Absorption capacity

The notion of ‘absorption capacity’ is used, especially by opponents of further enlargement of the European Union, to highlight the question of whether existing EU institutions and policies are operationally capable of integrating new member states into the system. The European Council (of EU heads of government) meeting in Copenhagen in June 1993 opened the way to the accession of the central and eastern European countries to the Union and – in its Copenhagen criteria – defined the preconditions for future enlargement. These criteria contained passing reference to the question of absorption capacity, stating ‘the Union’s capacity to absorb new members, while maintaining the momentum of European integration, is an important consideration in the general interest of both the Union and the candidate countries’. This observation went largely unnoticed at the time but increasingly became an issue during the 2000s, as the Union struggled to adjust to the influx of 12 new member states in 2004 and 2007, and as sceptics of prospective Turkish membership sought to invoke it as a formal condition in itself, in order to prevent or slow the latter’s accession.

In March 2006, as opposition to Turkish membership hardened and some attempted to make adoption of the draft European Constitution a precondition to even Croatian enlargement, the European Parliament called for the European Commission to produce a report on the absorption-capacity issue. In its seven-page report, issued in November 2006, the Commission preferred to redefine absorption capacity as ‘integration capacity’, partly because the notion of member states being ‘absorbed’ into the EU had negative connotations, and partly to try to refocus discussion on the case for continuing institutional reform. It stated: ‘Integration capacity is about whether the EU can take in new members at a given moment or in a given period, without jeopardising the political and policy objectives established by the Treaties’. The Commission undertook to analyse the impact on existing EU policy areas of future enlargements ‘at all key stages of the accession process’. The Brussels European Council meeting in December 2006 endorsed this approach, although its conclusions used the words ‘capacity to integrate’ and ‘capacity to absorb’ interchangeably. Heads of government stated inter alia that ‘the pace of enlargement must take into account the capacity of the Union to absorb new members’.

There would appear to be three main dimensions to the concept of absorption or integration capacity: i) the economic dimension, which relates to the ability of the single market – of the goods, services and capital markets, on the one hand, and of the labour market, on the other – to cope with the accession of new member states; ii) the institutional dimension, which concerns the degree to which existing EU institutional and administrative structures and budgetary resources can accommodate new member states; and iii) the foreign-policy dimension, reflecting the degree to which new members help or hinder the EU in assuring its strategic security and assuming an international role. Views on these issues are sometimes driven more by general attitudes towards Turkish membership or institutional reform than by any dispassionate appraisal of these three specific dimensions.

Further reading: Michael Emerson et al, Just what is this ‘absorption capacity’ of the European Union?, CEPS Policy Brief, Number 113, September 2006.

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry

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