conditions, as formulated in the Copenhagen criteria and subsequently tightened up, are strictly applied, the AIV is in principle in favour of further EU enlargement. The reasons given above for the favourable opinion on recent enlargements also apply to further enlargement. In so far as absorption capacity can be increased through policy, policy should focus on it.

Where the term ‘absorption capacity’ is used to highlight the potential cost of enlargement, the AIV would note that not enlarging also has its cost. As well as considering its absorption capacity, the EU must ask itself whether it can deal with the consequences of not integrating.

Of the five dimensions, the institutional/administrative, economic and budgetary dimensions are largely objectifiable and quantifiable; the public acceptance and geopolitical dimensions, however, are determined chiefly by subjective perceptions.

The AIV believes an active pre-accession policy should create the best possible assurances that the candidate countries will be able to satisfy the stricter Copenhagen criteria as quickly as possible. But there must in turn be a realistic prospect of membership.

The AIV’s opinion on the five dimensions is as follows:

a. Institutional and administrative aspects
With a view to the EU’s capacity to act, the AIV would note that a series of treaty amendments have been made (Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon) so that the EU institutions could function in an enlarged Union. This is a good example of how absorption capacity can be strengthened through targeted policy.

In the AIV’s opinion, however, the European Commission is already too large. This weakens its authority. The Netherlands must therefore keep a reduction in the Commission’s size on the agenda. It must also ensure there is no excessive increase in the Commission’s civil service. Finally, the Netherlands must do its utmost to retain its influence on thinking and policymaking in Brussels.

The European Parliament will have the final word on any further enlargement. The AIV does not think the size of the European Parliament (currently 736 seats, with the Treaty setting a maximum of 750) is an obstacle to its democratic operation. Preliminary discussion by specialised committees and political parties ensures that the modus operandi is acceptable. The impact of a future major enlargement, e.g. with the Western Balkans and Turkey, on the division of seats between the small member states (at least six seats) and the larger member states will be more disadvantageous to the larger member states. The AIV thinks this is unreasonable and undesirable and favours a reduction in the minimum number of seats allocated to the smallest member states and the retention, even after enlargement, of the same degree of degressive proportionality in the allocation of seats in the European Parliament that is currently thought to be reasonable. The AIV recommends that a more radical approach, such as European electoral lists, be worked out for the longer term.

The AIV recognises that further enlargement could cause problems at the Court of Justice regarding the length of its proceedings and European legal uniformity. The AIV therefore calls for a modification of the preliminary ruling system and a limit on the number of judges.

The AIV believes the number of members of the European Court of Auditors should also be limited.

The AIV concludes that institutional problems, in so far as they exist, must not be used as an excuse to refrain from further enlargement. If the Union thinks enlargement is desirable or necessary it must resolve any such problems. Whether the Union should enlarge further or not is primarily a political question that should not be subordinated to institutional and organisational questions, which can in principle be resolved. The interests of enlargement must come first.

b. Economic aspects
The AIV has no doubt that the EU economy as a whole can cope with further enlargement. Previous enlargements had a small but unarguably positive impact on the economies of the old member states. The impact on the new member states was both positive and considerable. The new member states grew more quickly towards the EU level and integration problems declined. Integration capacity therefore increased.

The current EU’s capacity for economic reform is one of the factors determining its capacity to take in new member states. Strengthening the EU’s reform capacity, for example by implementing the Europe 2020 strategy for the period 2010-2020, will also strengthen its absorption capacity. This, too, is an example of how absorption capacity can be influenced by policy decisions.

c. Budgetary aspects
The AIV also thinks this aspect of absorption capacity can be influenced by policy decisions. The composition and size of the EU budget, after all, are determined by the member states’ policy decisions, which can be changed and are currently being thoroughly reviewed.

