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Sep 28, 2023

“In All EU Capitals, Enlargement Has Become a Priority”

The enlargement and reform debate has started, and some progress should be possible before the European elections in June 2024, says Anna Lührmann, minister for Europe in the German Foreign Office.

Portrait of Anna Luehrmann, Minister of State for Europe and Climate, German Foreign Office
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Minister of State Lührmann, if you were to close your eyes and look forward to 2030, what kind of EU would you envision, in a perfect world?

Well, I definitely see an EU that is ready for enlargement—an EU that has done the necessary reforms to make sure that we have the absorption capacity for new member states; one that has increased its capacity to act by taking more decisions with qualified majority; one that has improved its rule of law instruments; and also one that has created new and better instruments to allow for citizens’ participation.

And how do we get there? 

First, we have to start talking about it. And that’s exactly what we’re doing this year. The debate has been, I think, successfully initiated by the independent Franco-German working group of experts and their paper that was published on September 19. In all EU capitals, the debate is now at top of the agenda—how do we get ready for enlargement?

So, reform comes first, enlargement second? Or how are the processes interlinked?

Both processes need to go hand in hand. The candidates need to reform to get ready, but so does the EU. This is exactly at the start of our discussion: What do we actually need to reform in order to have the necessary absorption capacity? We need to talk about institutions, but also about policy areas, and about the budget, obviously. This debate now needs to be structured, also in a way that we see some initial concrete steps maybe already being taken before the European Parliament elections in June 2024. Then a clear process in which we identify what it is that needs to be done is crucial. And in terms of sequencing, these things need to go hand in hand. For instance, the [Franco-German] expert working group has presented an option that the enlargement treaties could include some of the necessary reforms.

Would you agree that given its internal challenges and blockages, the EU needs to change even regardless of enlargement? 

Yes. I mean, obviously, we can always do better. There is always room for improvement. Some debates have been around for a while, for instance this issue of the capacity to act and the problem of national vetoes. That is something that already is a challenge now, and if we were to have more members it would become an even bigger challenge. Therefore, we need to tackle them.

What can be achieved by the European elections? And what are your expectations for the informal European Council at Granada on October 6, where enlargement will be discussed by the EU leaders?

I think in Granada we will be very much at the beginning of the debate, when all these issues are being brought to the table: institutional reforms, policy reforms, the budget. And then what needs to happen between Granada and the European Council meeting in December is that we actually think about how we create a process that allows for consensus-building, because that is what we have to do in the EU. And I expect that this European Council will send out a signal to this end: that reforms and enlargement need to go hand in hand. And we should also demonstrate our ability to reform by making use of the flexibility of the Lisbon Treaty, as foreseen for example by the Passerelle clause, in areas such as common foreign policy.

So ideally, in your view, the process won’t involve EU Treaty changes, which would need approval via referenda in various countries, including France?

We first need to talk about where we want to go and what we need to do, and then talk about the way. Sometimes when big things such as treaty change or conventions are discussed, you forget about the things that you can do without taking this big step. I think we need to concentrate on proposals where we can use the flexibility that we already have in the treaties. That's a good starting point. But in general, Germany is also open to treaty changes.

This is an area where the Franco-German expert report is quite ambitious. It basically recommends: If not all 27 are ready to go, then there should be a move toward differentiated EU integration using the existing treaty. What’s the German position on this?

As I said, it is clear that we already have a lot of flexibility in the treaties. And on this question the expert report is actually more of a description of what we already have: Some EU members are in the Euro zone, some are in Schengen, etc. In other words, this is something that is already happening. And then we have countries that are outside of the EU like Norway or Switzerland. This is all part of the reality of the current EU, its neighborhood and the enlargement context. And I think we shouldn't let these architectural debates distract us from thinking about the concrete steps that we need and can take now to make EU enlargement a reality.

There are some ideas being floated, for instance to proceed by sectoral integration, in reference to the Western Balkan states, but also Ukraine and Moldova. Is that a way to go, do you think? 

That’s a highly relevant debate! And again, we already have the agreement in the so-called “new enlargement methodology” that was passed a few years ago, which proscribes exactly that—to allow more for more and less for less. But this hasn’t really been applied until now. My French and Polish colleagues and I actually asked the European Commission in a letter about this back in May: to make a concrete proposal for how they intend to apply this idea from the new enlargement methodology. Because it could help to bring countries closer to the EU faster.

Does this potentially include the United Kingdom?

That’s for the United Kingdom to answer, I think.

There is a problem, though, when we look at the Western Balkans candidate countries: most of them are more advanced in their EU accession than Ukraine and Moldova but lack momentum and political will to accelerate necessary reforms. What happens if their leaders or governments turn the geopolitical argument around to say: We have tried hard for a long time, now you need us in—so make it happen, lower the bar.

