14/03/2012 08:46 GMT | Updated 13/05/2012 06:12 BST

Serving the Perfect Soufflé - The European Parliament Way


The European Parliament is the EU's very own army of Jamie Olivers; adding spice, stirring things up and ensuring that everything prepared is fit to serve.

Although the above statement, just like good tequila, is best taken with a pinch of salt, there is one instance where the culinary metaphor is particularly apt. Like preparing a soufflé, enlarging the EU requires getting the timing just right. Rush it or dawdle and you risk having it collapse.

It is a subject that is as topical as ever. Serbia has recently been confirmed as an official EU candidate country, while next year Croatia is set to become the 28th member state. And they are far from being the only countries interested in becoming a part of the EU project. On Wednesday 14 March the European Parliament will debate the progress of Iceland, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia towards EU membership. Most MEPs have been supportive of EU expansion but this does not prevent them from asking difficult but necessary questions and judging each application on its merits.

As any cook will tell you, patience is the key to getting results. EU enlargement has always taken time, as both existing and prospective members carefully weigh the pros and cons of membership. There are many things to consider, such as how it will affect migration and the economy. An enlargement could founder if there is too much economic disparity or the right structures are not in place. That is why apprentice EU states need time to incorporate all existing EU legislation and prepare for the transition.

It took 12 years before the EU finally rolled out the red carpet for Britain. And it hasn't only been Britain that has suffered from a prolonged process. Although Finland enjoyed a relatively short courtship of three years, Turkey has been in the waiting room since 1987 with no clear perspective as to when it will be able to join.

If this seems like a lot of work, it's because it's worth it. Enlarging the EU creates economic opportunities for all its members. It also played an important role in consolidating democracy and open economies in former dictatorships including Greece, Spain and Portugal, as well as several former communist states and even three countries previously part of the Soviet Union. The obligations placed on prospective members encouraged them to tackle corruption, improve the rights of minorities, protect the freedom of the press and overhaul ineffective sectors of their economies.

However, it remains a delicate process and mistiming it could have serious consequences, which is why MEPs play such an important role. They scrutinise the progress reports and will approve enlargement once the right time has come and not because it is politically convenient. It might explain why new countries continue to queue at the kitchen door. The Council might set the menu and the Commission write the recipes, but it takes the Parliament to guarantee it is cooked to perfection.