The AIV would point out that budgetary consequences should be seen in the light of the expected economic benefits of enlargement, which in principle will be many times greater than the direct cost.

d. Public acceptance
The AIV thinks public support is the most challenging aspect of absorption capacity. A majority of the citizens in virtually all member states are opposed to further enlargement. The AIV wonders whether public opinion is encouraging politicians to distance themselves from enlargement or whether politicians’ views are fuelling public scepticism of enlargement. Presumably they both influence each other, with other opinion leaders also playing a key role. Fostering support for enlargement should in any event be an essential part of the EU’s enlargement policy.

e. Geopolitical aspects
The AIV thinks enlargement is above all a geopolitical undertaking, its main objectives being to increase stability in the EU’s direct vicinity and to strengthen the Union’s standing on the world stage. The former is particularly relevant to the Balkan countries, which must not remain a ‘black hole’ within the Union’s territory, and to Turkey, which consciously turned to the West nearly 90 years ago after it abolished the sultanate and installed the Kemalist Republic and is now a strategic regional player.

Other aspects
In addition to these five dimensions, the EU’s absorption capacity is influenced by other issues such as migration, crime prevention and safeguarding the rule of law. The prospect of conducting a joint justice and policing policy with candidate countries should be an important yardstick for their ultimate accession. Confidence in the quality and effectiveness of a candidate country’s legislation, public administration and justice system can increase support for its accession.

The Dutch perspective
For a number of very different reasons, the Netherlands has always insisted on strict compliance with the accession conditions. These reasons include: a legalistic tradition, concerns about the Netherlands’ loss of influence and its position as a net contributor, and sensitivity to the opposition to enlargement among large sections of the population. The Dutch position is ‘precise’ rather than ‘pliable’.

In view of the changes taking place in the world, the AIV thinks enlargement should be approached with an open mind. It also believes a key element in a more ‘precise’ stance is a willingness to invest through pre-accession policy in cooperation and integration so that candidate countries can comply with the conditions quickly and precisely.

Dutch public opinion has become increasingly critical of enlargement but not of the EU in general. Polls indicating that there is an overwhelming dislike of enlargement fill the AIV with concern. Such opinions are at odds with the objective fact that the Netherlands is a trading nation that will greatly benefit from a larger internal market. It must be asked how politicians should respond to the underlying domestic reality. The AIV thinks the benefits of enlargement should be brought to the fore. At the same time, any suggestion that enlargement is seen as an automatic process must be avoided. An information policy that is restricted to highlighting the economic and security benefits is inadequate. The public attitude to enlargement is part of a larger complex of opinions in society on issues that are not directly connected to enlargement, such as the arrival of immigrants, the blurring of national borders and increased international exchange.

Concluding remarks
Future enlargements must strengthen the EU as an area of prosperity and stability and provide opportunities to improve the Union’s standing on the world stage. Absorption capacity must be seen in this broader political setting, not as a separate criterion. Otherwise, it will inhibit or impede the enlargement debate.

To foster support, concerns must be alleviated by means of firm agreements with candidate countries (not after their accession but during the pre-accession phase) and further steps in the pre-accession process must be made dependent on the outcome of the required changes. Politicians must communicate this message clearly.

There are very few opportunities to influence a country once it has been admitted to the EU. The EU’s absorption capacity is put under less strain if more energy is invested in making the pre-accession phase a success. This is why strict conditions must be set in tandem with active support from the EU during the pre-accession process. The Union needs to take decisions regarding Croatia at once and will soon have to do so regarding other countries in the Western Balkans.

The success of the further enlargement process will hang on the Balkan dossiers. Two factors will be decisive: solutions to shared and external problems and a major emphasis on internal security in the enlarged Union. Countries must not be allowed to accede in groups for political rather than practical reasons. Every candidate must be judged exclusively on its own merits, even if that leads to a politically unwelcome delay.

The final decision on Turkey’s accession should give serious consideration to the geopolitical importance of Turkish membership. It offers the prospect of greater stability in a turbulent region to the southeast of the current EU and a stronger EU presence on the world stage. An important political question is how long accession talks with Turkey can be continued if no tangible results are achieved. In anticipation of Turkey’s eventual membership, the EU should seek specific forms of cooperation with it, particularly in the field of foreign and security policy, something the Union declared it was willing to do more than ten years ago.