I had a very fascinating meeting with civil society representatives from the Western Balkans yesterday. You could feel it in the room that they want to be inside the EU. But as you rightly said, some of the governments in the Western Balkans are not doing all they could to continue on this path. What we as the EU need to do is to make sure that the enlargement perspective remains credible. Because, let’s be honest, in recent years people in the Western Balkans had grounds to doubt this. But it’s very clear that now, that really in all the capitals in Europe, enlargement has become a priority issue. So that’s the first thing that we can do. The second thing that we can do potentially also is to refine the enlargement methodology a bit—to make sure that if a country takes a concrete step toward the EU, that there are concrete benefits. You can see that in the civil societies of the Western Balkan countries, the wish to join is very strong, and in some governments as well, they’re really doing a lot to support that. And if some countries move ahead, then that will also create a pull for other countries to do more.

At the moment, though, we don’t see this at all in that region. Nobody’s pulling ahead. But you are saying it’s also their responsibility?

Yes, totally. There’s no way around this. In the end, they need to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria. And we can help them. We need to help them more to fulfill those criteria and support those actors in those countries that are really working hard on this. But in the end, the steps must be taken by the candidates themselves.

One reason why there was reluctance in the past among EU member states when it came to enlargement was to avoid letting in another Hungary or Poland, member states with governments that actively subvert the rule of law…

That’s exactly why the expert report rightly focuses a lot on the rule of law—out of the understanding that we possibly haven’t done enough to protect the rule of law in the past and that we need to refine those instruments to get ready for enlargement.

That’s the key problem, isn’t it? In some candidate countries the judiciaries are even more strongly politically controlled than in Hungary. And there are various other problems. Montenegro as the accession frontrunner has been without a government for several months. Albania has started a new bilateral quarrel with Greece. The candidate countries and their leaders do not seem to be focused on progressing toward EU membership…

I spent a lot of time in North Macedonia recently. Quite a lot of people told me there: If we don't achieve this soon, then our own citizens will choose the EU. They will just vote with their feet, basically. And that’s not a very good perspective for the region. That’s why everyone needs to assume responsibility and act.

Do you think that EU enlargement is now dominated by the case of Ukraine—a country that is much larger than all the other candidate countries? Yet there might be divisions ahead: if the European Commission is going to recommend to open accession talks, Hungary may block this move. How optimistic are you that we will see progress in December?

It was Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine that showed us that we really need to stabilize and secure those countries that are currently not yet members of the EU. Russia’s war of aggression has created this momentum, not only for Ukraine, but also for the Western Balkans and for Moldova—to strengthen and stabilize those countries so that they can have a future in peace and stability. And we can also secure our direct neighborhood. That’s why it's broader than this individual country case. When it comes to the optimism, just now in Brussels, we actually heard both from the Hungarian and the Ukrainian side that they had very constructive talks. So, I’m rather optimistic.

Is there already a consolidated German approach to the whole enlargement and reform question?

We’re at the beginning of a debate, so of course there are a lot of issues that are open. But strong support for enlargement is government policy, as is that we see the need for EU reforms, for instance when it comes to qualified majority voting, or when it comes to improving rule of law mechanisms. Chancellor Olaf Scholz was very clear on this in his speeches in Prague and in the European Parliament.

There is the perception in Europe of Germany having a government that is not always united: When the question of granting Ukraine candidate status was decided in June 2022, the impression was of an enthusiastic Foreign Office and a more lukewarm Chancellery, which was then won over. Now we’re hearing that the chancellor wants to put a lot of emphasis on the merit-based approach... 

We’re talking a lot, of course, within the government. But we always have been and remain staunch supporters of EU enlargement. The same is true for the merit-based approach. Our support for Ukraine is strong and will last for as long as it takes.

Is there an overarching rationale or guiding principle that Berlin is seeking to follow? From your earlier answers it seems that a multi-speed Europe or one of “concentric circles” is not something you are worried about…

The objective and the ultimate aim always need to be EU unity. And I really like the wording of one of my colleagues from the General Affairs Council. She said this week that it’s called the European Union for a reason. And we want to be as united as much as we can. Having been in this job for almost two years now, I’ve really started to appreciate this European notion of evolving toward consensus. And it will be easier to find consensus once we don't have the possibility of national vetoes. So, unity is the spirit and the prime objective.

The interview was conducted by Henning Hoff and Milan Nič.

Anna Lührmann is Minister of State for Europe and Climate at the German Foreign Office and the Federal Government’s Commissioner for Franco-German cooperation. She is a member of the Green Party.