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From rhetoric to action on enlargement: A three-pronged way forward

EU enlargement / COMMENTARY
Corina Stratulat

Date: 11/09/2023
It might be the rentrée, but the debate about EU enlargement has not taken a break, nor is it showing signs of slowing down. Since Russia’s war in Ukraine, the dossier has seen a meteoric rise on the EU’s agenda and has become the talk of the town – in Brussels and the member states’ capitals.

The perception that enlargement has become a geopolitical imperative that serves the EU’s fundamental security interests in the new era partially explains the transformation of the policy into a political priority. At the same time, the growing attention to enlargement is due to a host of manifest, polarising and uncomfortable issues – some long-standing (e.g. the EU’s absorption capacity), some more recent (e.g. the ‘Ukraine question’) – that could stymie the prospect of bringing ten more members into the EU’s fold.

The stakes are high: if the EU does not square the challenge with the need to deliver enlargement, it cannot influence the emergence of a new security architecture. The EU and its member states will keep talking and meeting regularly about enlargement in the coming months. The key question is what they will do to resolve the enlargement dilemma. Only concrete action can lend credibility to the ongoing conversation, and it should follow three strategic lines: (1) consensus building, (2) forethought planning, and (3) resource allocation for enlargement.

Present a common front

EU institutions and the member states should be on the same page in their communication and efforts on enlargement. In the future, it's best to avoid the lack of coordination and agreement that transpired within the EU around the 2030 enlargement target date that European Council President Charles Michel announced in August. The issue is not whether President Michel’s timeline is feasible and desirable – the nub of much of the criticism expressed by other European institutions and member states; to be sure, all sides bring forward some good arguments. Nor is it probing if the relevant stakeholders should have different views – they do and will continue to do so.

The point is that a divided house cannot stand in pursuit of such a formidable goal as enlargement is at present. Public spats highlight the chasm between lofty political rhetoric and the EU’s capacity to advance the enlargement process to completion. European leaders will arguably never see eye to eye on every aspect of this policy. But they should not allow internal struggles to play out in public and cast doubt on whether the EU has or can deliver an unshakable vision of a joint future with the enlargement countries. Before the end of the current term, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, along with President Michel and the European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, should convene an inter-institutional conference on EU enlargement and seek to rally everyone behind a common front.

Forethink all steps of the way

With or without agreement on a specific deadline, the EU should formulate a comprehensive plan that clearly outlines the tasks, milestones, and priorities that will see enlargement through. Aspiring countries still have their ‘homework’ to do. But it is high time that the EU started cracking on with its preparations.

For many, an EU of 30+ members raise legitimate questions of governability. The EU’s expansion to a dozen more countries will inevitably affect the balance of power, voting rights, and internal decision-making. The challenge is not only one of numbers – e.g. how to ensure that countries do not block policies and how to decide on who gets/or does not get a Commissioner. It is also a problem of scale, considering that Ukraine’s population is over 43 million (compared to 15 million for all Balkan countries). EU policies, like the Common Agricultural Policy, or structural/regional policies and their financing will need revision. Discussions focus at present on extending Qualified Majority Voting only in foreign and security policy or phasing-in voting rights for the enlargement countries to accelerate integration and mitigate their impact on EU decision-making.

Potential trade-offs between democratic governance, security, and stability further complicate these considerations. Continued problems with democracy in existing member states caution against the risk of importing more of the same if current aspirants join. Likewise, admitting members who are either embroiled in active conflicts or entangled in frozen ones has security implications for the EU. Reconciling long-term thinking with short-term imperatives becomes paramount.

To prepare itself for enlargement, the EU should face up to all these and other challenging questions, hold difficult conversations, identify the issues that are not yet on its radar, but should consider different scenarios of development in an evolving security landscape and their consequences, and seek solutions and actions for the short and medium-term to avoid bigger problems in the future. For that purpose and before the end of the current politico-institutional cycle, the European Council should draw on the advice of the EPC’s High-Level Advisory Group and mandate a WiSE WO|MEN GROUP – including both experienced political heavyweights and representatives of younger generations – to come up with a list of core policy innovations, identify ways to improve the EU’s governance structure, and forge an ambitious reform roadmap. If member states wait until after the upcoming elections of the European Parliament to act, it will likely take a long time for the EU institutions to position themselves.

This urgent plan to deliver enlargement must be both anticipatory and clear on what will have to be done, treaty reform included. It is also possible that several rounds of reform will be needed, as happened before the ‘big bang’ enlargement (i.e. the Treaties of Nice and Amsterdam, as well as the Convention on the Future of Europe, preceded the Lisbon Treaty). Waiting for high pressure to build before member states decide to spring into action might lead to further and counterproductive delays. Instead, preparations should start in earnest. The success of enlargement hinges on it.

‘Put the money where your mouth is’

If the EU and its member states manage to close ranks behind an ambitious vision of engagement with the vicinity and devise a credible plan to implement it, in that case, appropriate resources will have to follow. The EU should double down on its economic and expert support for the enlargement countries. A major shift towards sectoral integration is anticipated in the Commission’s upcoming Enlargement Package and could help in this regard. Offering prospective members greater access to EU funds or entry into the Single Market, Digital Market, Green Deal, industrial policy, or foreign and security policy would extend important benefits prior to accession. But such sectoral agreements should not become an alternative to full EU membership or prescribe a ‘multi-speed Europe’ for the long haul.

In addition, the EU should mobilise expert support to help enlargement countries finally address issues that have long conditioned progress (e.g. weak governance, statehood, bilateral disputes, and reconciliation). To develop workable solutions that resonate locally, the EU should enlist support from civil society and rely on citizens’ consultation processes. In parallel, the EU should reflect on internal mechanisms that would allow it to cope with situations in which pre-accession fixes do not last or to accept countries that ultimately fail to find effective solutions. In this sense, the EU should invest, for example, in the development of a democratic acquis or in ways to enforce the proposed ‘confidence clause’ in case of infringements.

The challenge of delivering enlargement is real, but it is also an opportunity for the EU to grow in size and global stature. Will the EU seize the chance?

This Commentary is part of the EPC’s ongoing Task Force on EU enlargement

Corina Stratulat is a Senior Policy Analyst and Head of the European Politics and Institutions Programme.

Teona Lavrelashvili is a Policy Analyst in the European Politics and Institutions Programme and Coordinator of the EPC’s Enlargement Task Force.

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