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Sep 28, 2023

A Different Way of Thinking about EU Enlargement and Reform

After a lost decade-and-a-half that saw the establishment of German predominance, there is now the acute danger of Berlin and Paris applying rejected ideas to enlarging and reforming the EU: Four principles for a future-oriented EU expansion and adaptation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron are on their way for a private dinner at the "Kochzimmer" restaurant in Potsdam outside Berlin, Germany, June 6, 2023.

The term for a think tank in German is Denkfabrik—a factory for ideas. But when governments jointly task think tanks with writing reports, then it is only very rarely because they want them to actually produce new ideas. More likely they already have a fixed set of proposals, but they cannot agree on how to meld them. They are, in other words, abdicating political responsibility—responsibility for coming up with an overarching goal that might force them to rethink or drop their pet projects. The think tank scribes, having accepted a prestigious-sounding task, usually only discover this to their dismay when they start writing.

I once co-wrote a “European Global Strategy” for the foreign ministers of Spain, Italy, Poland, and Sweden so I know the pattern. And I recognize this Franco-German expert report on the widening and deepening of the EU as an example of the genre, albeit an elegant one. The authors have created a neat word-package of existing Franco-German reform ideas.

Thus, the report is an expression of the EU’s problems rather than its solution—the problem that the French and Germans believe they alone have a responsibility to sew up Europe between them; the problem that Paris and Berlin achieve progress in European integration by artificially narrowing down political options and choices; and, above all, the problem that both Paris and Berlin have a fixed set of solutions to the EU and are always looking for a problem to justify introducing them.

The Problem with Franco-German Initiatives

Over the past 15 years both France and Germany have again and again proposed the same ideas about how to develop the EU. As these ideas have been rejected, they have somehow become more fixed. The two governments have repeatedly treated real-world crises as just another excuse to trot them out. Even Russia’s war against Ukraine has not shaken them out of this habit. Amidst all the talk of how radically France and Germany have changed stance since the invasion, this report simply dusts off their greatest hits.

France and Germany cannot shake off these habits because they find themselves trapped in a confusion of cause and effect. Each time they step forward to take up (what they see as) the burden of EU integration and introduce reforms to enforce direction and discipline, they meet a backlash inside the EU and out. Their antidote to this backlash is almost always more of the same.

The 2000s were characterized by the task of integrating Central and Eastern European countries into EU institutions, the EU  serving as a microcosm and laboratory for global affairs—as a test-run for getting eastern states like China into western institutions. A decade on, the two governments shake their heads at the rise of populism and corruption inside the EU and at the emergence of a “ring of fire” around it. But did they consider that populism might arise in an EU which has a de facto core of two Western European member states and enforces this hierarchy with neat constitutional mechanisms? And did they consider that EU institutions which have grown more assertive, top-heavy, and exclusive toward its neighbors might cause a “ring of fire”? Evidently not, because their antidote was to double down on precisely these elements.

One would today hope that the outbreak in 2020 of a global system competition—a competition to establish the values and practices of future international order, and which is now playing out intensely in Ukraine—would shake them out of their fixed ideas, and make them think anew about how to use the EU as a laboratory. But do they take a step back and ask what are the stakes and how do we address them? No. When all you have is a rule-of-law mechanism everything is a problem of populism. And when all you have is a concept of European autonomy everything is a problem of international dependence and weaponization. Alles klar, Germany. D’accord, France. You do you.

Back to the 19th Century

The former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once described the EU as yesterday’s solution to tomorrow’s problems. We should be so lucky. Even a 20th century solution would be nice: In the hands of France and Germany, the EU is becoming a juggernaut of 19th century-style statecraft.

When France and Germany take the helm of the EU, as they are doing now, they tend to apply to it their own peculiar histories of state formation. The French are aping the empire-building of the 19th century, with Europe reorganized around a metropole and various fringes of suborn states. And the Germans are aping its own state-building of the 19th century, unifying European states under a common market and constitution.

The Franco-German expert report combines French core-and-periphery thinking with Germany’s experience of unifying little dukedoms in a shared and artificially fractured civilization. There is lots about tiers and circles of European integration. And there is lots about rewiring common European institutions. And there is not much else.

Yet, as Chancellor Olaf Scholz has himself said: In a global system competition, 19th century-style nostalgia belongs to the losers. Front-runners like China and the United States are using their mastery of modernity and transformation in order to set the global rules and values of the future. This is a contest of ways to handle digitalization and decarbonization. 

