Posted: Date Posted – 12:45 AM, Mon – 12 Sep 22
By Valon Murtezaj
Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has upended the European order as we know it, even before the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline was cut this week. As the bloc grapples with dealing with the ongoing energy crisis, the issue of consolidating its flanks by accelerating the enlargement process has also come to the fore.
Crowded waiting room
In a critical meeting on June 23-24, the European Council granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova and recognized Georgia’s “European perspective” – a nod acknowledging that the future of the country belonged to the European Union.
Less than a month later, Brussels put an end to the waits of 8 and 17 years respectively of Albania and North Macedonia by authorizing them to enter the accession negotiations.
This leaves two groups of countries aspiring to join the Union: on the one hand, the six Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia) which began their journey in 2003 when of the EU summit held in Thessaloniki, Greece, and are now at different stages of membership. On the other, the three countries Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, which submitted applications to join the bloc following Russia’s aggression in Ukraine earlier this year.
Laborious membership criteria
Such an unruly patchwork clearly shows the need for a faster and more efficient membership process. Indeed, countries currently aspiring to join the bloc must prove that they are able to meet the Copenhagen criteria established by the Council of the EU in 1993 in the capital of Denmark. These include the establishment of strong democratic institutions, respect for the rule of law, human rights and the protection of minorities.
Potential EU Member States must also show that they have a functioning market economy and the institutional and administrative capacity to implement all EU legislation and rules imposed on Member States. members, or the acquis.
Once these conditions have been met, each of the 27 member states of the European Council must vote on the accession of new members, according to a unanimous voting system. So, could the war finally lead the EU to enlarge, if not to reform its membership criteria?
Scholz Diplomatic Blitz
There are signs that some want to break the deadlock. Take German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has spent much of the summer pushing for an acceleration of Western Balkan accession talks. On June 10 and 11, he made a whirlwind tour of Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia and Bulgaria during which he reiterated the region’s strategic importance for Germany and berated Bulgaria for blocking the access of North Macedonia due to linguistic and historical disagreements. On August 29, Scholz again urged the union to expand at a conference in Prague: “The center of Europe is moving east,” he said.
Greece joined the ranks. Writing in Politico Europe on June 10, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, stressed “the existential importance of integrating this region into the European family” by 2033 – “an ambitious but achievable timetable”. Keeping this promise would spare aspiring countries disillusionment, but also a “vacuum for hostile actors” like Russia or China in development.
With regard to a strengthened enlargement process, EU Member States such as Austria, Italy, Poland and Slovenia have always expressed their support for welcoming the Western Balkans.
Unanimity versus majority
Many agree that it is high time to streamline the membership process, including reforming the bloc’s unanimity voting system. In Prague, Scholz said: “Where unanimity is required today, the risk of an individual country using its veto and preventing all others from moving forward increases with each additional member state.
The Chancellor went on to announce that he had “proposed a gradual move to majority voting in common foreign policy, but also in other areas, such as fiscal policy – knowing full well that this would also have implications for the European Union. Germany”.
In this regard, Scholz confirms its alignment with France, which has repeatedly criticized the unanimity. It makes sense. The excesses of the bargaining power of certain states have been amply demonstrated by the case of North Macedonia, which has been the subject of two vetoes: first by Greece in 2018 because of the name of the country, then by Bulgaria since 2020 on language issues and the Bulgarian ethnicity of the country. minority rights. At a time of rising populism, majority voting would also prevent oversized egos from hampering the EU.
Any discussion of reform is bound to require heavy lifting before it can materialize, with many people opposed to treaty changes. Hungary, which has been pushing for the inclusion of the Western Balkans in the EU for years, is one of them. At a Council meeting in 2020, Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó called the “proposal that the EU should no longer give unanimous consent to its foreign policy decisions” “dangerous and completely contrary to the treaties of the EU”.
Macron’s two-speed Europe
Pending substantial treaty changes, which would take years of negotiations, one solution could be to adopt differentiated integration along the lines proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron. Speaking at a conference on the future of Europe on May 9 in Strasbourg, he formulated the concept of a European forum that would be separate from the European Union, a “European political community”. Inspired by the initial idea of François Mitterrand (1981-1995) of a European confederation, the community would offer European neighbors a “new space for cooperation on politics, security, energy, transport, investment in infrastructure and the movement of people, especially young people”.
The idea, however, needs to be refined, with the questions of who could join the community, the scope of collaboration and the decision-making procedure still to be debated. It is also unclear whether the forum would serve as an alternative to real enlargement or as an ante-chamber for it.
But whatever the form of EU enlargement, it is clear that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has rallied member states around it like never before in the past two decades. Reservations about majority voting, which ultimately boil down to hesitations about the trade-offs between EU unity and national sovereignty, will require significant leadership to overcome. Rather than fear and confrontation, Member States must now turn to their sense of community and the responsibility of the EU to act as the global actor should be – with urgency and unity.