Not Just Another Friday in Brussels

While a typical summer Friday in the capital of the European Union might sound like a rather dull affair, today brought two significant events–one of them good, the other one less so.

First, the good news. Today, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia signed their association agreements with the European Union (EU). The treaties consist of, in part, free trade agreements between the EU and the three countries, and also a roadmap toward a prospective EU membership. Given the economic and political shape these countries find themselves in, the latter will likely take a long time and will not be without hurdles. After all, Turkey signed its association agreement back in 1963 and the country is still not a member.

There can be little doubt that free trade agreements with the EU will do good to these impoverished economies (GDP per capita in Moldova is just a little over $2,000) as well as to the EU. Furthermore, the prospect of a timely EU membership will hopefully serve as an impetus for economic and institutional reforms–just as was the case in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe that joined the EU in the past decade.

Of course, the EU is far from perfect and it is quite possible that these countries will soon grapple with the same problems as Slovakia, Czech Republic, or Bulgaria–namely how to manage the inflow of “structural funds” into their economies without encouraging corruption and entrenchment of venal elites. But arguably, that will not be the worst problem to have, considering that the alternative is the continuation of the status quo, muddling along from one crisis to another and being part of Russia’s zone of influence. Further enlargement, extending the common market and free movement of people further east, will likely prove to be beneficial to the EU as well.

Second, the bad news. The EU leaders have appointed Jean-Claude Juncker as the new head of the European Commission. Although initially the governments of Sweden and Netherlands had misgivings about his presidency, in the end it was only the UK’s prime minister, David Cameron, who decided to openly oppose the nomination.

The issue is not just with the personality of the candidate, but also with the process through which Juncker was selected. For the first time, the European Parliament took the lead in picking the head of the Commission, while no treaty empowers it to do so. While the appointment needs to rely on a parliamentary majority, the choice has always been made by the political leaders of EU member states, not by the Parliament. For those who do not wish to see the accountability of the Commission to national politicians wane completely, the Juncker appointment should be a cause for concern.

Let us hope that these two events are not completely unrelated. Hopefully, the prospect of another eastward enlargement will serve as an impetus for European policymakers to look for a model of European governance that provides the benefits of the common market and effective action on issues of mutual interest, without entrenching an obscure and unaccountable center of power in Brussels.