A Spirit of “Yes, We Can”

For Germany, expanding the EU into Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans, and reforming its shared institutions, takes us closer to its finalité of “European unification.” For France, establishing a sphere of influence for the EU around a political and economic core, takes us a step closer to its notion of Europe-building. Meanwhile, EU members in the Baltics or Central Europe set aside their usual qualms about a Franco-German directoire because they are pleased to see them recognize the need to enlarge eastwards.

All sides are thus using a language of “choicelessness.” They point to the war in Ukraine and the threat from Russia to frame the rationale to reform and expand the EU. They cite the geopolitical situation to push the EU one step further toward their chosen end state.

But stop for just a moment thinking in terms of “we must” and “we have no other choice” when it comes to enlarging and reforming the EU. Think instead in terms of “we can” and “we have the best way of doing this.”  If you want a motivation to widen and deepen the EU, and a constitutional template for how it ought to look, then surely it lies in boosting our capacity for political innovation.

During a global political competition, we should enlarge because we have developed the best policies to bring security and prosperity to Ukraine and its neighbors. And we should enlarge quickly because the way to generate such innovative policies is by increasing the number of voices at the table. And that includes Ukraine, which has much to teach us, and which, frankly, we have used as a test field for our newest technology.

A Creative, Future-oriented EU Enlargement

A European Union that reforms and expands in order to improve its capacity for political innovation—to win the contest for the global future—would have to move away from French and German 19th century thinking, and toward four principles:

First, the plug-in principle. British academics tend to describe the EU not as a super-state-in-the-works but as, in the phrase of economic historian Alan Milward, the rescuer of the European nation state—a tool that European states can exploit in a world where size matters. That interpretation is a little too reductive, but it captures the spirit of the thing. Think of the EU as a plug-in to European inter-state order, helping the states of little Europe respond collectively to the big global challenges of the day.

The member states have used the EU for its shape-shifting effect, as a means to rethink national identity and territoriality, sometimes scaling themselves up, but often simply reinventing their shared geography. The Schengen Area is one such experiment.

And yet, Germans pretend, in hindsight, that Schengen was a classic step in European state-building—part of the creation of a European citizenship and the classic right of free movement on a shared territory. Why this need for a classic template? 

An EU that is experimental, that is open to the outside world, and where localities link up to one another and exchange ideas is one that is well set for political innovation. But it is also one that breaks with the classic 19th century notions of how to provide accountability, oversight, representational democracy.

And an EU that focuses on generating immaterial resources—ideas and new ways of handling the world’s big challenges like digitalization—is one that is well prepped for enlargement and the arrival of productive new brains, even if they come from poor vulnerable states like Ukraine. But it is also one that breaks with the 19th century constitution, with its focus on creating and dividing up material resources within a fixed community.

Second, the sandbox principle. France and Germany, as we have seen, tie the EU to a linear progression, pursuing an end-state for the EU. Germany in particular has treated every crisis of the past 15 years as an opportunity for more of the same, pushing through EU proposals that have already been rejected. The winners in the global political competition, by contrast, will be the states that respond best to disruptions and caesuras. That used to be the EU’s forte—it used to be a kind of governance sandpit.

The sandbox principle is that one generation builds up certain fields of integration to meet the geopolitical agenda of the time, and the next knocks them down, taking the bits and pieces that happen to be useful for them. In the current geopolitical climate, Europe needs policies to grow the best minds, cheap and sustainable energy, critical tech, and large pockets of investment capital. So, raid the eurozone or Schengen toolbox, the energy union or digital single market, to pick those things out, liberating mobility partnerships or the banking union from the logic of silos and ratchets.

In today’s environment, changing course has to trump completing old EU projects. Rather than grimly bringing to an end a reform agenda begun 15-odd years ago—the Migration Pact, for instance—we have to think about what we need in order to succeed over the next 15 years.

Third, the diversity principle. The key to generating new ways of doing things has always been getting new people and new voices on board. The EU needs to enlarge quickly, and—before that—to get countries like Ukraine into the EU’s funding programs, technical agencies, and its politics.

The Franco-German expert report takes a different line—the line that we must reform the EU so that it at least is ready for enlargement by 2030 even if the candidates themselves are not. And yet everyone knows the candidates will not be ready to join in 2030 or perhaps even 2040—at least, not if the precondition is that they have aligned with us in regulatory terms.

