It’s a Package Deal! Reforming and Enlarging the European Union in a Contested World


The authors are members of the Europe’s Futures Alumni Network of the IWM and ERSTE Foundation.

“Delay always breeds danger; and to protract a great design is often to ruin it.”

Miguel de Cervantes

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has fundamentally changed the strategic environment on the European continent and has showcased a larger global shift currently unfolding. The  European Union’s strategic bet on an interdependent rules-based global system has been upended by the aggressive revisionism coming from the likes of Russia, China, and others. Putin’s war of aggression and its crimes in Ukraine, but also its active pursuit of destabilization in Moldova      simply because of its pro-European, democratic aspirations, show that Russia would stop at nothing and is ready to undermine the international order. For the Kremlin to achieve significant victories it is enough for it to target and exploit every gap in Western strategic unity and commitment to putting up a staunch resistance. The response to these cruel violations will determine the future of this order and the European Union’s place in it.

Europe’s initial reaction has been without precedent in its strength, unity, and resolve. However, it is the long-term rethinking of the common strategic culture that will define whether it can prevail altogether. The European Union is faced by raw power politics and resurgent global competition, where everything is being weaponized and where fierce battles of narratives are fought, as the European External Action Service itself admits. The gloves are off now, and external malign actors will capitalize on every opportunity that the European Union fails to use and on any moment of strategic confusion and hesitance on its part. Confronted with such a scale of provocation and contestation, even the biggest, the richest and most powerful European member states are still not big enough to protect their interests by acting alone.

The European Union needs to develop a joint, ambitious vision for the continent and beyond that rise to the challenge - and it needs to do so in cooperation with every one of its neighbors who is willing and ready to sign up to the European Union set of values and principles, from the UK and Norway to the Western Balkans, Ukraine and Moldova. It further needs to encourage with the same resolve its partners from the MENA region, Turkey or Central Asia to follow suit - or else they will continue to be held hostage by ruthless competitors, through economic pressure, corruption and warmongering. Each of these countries needs to be treated on its merits and according to the relationship that has been defined with the European Union (be it enlargement or association). Certainly, instruments will differ, but the goal has to be to build a stronger, bigger and more resilient global Europe.

Act locally, think globally

If the European Union cannot consolidate its footprint within its own geography, where it has promised a membership perspective and where it has the biggest leverage, it is unlikely to succeed elsewhere, including in its Southern neighborhood. There are perhaps still those who think that the Western Balkans have nowhere to go, ‘condemned’ to be the  European Union’s backcourt yard, and therefore as only having one option: to stick with the European Union. This has proven to be a grave misconception, as Serbia's example has recently shown. There is always the third option, other than aligning with the European Union or with its competitors. There is the increasingly tempting choice of trying to extract the maximum of benefits from all, while being stuck in a grey area of uncertain geopolitical choices and ‘selective’ democracy. The danger is not just that the region may stall in its progress toward European integration, but that it would reverse course significantly with the European Union’s immense investment over the past decades being lost.

European Union enlargement has been stalling in the Western Balkans to the point where it has lost most of its credibility - and thus, leverage. Member states doubt the impact of its reform support, while candidate countries are skeptical that the process actually leads to European Union membership. Having simply too little to show two decades since the promise for a European future of the region was made in Thessaloniki, it is no wonder that the European dream increasingly looks like a road to nowhere. This in turn is embraced by the Russian narrative: ‘the West cannot be trusted and will never deliver’. The Kremlin welcomes the failing narratives in the Balkans, which can then be used as counter-narratives in its own neighborhood. Similarly, the European Union’s projection of influence to the East has also been dwindling, with Georgia lost - for now, at least - to a one-man party dominated by a pro-Russian oligarch, and with Moldova’s pro-European government weakened and under constant attack from domestic and foreign disruptors.

Brussels managed to save the enlargement process last year, first through a historic and strategic response to Russia’s unwarranted attack on Ukraine, but also by granting both Ukraine and Moldova EU candidate status. With enlargement finally mobilized as a strategic choice and conscious of the geopolitical upheaval, the European Union has held the long overdue intergovernmental conferences with Albania and North Macedonia, and offered candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina. These political decisions were a clear signal that the European Union could, regardless of its hesitant behavior in recent years, still be serious about the enlargement process. To persuade partner countries that it stands firm in its commitment and that its decisions last year were not just a knee-jerk reaction to the war in Ukraine, European Union now needs to move beyond signaling. The European Union must come up with a credible plan focused not only on the enlargement process per se, but also on its end goal – the integration of these countries in the Union.

