Support for enlargement used to be the nearest British politics got to a consensus on Europe. Whatever else divided them, pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics agreed that widening the EU to bring in new members states would be good for Britain and good for Europe. Not any more. With an in/out referendum expected and many Conservatives now campaigning for exit, the Government is poorly placed to advocate EU membership for other countries. The right has therefore fallen silent. The left is also on the defensive, faced with a public backlash over immigration and the influx of cheap labour that followed previous accessions. Electoral pressure means that enlargement is now more often discussed as a threat than an opportunity.
This is a problem because the arguments in favour of further enlargement are as strong as they've always been and the process needs a champion. A wider Europe means a bigger market with more competition, opportunity and prosperity. It consolidates political reform and promotes stability and peaceful relations between states. It increases Europe's clout in the world. Britain has always understood this, and the consistency of support for enlargement across governments of left and right has enabled us to play a crucial role in sponsoring and encouraging that process in the past. Without that engagement, and with the eurozone governments beset by their own problems, there is a risk that enlargement will lose focus and momentum. There is already evidence that this is happening.
With Croatia joining as a full member in few days, there is now thought to be an unspoken consensus in Brussels that the next round of enlargement should be pushed into the distant future. The danger is that this lack of commitment will discourage the other six Balkan applicant countries from carrying out badly needed political and economic reforms. In Turkey, a country that applied to join in 1987 and began negotiations alongside Croatia in 2005, the suspicion will grow that the EU is acting in bad faith and will never let them in. This creates a vacuum in south eastern Europe, bringing with it uncertainty and the potential for increased tension and instability.
Although the accession of Croatia is welcome, it won't necessarily help if European standards are deemed to have been compromised in the process. There are, in fact, significant doubts that the country is fully prepared to take on the obligations of membership. In its most recent assessment of Croatia, the human rights watchdog, Freedom House, said that "political bias and corruption still pervade the court system". The European Commission's final monitoring report raised concerns about corruption, organised crime and judicial standards, with membership granted on the assumption that reforms and improvements would continue. But with the discipline of the accession process removed, there is no guarantee this will happen.
There is even a risk that efforts to show progress in one area are coming at the expense of European standards on other areas. The conviction last year of former the Prime Minister, Ivo Sanader, on charges that he accepted bribes in the privatisation of the state energy company was widely hailed as a breakthrough in the fight against corruption. But the trial itself involved serious procedural lapses, an absence of strong evidence and clear examples of judicial bias. Sanader's conviction looks unsound at best. At worst it looks like partisan justice. Although Croatia certainly needs to tackle corruption, it can't be allowed to cut corners in the process.
The European Union has already run into serious difficulties with Hungary, a member state whose government has flouted core European principles like media freedom and the rule of law by limiting the powers of the constitutional court, introducing new restrictions on media content and manipulating the composition of the judiciary. The refusal of the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, to yield to criticism shows how difficult it can be for the EU to influence a country's behaviour once membership has been granted.
Similar problems with Croatia would have the effect of increasing enlargement fatigue and making it even harder to persuade existing members of the benefits of future widening. It would simultaneously undermine the impetus for reform among applicant countries because it would be seen as a weakening of the EU's willingness to apply its own standards. The EU's frontier would harden into a permanent line of division with aspiring members shut out indefinitely and the Balkans condemned to an uncertain and potentially unstable future.
The correct response should be to combine a more intense focus on European standards with a genuine offer of membership for all European countries that want it. With the technical oversight of the accession process now at an end for Croatia, EU governments need to provide real political oversight to ensure that it continues to make the reforms needed to meet the obligations of membership. For those still waiting to join, the EU should provide more encouragement and support. They need to believe that, with sufficient effort, membership is an achievable goal.
Whereas Britain would once have taken the lead in bringing new urgency and rigour to the EU's enlargement strategy, our voice is now largely absent. That is one more reason to hope that we resolve our own European dilemmas soon and assume once again a full and constructive role in shaping the future of our continent.