Sep 28, 2023

Toward a Wider and Deeper EU

The process of EU enlargement and reform is starting in earnest. The Europeans need to seize the opportunity to make the European Union fit for the 21st century.

View of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France June 12, 2023.
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One can often fault German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for hesitancy, but rarely for inconsistency.

Since taking office almost two years ago, the chancellor has been speaking out in favor of EU enlargement, with a renewed focus on the so-called Western Balkan Six (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia), which were promised an “EU perspective” almost 20 years ago, but have since stalled, if not regressed, on their varying paths to EU membership.

When Russia launched its brutal full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Scholz took a while, but eventually came round to supporting EU membership for the war-torn country and neighboring Moldova, too. “A united Europe of 27, 30, 36 states, with then more than 500 million free and equal citizens, can bring its weight to bear even more strongly in this world,” he told the Congress of the Party of European Socialists, the pan-European body of the Social Democratic center-left to which his own Social Democrats (SPD) belong, on October 15, 2022.

One year on, this push is starting in earnest. On October 6, a day after Europe’s leaders gather in the across-the-continent European Political Community (EPC) format in Granada, the Spanish EU presidency has invited EU leaders to also hold their informal summit there, with enlargement to be the focus of lengthy discussions for the first time in the European Council. The issues are complex. Scholz has said from the start that a bigger EU needs to be a reformed EU—a position no one is more adamantly advocating for than French President Emmanuel Macron (who earlier reversed years of French policy and stopped putting the brakes on enlargement). Both have already agreed to push for more qualified majority voting, which would mean getting rid of vetoes in realms including foreign and security policy.

To find the right way forward in the “enlargement and reform conundrum,” which Nathalie Tocci analyzes in this issue, will be crucial to make sure the process will be a success, resulting in an EU that is more than the sum of its parts.

In an interview, Anna Lührmann, minister of state for Europe at Germany’s Foreign Office, makes clear that while Russia’s aggression gave the geopolitical impetus, there will be no shortcuts on the road to full EU membership. Lührmann also hopes to make “some” progress before a new European Parliament is elected in June 2024. Meanwhile, Alexandre Adam, former Europe advisor to President Macron, goes further and calls it a “clarifying moment” for Europe—and a chance to redefine what the EU is in the 21st century. (Roderick Parkes has his own ideas on that question.)

All this requires far greater ambitions than the EU, or rather its constituent member states, have been showing of late. The ensuing intra-EU debates are likely to be “very divisive,” as José Manuel Barroso, who headed the European Commission from 2004 to 2014, warned recently. To survive—and thrive—in today’s world, though, the EU needs to think bigger, and deeper, than it ever has.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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