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Why bigger can be better: the case for EU enlargement

Published date: 03.03.2009 19:28 | Author: Kliping inostranih medija

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Britain should not abandon EU enlargement in principle as a populist response to the current economic climate, says Caroline Flint.

Five years ago the European Union expanded overnight. The accession of 10 new member states on May 1 2004 brought the phenomenon of the Polish plumber to the UK and created the largest integrated economic area in the world, with borders to Belarus, Ukraine and the Black Sea.

British Governments of both colours have been strong supporters of EU enlargement because it has been understood across the political divide that enlargement benefited existing EU member states as well as the peoples of the candidate countries.

In a story in The Daily Telegraph last week, it was reported that other EU member states were wanting to use the recent disputes at the Lindsey Oil Refinery in Britain, and the subsequent debate about free movement of workers, to put further enlargement on hold . It is right that at a meeting of EU foreign ministers on Monday a discussion of the next stages of enlargement took place, in the context of the application of Montenegro.

It is a fact that all EU member states are agreed and have consistently said that the future of the Western Balkans is in the EU. We all agree that the prospect of membership is the best way we can encourage peace, democracy and economic growth in a region torn apart by conflict in the 1990's. I made clear at the meeting on Monday that the UK government do not believe enlargement should go on hold, but that we should both maintain the momentum of the process and ensure that it is a rigorous one that means countries can only join when they are ready.

Joining the EU is not, nor should it be, a walk in the park. Indeed, the UK was rejected twice for membership before joining in 1973. The EU has clearly evolved since 1973. Today, the great strength of the EU is the lever that the pull of membership provides, to drive reform in aspirant countries, that is then entrenched by membership.

For candidate countries like Croatia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Turkey, the prospect of membership creates opportunities for them, and advantages for us. Member states pride themselves on their different cultures, yet we share common values and set high standards. So it is in our interests to see these values and standards grow beyond the EU's current borders. On security, for example, the UK supported the introduction of the EU Arrest Warrant to make it easier to transfer suspected criminals between member states. We are all better off for it as crime moves increasingly beyond national borders.

Organised crime in the Balkans brings heroin and prostitution to the streets of Britain, so it makes sense to use the leverage of enlargement to ensure their police, prosecutors and courts work with us to break the trafficking networks.

It would of course be wrong to ignore the fact that across Europe, including the UK, we have seen demonstrations and debates about the rights of EU nationals to jobs in other member states. But there is another side to the debate. Since 2004, more than 100 million new consumers have entered the Single Market, leading the UK for example, to increase its exports to the eight new Eastern member states in 2005 by more than 150% on the previous decade.

We can also be clear that the enlargement process is a long one and gives us the tools to ensure countries are ready before they join. The EU first recognised Turkey's ambition to join in 1963. Negotiations with Croatia are already in their fourth year. We put in place controls on workers from Bulgaria and Romania and will be able to put in place whatever controls we need for other new member states when we reach that stage.

The UK does not support a fixed timetable for enlargement. The pace of negotiations must depend on the pace of reform. But neither will we abandon enlargement in principle as a populist response to the current economic climate. We will continue to advocate the need for the EU to move forwards and outwards. Successful enlargement will deliver very significant benefits to the UK, to the EU and to the accession countries themselves.