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Brexit: Ever Wider Expansion

By 30th May 2016November 16th, 2017No Comments

Theresa May Calls for Change

In her long-awaited intervention in the referendum debate, Home Secretary Theresa May argued in favour of a ‘Remain’ vote based on what she called the UK’s three big, future challenges – security, trade and the economy.

In the same speech, however, she made two further statements on future UK policy that gave rise to surprise and dismay in government and party circles, calling for Britain to pull out of the European Convention of Human Rights[1] and seriously questioning the party’s commitment to EU enlargement.

Having advanced her arguments for staying within the Union she said that it was time to question some of the traditional British assumptions about the country’s engagement with the EU, in particular the issue of enlargement:

[…] do we really still think it is in our interests to support automatically and unconditionally the EU’s further expansion? The states now negotiating to join the EU include Albania, Serbia and Turkey – countries with poor populations and serious problems with organised crime, corruption, and sometimes even terrorism.  We have to ask ourselves, is it really right that the EU should just continue to expand, conferring upon all new member states all the rights of membership? Do we really think now is the time to contemplate a land border between the EU and countries like Iran, Iraq and Syria?[2]

In raising this issue, Mrs May was aligning herself with the Vote Leave leader, Michael Gove, who in a widely publicised article in the Guardian on 19 April, also raised the issue of free movement within the EU, and highlighted the issue of migrants from possible future EU Member States, naming Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey, in particular.

Although the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker has made it clear that EU enlargement will not be a priority in his term, these strong, negative statements on further enlargement must be seen in the context of the centrality immigration in the UK’s referendum debate. Indeed, the sentiment can be traced back to the European Council of December 2012, when Prime Minister Cameron responded to the imminent opening of the UK’s borders to Romanians and Bulgarians – and to growing domestic pressure from UKIP and from his own backbenchers – by asserting that he would be prepared to veto the admission of new members to the Union unless new rules to limit freedom of movement were agreed.

This policy was ultimately to be carried forward into the formal UK renegotiation and the February 2016 ‘deal’ with the European Council.


The UK’s historical pro-Enlargement attitude

But such questioning of enlargement goes against a long history of UK support for – and indeed active encouragement of – expanding the Union’s borders. As long ago as 1973 Harold Macmillan wrote in favour of strengthening European unity, arguing that “if this happened and Great Britain were to be isolated off the shore of a united European Community perhaps not six, but seven, eight or ten, our general political influence in the world would inevitably diminish.”[3]

Similar sentiments were to be expressed by future UK Prime Ministers. In his account of Britain’s European policies, Stephen Wall dealt with the positions adopted by three Prime Ministers, namely Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, for whom he worked as either Ambassador or Permanent Representative. He described all three as champions of enlargement,[4] and expressed sympathy with Blair’s support for Turkey’s desire to be treated as a European country with the right to apply and negotiate for membership. He concluded:

If the primary goal of the EU is peace, Britain can take pride in the part she has played in the EU’s greatest achievement for peace since the Treaty of Rome: the accession of countries which were part of a hostile communist empire for much of my lifetime and are now our partners and allies in democracy.

In 2003, the then Labour Party Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, told the IIEA that enlargement would bring huge benefits to both new and existing member states: “It is easy to forget that a decade or so ago, many were asking if the EU could really absorb 10 or more new members and carry on in its current form. Thankfully the sceptics were wrong. Enlargement will make Britain, Ireland and Europe stronger, not weaker.”

More recently, the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2009 European Parliament election expressed a similarly pro-enlargement view, saying: “We have long championed the enlargement of the European Union because we believe that EU membership or its prospect has been crucial in firmly establishing democracy across the continent.” The manifesto went so far as to mention support for Ukraine and Belarus as potential candidates (albeit with an acknowledgement of their distant prospects of accession). In his Foreword to the manifesto, David Cameron wrote:

We want to keep the doors of the EU open to new members like the Balkan states and, in due course, Turkey.


Changing Perspectives

Changing UK attitudes to enlargement over the decades since the 1950s merit serious analysis but two points can be made even in a brief discussion like this one.

Enthusiasm for expansion of the Community/Union has been linked with Eurosceptic views on closer integration. The arguments about the balance between ‘widening’ and ‘deepening’ have been pursued by parties and individuals. James Callaghan, was quoted as presenting the policy of enlargement as one which would have the advantage of diluting the degree of integration of the Community: “The dangers of an over-centralised, over-bureaucratised and over-harmonised Community will be far less with twelve than with nine.” The diplomat, Roy Denman, reflected: “Anyone judging the European record of the Labour Party would do well to reflect that this was a letter which, with suitable updating could have been sent by either Conservative Prime Minister over the past 16 years.”[5]

In the UK, the future of enlargement has increasingly become entangled with the major political and populist issue of migration. The UK Balance of Competences Review YEAR stated the view of many contributors that if EU enlargement were to continue, then public concern on the issue of migration would have to be addressed, and suggested reform of transitional controls on free movement for future enla rgements.[6]

The Guardian commentator, Toby Helm, wrote of Cameron’s 2012 change of position that “with UKIP breathing down the Tories’ necks, enlargement was no longer the British government’s answer in Europe, but its number one problem.” This is very much the case in respect of Turkey today, with a debate on the desirability and probability of Turkish accession to the EU recently becoming an issue ahead of the UK’s EU referendum.

It must be noted, of course, that further enlargement is not a priority for the EU at present. The Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, has made it clear that no new members will be joining the present 28 during his period in office – and this is a statement of reality as much as a policy position: none of the present five candidates will meet the criteria for accession by 2019. There is agreement, however, that these candidates need ‘a credible and honest European perspective’ and that this applies especially in the Western Balkans, where President Juncker has said the EU must continue to engage lest “the old demons of the past reawaken.”

[1] Financial Times, ‘May plays both sides with attack on Europe rights convention’, 25 April 2016.   (

[2] May, Theresa.  Speech on Brexit, 25 April 2016.

[3] Macmillan, Harold. At The End of The Day.  London, Harper & Row, 1973.

[4] Wall, Stephen. ‘A Stranger in Europe: Britain and the EU from Thatcher to Blair’   Oxford University Press, 2008.

[5] Denman, Roy. ‘Missed Chances: Britain and Europe in the Twentieth Century’ London Cassell, 1996

[6] HM Government. Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union. EU Enlargement, December 2014.