The EU confronts its future

This is a time of major change in the EU.  The Russian invasion of Ukraine and its consequences, including for security and energy policies, doubts over the long-term direction of US policy, the rise of China, the problem of climate change, the impacts of the SARS-COVID19 pandemic and the consequences of Britain’s departure from the EU, have all combined to force change in the EU and in its Member States’ domestic policies.

As if this was not enough, the EU already faced (along with most of the rest of the Western world) major global challenges including the UN’s failure to play a meaningful role over Russia’s war of aggression, lack of consensus on WTO reform, the on-going threat of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, and migration.

The pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine, taken together, have also triggered the most serious economic crisis in Europe since the 2008 global financial crisis, with low levels of growth, Euro area inflation at 8.9 per cent1, and delays to some key economic projects such as Capital Markets Union.  Linked to these has also been a recurrence of challenges to the ECB’s management of the Euro (currently at parity with the US dollar), including – as during the financial crisis – implications for the management of EU members’ government debt, with widening spreads of government bond yields of some EU members, such as Italy and Greece, against members such as Germany.2

The EU’s economic problems are outside this paper’s scope.  But they will provide the backdrop to, and will necessarily influence, the cumulative effect of all these multiple strategic challenges in stimulating major debates within and without the EU about the organisation’s enlargement, its future security policy, including the relationship with NATO, and its own structure.  Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has had an accelerant effect – forcing hitherto avoided policy topics up the EU’s agenda while producing a greater coherence and unity than might have been anticipated.

Concrete steps have been taken to address some of these problems.  The EU has agreed to end its consumption of Russian oil and to substantially reduce its dependence on Russian gas.3  Moldova and Ukraine have been granted candidate status following their applications to join the EU, and Georgia could follow.4  Two EU Member States, Finland and Sweden, applied to join NATO and will do so shortly (that will mean that 23 out of 27 EU Member States will also be members of NATO).  But these are initial steps and much more will be required to even begin resolving effectively the problems that the EU faces.

This paper addresses three of the inter-related challenges: enlargement, security and institutions.  Individually these are major topics so this paper concentrates on the most important points.  We publish it as a contribution to debate.

The challenge of enlargement

The rapid expansion of the EU in the first decade of the twenty-first century led to enlargement fatigue in some Member States.  Voters in many Member States are concerned by growing migration, feel Western European economies are being undermined by cheaper labour from Eastern Europe and dislike the budgetary consequences of EU expansion.  These concerns are reflected in the rise of populist parties and growing opposition to further enlargement in some Member States (notably, France, Germany, the Netherlands and possibly in a future Italian government).5

Some mainstream political parties are also concerned about the pace and scale of enlargement.  They have identified institutional problems for the EU in coping with more Member States, and some see Treaty changes with more QMV as necessary to ameliorate this.  The financial cost of adding new members is also of concern.

These concerns in Western and northern Europe have led to enlargement being stalled, with negotiations with Turkey blocked and those with the Western Balkans nations drifting into stasis.  This in turn has contributed to a loss of support for EU accession in the Western Balkans, especially in Bosnia and North Macedonia, but also in Albania.  Supporters of reform and change in those countries have begun to ask what future there could be for the countries of the Western Balkans if they cannot join the EU.  Opponents of the EU in those countries have often received political support from Russia.  A dispute between Kosovo and Serbia in the summer of 2022 was resolved temporarily through EU mediation but the renewed tensions within Bosnia have so far proved more intractable.