A war economy like Ukraine’s is a corrupt economy awash with illicit cash and opportunity. A war polity like Ukraine’s is something approaching a dictatorship, heavily centered around the president, who is loved abroad and resented at home. And so, despite all the talk of how Europe “must” reform because of the geopolitical situation, all EU states know it will not, because there is no pressure or rationale.

In short, the greater the focus on transforming states like Ukraine in the likeness of how France and Germany picture themselves, the greater the risk of cutting them off. We put up barriers around the EU in order to create leverage. But treat diversity as a boon to the EU’s own power, and a different notion of enlargement and readiness becomes possible. Moreover, openness and inclusion are the far better drivers of reform.

Fourth, the down-and-out principle. If political innovation—coming up with new policies to deal with global transformations that enjoy societal trust in Europe and that other societies outside the EU might wish to adopt—is the flavor of today’s geopolitics, then the EU must look down and out.

Down because if Europe is in a battle of political innovation, then it is the local level that is likely to hone and scale up good new ideas. Out because Europe needs to be as open as possible to the outside world. EU member states are unlikely to have a monopoly on coming up with new ideas.

But there is another reason to take this down-and-out perspective. The EU is not the future—that lies elsewhere. If nation-building was the task of the 19th century, and international organization-building was the task of the 20th century, locality-building will be the task of this one. To adapt to climate change and other global challenges, localities world-wide need to be hooked up in new institutions.

EU-building is not, therefore, an end in itself. At a time of global stress and transformation, political authority rather lies below the EU level and outside it. The last thing the world needs right now is for Europeans to focus on building up a continent-sized state. An innovative EU, however, may play a role in building new “glocal” policies, practices, and institutions.

Alternative Histories of EU Reform

The last eight decades did in fact see member states embrace the EU as a creative plug-in to European order, a regulatory sandbox that allowed them to pick and mix the best tools to deal with the grand problems of the moment. This was an EU well aware that its experiments and enlargements made it an “unidentified geopolitical object,” which might spook other powers, but it remedied this not by falling into classic statehood or geopolitics but rather by making the benefits of EU integration available to the rest of the world, as German Chancellor Scholz himself stated in his address to the European Parliament in May.

European government developed a two-step formula of internal EU experiment followed by external enlargement, and one can write EU history as a sequence of just such 15-year phases.

1945–60 was the founding phase of the EU, a time of reinvention rather than classic reconstruction, reprising the wacky spirit of the 1919 Peace Conference with a decision to mutualize the fuels of war—coal, steel, and young men. 1960–75 was a period of economic modernization where the EU absorbed the effects of global decolonization, losing its overseas parts to independence and gaining new members on the continent itself. 1975–90 saw a global wave of democratization, the introduction of European elections, and former juntas join. 1990–2005 was about the fall of the Berlin Wall, the introduction of the Schengen area and the eurozone absorbing a unified Germany at the heart of Europe, and the accession of non-aligned states at the end of global bipolarity.

The EU, in other words, might have been built to succeed in the geopolitical theme for the next 15 years, 2020–2035. This will be a global political beauty context—a “systemic competition”—in which the most politically innovative states win. The EU offers up the sandbox effect of the eurozone, the Schengen area, the digital single market, the energy union—to generate the requisite policies. And it has an ability to absorb new states quickly and get them contributing ideas, to geopolitical effect.

The Missing Link

The trouble is that there has been a break in the sequence in the 2005–2020 period when Europeans failed to mix experimentation and enlargement. Rather, in 2005 there was an attempt to apply a classic 19th century constitution to the EU. Its rejection by voters led to a period of conservatism and crisis, as the big experiments of the previous age—the eurozone, Schengen—were hit by global trends.

That was the beginning of the “Merkel method,” first tried out after the rejection of the constitutional treaty: Treat a crisis as an excuse to press ahead with a policy that has previously been rejected, rather than tearing things up, responding to popular pressure, and starting again—and the failure to revamp those big experiments.

It was also the beginning of France and Germany treating EU integration as a burden, which they must take up and share. Throughout this period new member states like Poland said very clearly that they wanted to move from being policy-takers—stuck in the logic of aligning with the EU ahead of accession—to policymakers, bringing in new ideas. But they were outside the eurozone core, and could not influence France and Germany.

The period 2005–20 ought to have been the period where east and west integrated in common political and economic institutions, and reinvented experiments like the eurozone and Schengen, which had been designed at least in part to transform the EU’s new hegemon. Instead, it was a period of German dominance; it created the problems of today. There is a danger that we respond with more of the same rather than adopting a good and tested recipe for success.

Roderick Parkes is research director and head of the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for the Future of Europe at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

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