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Sep 28, 2023

A Clarifying Moment

Before the question of how to enlarge the European Union comes the question: What kind of EU are we enlarging?

Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama, France's President Emmanuel Macron, President of the European Council Charles Michel, Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz and other politicians pose for a family photo at at the EU-Western Balkans summit in Tirana, Albania, December 6, 2022.
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Ukraine has to join the European Union.

It is in the self-interest of the EU, Germany, and France. An EU that aspires to become geopolitical, to assert itself as a power, can no longer afford to have a neighborhood open to foreign influence and aggression, starting with that of Russia with its revisionist and imperial ideology, which ultimately destabilizes the EU itself. It is a question of European sovereignty and security vis-à-vis Russia. And it is in our interest not to see a Ukraine emerging on our doorstep that is frustrated in its aspirations and feeling betrayed by the EU.

This new situation also provides the political impetus needed to complete enlargement to the Western Balkans. And to reform our EU, even to clarify its purpose.

As French President Emmanuel Macron emphasized in Bratislava last May, the question is no longer whether we should enlarge, or even when, but how.

Twenty years have passed since the Thessaloniki summit where the six states of the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia) were promised a “European perspective.” The period that followed is rich in lessons about a process that is not working. The result is a zero-sum game and frozen perceptions—notably that of a France that was opposed to enlargement to a greater extent than it actually was, and that of a Germany that was more favorable than it actually was. Meanwhile, as the saying goes, candidate countries are pretending to reform because the EU is pretending to want to accept them. This was a role play in which everyone excelled.

It is in this respect that the Russian aggression against Ukraine and the granting of candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova during the French EU presidency in the first half of 2022 represented a turning point and a moment of unveiling.

Because before asking: How can our EU prepare for enlargement? we need to ask ourselves: What kind of EU we are enlarging? Every enlargement is a moment of clarification.

A New European Union

Our EU is no longer the one that it was on the eve of the previous major enlargement. It is no longer the EU of the time of the great European reunification, hugely confident in its future and projecting itself as the world’s most competitive economy of the coming decade. It is no longer the post-historical Europe, the enlightened vanguard of a pacified liberal order. Rather, it has had two decades of crises: The 2008 financial crisis, instability in the neighborhood, including in the south, migration, Brexit, internal challenges to the rule of law and the authority of the European Court of Justice, the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the return of war.

But even after two decades of crises, the truth is that Europeans still do not know what they have created. We have not yet learned enough from the previous enlargements and from the financial crisis about financial solidarity between EU member states and about the conditions for economic and social convergence within the EU, which will remain incomplete as long as one part of Europe sees no alternative to its development other than cost competitiveness.

We have not yet learned enough from previous enlargements, nor from Brexit and its causes, which it would be all too easy to attribute solely to populism. We also have not yet learned enough about the demographic effects and their political consequences, which come with the four freedoms offered by the internal market.

Also, we have not yet learned enough from the COVID-19 pandemic about our ability to act collectively, effectively, and quickly, in times of crisis. And we are only just beginning to learn the lessons, at breakneck speed, of the Russia’s war against Ukraine, about the need to reduce our dependences, in particular our extreme dependence on American protection. The Russian aggression certainly requires strengthening the transatlantic link but also developing our defense capabilities to assume our responsibilities for the security of our continent.

From this point of view, preparing the EU's institutions and budget for an EU that has 36 members is essential. It should not, however, be the only framework when it comes to thinking about reforming the EU, in a parametric exercise that would simply consist of adding numbers to an already large whole. The EU will also open up to different histories, representations, and aspirations to accommodate, notably with several potential member states struggling with the question of national minorities.

Challenges and Illusions

Being able to take decisions with 36 member states as we currently do with 27 is a source of concern and seems an insurmountable challenge. To maintain or even improve our efficiency, two solutions, which are not mutually exclusive, are envisaged: reviewing our decision-making procedures within a single framework, by extending qualified majority voting; or taking decisions within multiple frameworks, through differentiation.

However welcome the Franco-German agreement to extend qualified majority voting may be, we must nevertheless guard against two illusions.

First, it would be wrong to give the impression that our current EU is blocked by the right of veto. This is not the reality of the day-to-day functioning of the institutions. In fact, the constant criticism of a EU that regulates and intervenes too much says quite the opposite.

Second, it would also be wrong to consider the move to qualified majority voting in matters of common foreign and security policy as a panacea that frees up the expression of a European Union that has become geopolitical. Procedures are only ever procedures and do not form the common vision. If there is an issue around the right of veto, it is about its use rather than its existence—when it is used by certain governments as a means of blackmail to achieve their ends on other issues. And if there is a major challenge for the governance of an enlarged Europe, it lies at the level of the European Council and nowhere else.

As for differentiation, this should be considered within the context of questions about the finalité of European integration. A multi-speed Europe is often perceived as a desire to create different classes of member states and is criticized as such, given that the passion for equality in modern societies also affects states. This is a mistake. It is the recognition of the existence of different aspirations in a more diverse, more heterogeneous Europe: for some to pursue a path of greater integration, for others to retain the freedom not to follow it.

The budget is the other major issue in the run-up to enlargement. For it seems to be a foregone conclusion that unless we increase the size of the cake, everyone's share will be smaller. The financial equation seems just as insurmountable as the institutional one, even if current projections vary between the status quo and the evolution of almost all the current member states to net contributors, and only the newcomers at net recipients. The political stakes are no less high. Becoming a net contributor partly changes a member state's relationship with the European project, and we are entitled to wonder what path will be adopted by governments which, like the current Polish and Hungarian governments, have a largely utilitarian vision of their membership of the EU.

Finally, in order to prepare for an enlarged Europe, it must also actually enlarge.

The current process is not having the expected transformative effect on the candidate countries. There are too few incentives, particularly to resolve neighborhood disputes (territorial or identity-based) or to fight corruption and nepotism, because the enlargement process is too long (with regard to political cycles), too technocratic ("stabilocracy"), insufficiently supported (financially—the least wealthy country in the EU receives eight times more European funding than the richest candidate country—and in terms of technical support) and perceived as being imposed from outside, which is not the least of the paradoxes for a process whose criterion and purpose is to guarantee the democratic functioning of the institutions of the candidate countries. All this speaks of the failure of the EU’s power of attraction, based on a model of rules and subsidies, which notably lacks clarity as a common narrative, beyond the central, but insufficient, one based on shared values.

It is for this reason that Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, was right to propose an indicative accession date of 2030. This date must be understood not as a promise, but as a double contractual commitment: that of the candidate countries, given to their publics, to be ready to join by the end of the decade; and that of the EU to have reformed itself to be ready to welcome them. It is also for this reason that the idea of integration in stages must be seriously considered.

Hallmarks of Success

Providing answers to these three challenges of process, governance, and the budget will not be the mark of a successful enlargement, however.

The hallmark of a successful enlargement will be just as much our collective ability to project ourselves, through appropriate political choices and by involving the future member states, into a Europe that is an economic power, that will have reduced its critical dependencies and diversified its partnerships, deepened its internal market, turned the corner on ecological and digital transition, consolidated the euro, and preserved its agricultural sovereignty; a Europe of solidarity that will have reduced its economic, demographic, and territorial divide; a Europe that is a credible contributor to security in a European pillar within NATO.

It is in this respect that the forthcoming enlargement must be a clarifying moment.

Alexandre Adam is a former Europe advisor to French President Emmanuel Macron.