Irrespective of European Union’s public announcements and encouraging speeches, actual membership for candidates Ukraine and Moldova is unlikely to materialize any time soon. While Ukraine is ravaged by the war, Moldova is teetering on the brink, and both countries must deal with the relentless Russian pressure and territorial claims. The Western Balkan states know too well -- as does the European Union -- the negative consequences of empty promises. For this reason, the European Union enlargement process needs to yield tangible intermediary results to preserve popular and political elite commitment; to restore European Union’s leverage in the Western Balkans to regain the lost trust that the European Union does make good on its promises and to encourage citizens, civil servants and political leaders to do their part. Kyiv and Chisinau are watching and if European leaders appear to have zero appetite for actual enlargement with countries that were promised a European perspective over twenty years ago, in a region encircled by member states, why would they believe Brussels ever means what it now says to them?

All the reasons that the European Union has consistently invoked to justify its hesitancy in accepting new members are valid and should be taken very seriously. After all, the fourth Copenhagen criteria has always been the European Union’s absorption capacity. At the same time, the Union cannot afford anymore to defer making key decisions until it has figured out all the answers; its competitors are preying on the European Union’s inability to come together around strategic goals just as they prey on its missteps.

Vetoing the vetoes: Introducing Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) in Enlargement

Turkey is currently blocking Sweden’s NATO accession and is seeking to drive a wedge between Stockholm and Helsinki because it has seen such discretionary exercise of veto rights done before within the European Union - and done so very effectively. Indicatively, Bulgaria has blocked the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia because it suddenly decided to use its leverage as a European Union member state to impose its historical narrative and deny the identity of ethnic Macedonians and their language, in pursuit of revisionist goals. It did so after virtually all European leaders had publicly promised to Macedonian citizens that after settling the name issue with Greece through the conclusion of the Prespa Agreement, the 17 years long awaited accession talks would finally start. For its part, Austria has recently vetoed Romania and Bulgaria’s Schengen accession largely because of internal electoral reasons.

As the continent prepares for a long war ahead, so does Russia; and one thing it knows it can do effectively is to fuel existing grievances, seek to divide and erode European solidarity, and counter the belief that Europe can work together successfully. Moscow is likely to step up such efforts in the future, especially in view of elections across Europe, including the European Parliament elections, and in the United States in 2024.

Therefore, the space for the discretionary exercise of veto rights across all policy areas, including enlargement, should be curtailed through the imposition of political costs , especially on issues unrelated to the Copenhagen criteria and going against European values. At the same time, institutional arrangements for qualified majority voting should be made. The cautiously drafted joint statement launching the group of friends on the use of QMV in European Union common and security policy should also include the European Union’s most effective foreign policy tool – enlargement. Adding qualified majority voting in Council — 55 percent of member states representing at least 65 percent of the European Union population — to approve the progress of a candidate country in all intermediary stages of the accession process, retaining unanimity only for the ultimate step of accession will allow the process to move forward and rebuild trust among candidates that European Union’s promises are meaningful. For the European Union, this would restore its credibility in its neighborhood, thus solidifying its relationship with much needed partners on the European continent and boosting its leverage with respect to its global competitors and rivals.

This may not be the time to open European Union treaties, but it is the time for the European Union to consider how it can apply political pressure on member states that effectively refuse to play by common rules and how to discourage self-serving vetoes motivated by none other than electoral interests. Simultaneously though, it should launch a reflection process that would allow for adjustments in the internal workings of the European Union institutions after 2024 in such a way that its processes can function efficiently.

Strict, fair and engaged on rule of law

The case for stepping up the strategic game does not mean compromising on the Union’s standards at a time of growing competition with autocracy and authoritarianism. Rather than turning a blind eye on democratic and rule of law shortcomings in candidate countries, there should be renewed focus on the rule of law fundamentals, as indeed the European Union enlargement methodology proclaims, to ensure genuine convergence. To achieve this, Brussels and member states need to be consistent in their treatment of governments that fail to comply, while intensifying their engagement with drivers of change at every level, bet it at the institutional level or within civil society thus helping candidate countries  to reach the necessary threshold. This effort must go hand-in-hand with keeping current member states in check, since we have learned that democracy and rule of law cannot be taken for granted, inside or outside the European Union. The Union’s interests are not served if it simply keeps autocratic trends in its neighborhood at bay, but if it successfully helps transform its vicinity in line with its common values.