In the near future the EU will have to address the complicated problems in the enlargement dossiers for the Western Balkans at the same time as it is struggling with the financial and economic aftermath of the banking crisis. The latter currently has priority and will demand a great deal of energy.

Complications in the enlargement policy must therefore be anticipated and averted by means of a considered and coherent pre-accession strategy for the countries in the Western Balkans. Given the divisions among these countries, they must significantly improve their relations with each other before they can accede to the EU. In particular, local conflicts must first be resolved. This must be a key element in the strategy.

Advice request

Mr F. Korthals Altes
Chairman of the Advisory Council
on International Affairs
Postbus 20061

Date:   20 December 2009
Re:      Request for advice on EU absorption capacity

Dear Mr Korthals Altes,

In accordance with the conclusions of a parliamentary committee meeting on 11 November 2009 with members of government on EU enlargement, we request the advice of the Advisory Council on International Affairs (AIV) on the following subject.

The European Union’s enlargement process has proven to be one of the most successful instruments of the Union’s external policy in recent decades. Enlargement has united old and new member states in the joint pursuit of peace, security, democracy and prosperity for their peoples.

It is of course vital that enlargement take place in accordance with agreed procedures and criteria. In this regard, the Copenhagen criteria, agreed in 1993, determine when a country is considered ready to accede to the EU.

At the same time, it was agreed that the EU’s capacity to absorb new members, while maintaining the momentum of European integration, would be another major consideration in decisions on enlargement. This principle was reiterated by the European Council of December 2004. More recently, in adopting a more sharply delineated enlargement strategy, the European Council of December 2006 stressed ‘the importance of ensuring that the EU can maintain and deepen its own development. The pace of enlargement must take into account the capacity of the Union to absorb new members. The European Council invites the Commission to provide impact assessments on the key policy areas in the Commission’s Opinion on a country’s application for membership and in the course of accession negotiations.’

The concept of the ‘capacity of the Union to absorb new members’, or absorption capacity, has however never been fleshed out.

The government and the Permanent Committee on European Affairs therefore request that the AIV respond to the following questions:

  1. What factors, and which specific components of the acquis, determine ‘the capacity of the Union to absorb new members’, i.e. its absorption capacity?
  2. Which actors bear responsibility for defining the concept of absorption capacity?
  3. Is the discussion about absorption capacity influenced by specific cultural or national factors?
  4. Is a common, EU-wide definition of the concept of absorption capacity feasible or desirable? Can absorption capacity be measured, objectively or otherwise?
  5. What role do financial concerns (such as the size of the EU budget or the budget review) play in defining absorption capacity?
  6. To what degree do economic concerns (for instance, concerning the internal market) influence the discussion about absorption capacity, either negatively or positively?
  7. How are institutional issues included in this discussion? How does the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty influence the issue of absorption capacity?
  8. Is there a relationship between public support for enlargement and absorption capacity?
  9. How could the concept of absorption capacity be used to inform discussions on the character and organisation of the EU in the future? Is there a relationship between absorption capacity and the desire to strengthen mechanisms that enforce compliance with norms and values after accession?
  10. The European Commission prefers to use the term integration capacity rather than absorption capacity. What effect does this distinction between integration and absorption have on the discussions within the EU institutions, the member states and candidate countries?
  11. The European Commission included a special report on the EU’s capacity to integrate new members in its Communication on the enlargement strategy and main challenges 2006-2007 (COM(2006) 649). To what extent have the Commission’s conclusions and recommendations been followed up? In what way have they been integrated into Commission and Council policy? In what way could these conclusions and recommendations be acted upon if this has not already happened?

In answering these questions, we would ask you to consider – in so far as possible – the Dutch (national) perspective.

We look forward to receiving your advisory report.

Yours sincerely,


Maxime Verhagen
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Frans Timmermans
Minister for European Affairs



Harm Evert Waalkens
Chair of the Parmanent Committee
on European Affairs of the House
of Representatives

Government reactions

For the response of the Government click below:


Press releases

[Not translated]