No ingratiation necessary
What do Ukraine, Turkey and Iceland have in common? At first glance, almost nothing at all. The three nations are extremely different from each other when it comes to politics, economics and culture. But all three of them once courted the EU, and now they all give it the cold shoulder. In the western Balkans, enthusiasm for the European idea has also significantly fallen. Serbia, for example, is not willing to accept the loss of its former province Kosovo and is by doing so is blocking its own path into the EU.
So what happened? Has European integration, once a sure-fire recipe for success, lost its appeal?
Every case is different
It's not that easy. First of all, each country has its own reasons for shrinking interest in the EU. In the case of Ukraine, it's simply a matter of pressure from Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin made very clear what consequences Ukraine would suffer if it turned towards the EU - and what advantages Kyiv could expect if it decided against the 28-member bloc.
In Turkey's case, outside pressure didn't play a role. Turkey has the - correct - impression that the majority of Europeans would not accept them as a full member. That, however, doesn't stop the EU from continuing the accession talks with a guilty conscience.
Iceland is yet another story. The country is back on its feet after the financial crisis. It doesn't need the EU for that anymore and isn't willing to share its fishing grounds with anyone.
And, finally, Serbia is stuck in the past.
Government or the people?
There is one other difference - and it's the decisive one: the question whether the government or the people have lost their enthusiasm. Governments come and go and many politicians - while governing in the name of the people - have their very own interests at heart. But the interests and desires of the population are much more stable.
To what degree citizens can freely voice their opinion differs from state to state. So does the degree to which governments take these opinions into account. In Ukraine, for example, a mostly EU-friendly population faces a government that is leaning towards Russia or at least doesn't mind having its actions dictated from Moscow.
In Iceland on the other hand, the general sentiment among both the people and their government is anti-EU, and that's not likely to change anytime soon. Iceland is one of the few countries that fulfills the EU's political and economic conditions, but just doesn't want to become a member. More often than not, it's the other way around.
The question of alternatives
Back to the question of the EU's appeal. There's no one-answer-fits-all here either. The union can't offer a large increase in wealth or democracy to Iceland - the country already has all that. And that's why Icelanders don't see the added benefit in a membership.
In the western Balkan nations, the situation looks very different. The people there long for stable systems based on the rule of law, and for more wealth. Their countries are too weak and too isolated to grow economically outside the EU. Because the only chance for development lies in a membership, the union hasn't fully lost its appeal there.
Turkey as well as Ukraine would profit from democratic reforms. But because of their size and geographic location, they have alternatives in how to progress economically: the Middle East and Russia, respectively. Which option would actually be more advantageous is another question.
And then there's the impression that the EU always wants something in return: develop your democracy, reform your economy, make sacrifices and then we'll talk more. The advantages look abstract and far off in the future. That's a problem of communication.
No reason for ingratiating concessions
The time in which the greatness of the European idea was accepted, no questions asked, is definitely over. That's true outside and inside of the EU. But that's not a bad thing, because it means there are no overblown expectations. The European Union and the countries questioning their relationship to it should approach the issue in a relaxed and matter-of-fact manner. The EU doesn't need to ingratiate itself to countries that don't want to join. In the case of Ukraine, the EU had already gone too far.
The European Union has to hold on to its values. That means it cannot make concessions in the areas of democracy and rule of law in order to maintain its influence in a geo-strategically important country. The union doesn't have to act that way - it has a lot to offer.
The governments of states negotiating with the EU know that. That's why they usually don't directly reject offers of cooperation from Brussels, instead they try to get the advantages as cheaply as possible. But one thing has to be clear: membership doesn't come at a bargain basement price.