The chicken and the egg: Reforming and enlarging the European Union

Concerns among European Union member states about the European Union’s decision-making ability and their own potential loss of relative power with the accession of new members are understandable. Chancellor Olaf Scholz echoed President Emmanuel Macron’s bring-our-own-house-in-order-first remarks when he noted that for new members to join the European Union, the European Union must first reform itself, including by changing the principle of unanimity in its decision-making.

The continent, however, cannot afford to wait for the internal reforms to be agreed upon and implemented before full membership for candidate countries is back on the table. The process of convergence and reform itself is a long and tenuous one; but a firm and credible process itself as it unfolds, and not just accession per se at the last step, yields convergence and greater integration. If there is no consensus today or no realistic perspective for closing negotiations in the foreseeable future with any of the candidates, the European Union and its member states need to define the palpable intermediate deliverables that provide reform incentives for candidates while addressing the institutional concerns from the perspective of the member states. This will be particularly vital in the case of Ukraine - the complexity of its European Union accession will will be unprecedented compared to any of the previous enlargement waves. Yet to make good on the European Union promises and to truly engage a country whose European future will be crucial to the stability of the continent itself, the process will need to include tangible benefits accompanying clear progress benchmarks. One pragmatic way forward, according to some experts, could be for candidates to join the European Union, but initially -- for an agreed number of years -- not benefit from veto powers in Council or be guaranteed a Commissioner. This learning-by-doing period would provide the enlarged European Union with the opportunity to reform itself and have all member states move away from veto powers altogether and the model of one Commissioner per member states. If such efforts for reform fail then the newest members would assume their full powers and prerogatives under the current institutional configuration and rules. This juncture might well be the trigger likely needed to achieve political consensus to update the European Union’s structure in line with its future enlarged geography and more ambitious global role.

Developing the phasing-in approach

The phasing-in approach for gradual integration into the European Union can provide the necessary incentives to transform societies, help resolve remaining bilateral disputes, inspire citizens, and make economic convergence far more likely. The current length of the accession process dictates allowing candidates to use some of the prerogatives that have been reserved for them only after they cross the finish line. The Union should gradually provide candidate countries with additional funding, more sectoral cooperation, and a seat in the working bodies and/or meetings of the Council, as they progress with the required reforms.

Because of the war in Ukraine and the new geopolitical environment, alignment of the candidate countries with European Union CFSP has become as important as respect for the rule of law. Therefore, applying an equilibrium principle to the external relations cluster is necessary, whereby the rule of law fundamentals and external relations should both be the pillars that determine progress and/or backsliding in the accession process. Accordingly, those candidates -- be they the Western Balkan countries, Ukraine or Moldova -- that are in full alignment with European Union CFSP and thoroughly implement the restrictive measures and sanctions, should be invited to European Councils, without voting rights but with speaking rights.

Moreover, inclusion of candidate countries in the European Union monitoring mechanisms hitherto reserved for member states, such as the Rule of Law report, the European Union justice scoreboard, the European Semester and others could also help counter the perception that enlargement risks diluting democratic standards in the European Union. This would allow the candidate countries to not only compete among themselves but also to measure their performance against the best performers in the European Union, while more easily detecting their shortcomings and pitfalls.

These ideas are already gaining political support both in the European Union institutions and in the member states. The 23 November 2022 European Parliament resolution on the new strategy for enlargement called for enhancing the European Union’s capacity to act by reforming decision-making, including through the introduction of qualified majority voting when deciding on the start of the negotiation process, as well as the opening and closing of individual negotiating clusters and chapters. Parliament also called for formally assessing accession countries through the European Union’s rule of law mechanism and report, and the European Union Justice Scoreboard.

Fixing enlargement and preparing the ground for an 'EU for the future' will not take place on its own. It will happen through strong European leadership and a bold vision. There is certainly a role for all member states. The outgoing Swedish and the incoming Spanish European Union Presidencies need also to rise to this historic challenge and seize the opportunity. With the year 2024 divided between elections campaigns and the formation of a new Commission and Parliament, against the backdrop of war and an economic crisis, the time to plant the seeds of change is now, so that a comprehensive strategic plan can be laid out by the next European Commission and before the next multi annual financial framework. In this scenario, the next Enlargement Commissioner should be one of the most sought-after positions next year: she or he will have an opportunity to make history. The mission ahead for Spain in the second half of this year is itself historical: not just the bureaucratic task of closing as many outstanding chapters as possible ahead of 2024, but also to provide the launchpad for a European Union fit for the future.

This is the English translation of an article first published in Política Exterior.

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The article gives the views of the authors, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).