A feeling has also developed in parts of the EU that it has expanded too rapidly without ensuring that new members truly accept EU values, and that some are no longer meeting the Copenhagen criteria.6  Critics of enlargement point to the evidence of endemic corruption in Bulgaria but also in Romania, that there are clear challenges to the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, including attacks on independent judiciary and free media, and that this raises questions about ability of EU to enforce its values even among its own Member States.7

And then there is the question of Turkey.  The country applied to join (the then) European Community in 1987, was granted candidate status in 1995 and negotiations began in 2005 but stalled in 2016 over issues relating to Cyprus.  The Commission found Turkey in breach of the Copenhagen criteria in 2017 amid a sense that Turkey under President Erdogan has chosen a different path, one that rejects state secularism and the adoption of European democratic values.  But in truth there are wider concerns within the EU, including about admitting such a large country, unspoken fears about it being Muslim and nervousness about extending the EU’s boundaries into Asia.  The weaponisation of Turkish potential membership in the UK’s 2016 EU referendum showed how populists could use the issue to their advantage.  The question of Turkish membership could be revived by the 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey if they resulted in a new government wanting closer links with the EU.

The weaknesses in the enlargement process of the EU have been a factor generating enlargement fatigue both in existing members and in some of the applicant nations.  Partly this is because the processes involved are time-consuming (candidate countries must adopt the EU’s legal acquis and this is both technically challenging and takes time) but also because there is no certainty that a candidate country will be accepted, even if it meets all the criteria.  Any Member State can veto a new member at any stage of the process, making an application unpredictable for the candidate country.  Despite a new enlargement methodology having been adopted in 2020 critics argue that further reform is needed to make the process less cumbersome and more certain.8

Critics have often argued that there is a tension between greater integration and further enlargement.  This argument, most commonly articulated in the six founder member countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands), and reflected in public opinion there, suggests that enlargement dilutes the identity of the EU and reduces its effectiveness.

One way of dealing with the question of deeper integration is to proceed on the basis of a two-speed or multi speed Europe, an old idea recently revived by President Macron, which already exists in the euro, Schengen and in permanent structured co-operation in defence.  In fact enhanced co-operation goes back to the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty.  Macron’s idea of avant-gardes, members who deepen integration between themselves but don’t exclude others from joining, is disliked by other EU members who feel it will relegate them to second class membership.  For the same reason, it would be seen by applicant countries as delaying and complicating their aim of becoming members.

Could other approaches provide a better platform for countries closely linked to the EU?  The idea of a European Political Community was also proposed by Macron, in order to build on economic ties such as association agreements by offering a meeting point with the EU for both candidate and non-candidate countries.  Despite scepticism that this is just an attempt to avoid admitting new EU members, the first meeting is planned for October 2022.  The invitees include most European countries not in the EU except Russia and Belarus; the UK and Turkey have been invited.  Critics ask what this forum could actually do; Macron suggested political and security co-operation, energy, transport, infrastructure and investment, and free movement of people.9  The initial discussions will focus on the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis.

There are some specific issues with admitting Ukraine and Moldova (and Georgia too).  The first of these relates to the mutual assistance clause in the Treaty on European Union, which means that EU Member States would be obliged to support them if Russia attacked in future but this is not the same as the mutual defence obligation in Article 5 of the NATO Treaty.  The “mutual assistance” referred to in Article 42 (7) of the TEU is described as “an obligation of aid and assistance” and there is a specific reference in the Article to not prejudicing “the specific character off the security and defence policy of certain Member States”, that is, their neutrality.  Assistance is likely to fall short of military assistance in the sense of deploying combat forces and the whole Article is limited to self-defence under the UN Charter.

Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia all have parts of their territory occupied by Russian forces and/or by breakaway pseudo states.10  Such a situation is usually seen as an obstacle to accession but it is not insuperable – the EU found a method of handling this to admit a divided Cyprus.

There are also issues with weak democracy and prevalent corruption (all three countries are described as “partially free” countries by Freedom House).  In addition, there could also be problems over the financial cost of membership for larger countries such as Ukraine.

However strong the misgivings over further enlargement may be, the imperative to respond to the Ukraine crisis and the EU’s commitment to the accessions of the candidate countries is likely to prevail even if the process will be long. Most likely, as in the case of previous accession negotiations, compromises will be found to the twin demands of deepening and widening.

Extracts from a new paper from the European & International Analysts Group with image via European Commission