EU Enlargement: The necessity of a (geo)political clarification

Thierry Chopin, Lukáš Macek

9 mins - 19 de Septiembre de 2023, 07:00

Over the past fifteen years or so, the question of enlargement, which in the 1990s and 2000s was a top priority, has been losing importance. However, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has radically changed the situation, and enlargement has suddenly returned as a top priority of the European agenda.

At the root of this shift is an awareness of the need for geopolitical reflection: engaged in a fierce confrontation with Putin’s Russia but also in a growing strategic rivalry with China, the EU cannot ignore its immediate neighbourhood, let alone leave it prey to instability and hostile influences. Moreover, Ukraine’s request (along with those of Moldova and Georgia) cannot be ignored by the Union if it is not to deal a fatal blow to the credibility of its very raison d’être. The question of credibility remains unresolved for the rest of the process: a repetition of the scenario that has unfolded with the Western Balkans since 2003 would have disastrous consequences for both Ukraine and the Union. Ukraine’s integration – both in terms of size and preparedness – presents difficulties that go beyond those experienced by the Communities or the Union in previous enlargements.

The EU is thus faced with squaring the circle: how to avoid giving in to Ukrainian despair and demobilisation through a long and technical accession process, which may sometimes entail painful adjustments, while at the same time not running the risk of accepting an ill-prepared enlargement that could destabilise the EU or even cause it to implode? Given the difficulties in “digesting” the 2004 enlargement – which are one of the factors behind the rise of Euroscepticism across the Union – it is easy to imagine the damaging political dynamics that a badly managed Ukrainian accession could generate. Not to mention the Western Balkans, which must be included in the new enlargement dynamic.

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This underpins the need to rethink the method. It would be disastrous to tackle this new challenge with the old instruments, whose limitations have been highlighted by previous enlargements. The key lies in overcoming the rigid and monolithic nature of the definition of the objective, such as accession to the Union, with its binary logic and the deep gulf separating candidate status from membership, perpetuating a – politically damaging – deeply asymmetrical perception of the relationship between current and future Member States. Hence the interest of the various debates that are developing around the idea of “gradual accession”, that is to say, a much more progressive organisation of the accession process, in which the boundary between members and candidates becomes more variable, in both time and space, depending on the dynamics of the relationship between each candidate state and the Union. On the other hand, it is essential to ensure a rapid political and symbolic conquest, enabling citizens of the candidate countries to feel “part of the family” long before their country has overcome all the obstacles involved in transposing Community law and adapting its economy. In short, until now citizens had to be consumers in the European single market before becoming citizens of the Union. Now the logic has to be reversed: become a citizen as soon as possible and give yourself the time needed to reach the level required for full integration into the internal market.

This paradigm reversal requires, in particular, the fastest and fullest possible proactive integration in the Union’s institutions, but also in those Union policies where the legal and economic hurdle is not very high, starting, for example, with the Common Foreign and Security Policy. All this, of course, subject to a sincere and credible commitment to the values and foundations of the Union’s strategic guidelines, as well as to a reform of the Union that avoids the risk of deadlock provoked by the blackmail strategies of one or other Member State.

This prospect of a “Greater Europe”, which assumes greater flexibility in its functioning in exchange for greater efficiency in its decision-making, is made not only legitimate but also indispensable by the “geopoliticisation” of Europe, which can no longer be considered a simple option; it is now a necessity imposed on Europeans by Vladimir Putin. In the face of these challenges, the European Political Community (EPC) makes perfect sense. It has the potential to become the immediate prefiguration (and not an alternative!) of a political space in which member states and candidate states stand on equal footing, coordinating with other European states, to exchange views on key issues for the future of the continent.

Let us face it: even if the Union succeeds in finding a new method for a more gradual, inclusive, and rewarding enlargement process for the candidates, while preserving the integrity and core values of European integration, the road ahead will be long, complicated, and inevitably fraught with various political crises. There are many complex issues to address: institutional reform; the budgetary framework, in particular in the face of the headaches that are the Common Agricultural Policy and Cohesion Policy; respect for fundamental values, in particular the Rule of Law… All these challenges risk returning the Union to debates which, in the past, have threatened its very existence, and which find a particular echo in France, a founding country which, from the outset, has had a particularly ambivalent attitude towards European integration in general, and towards the enlargement process in particular.

The French approach to the question of enlargement has traditionally been characterised by fierce scepticism: a double Gaullist veto against the entry of Britain in the 1960s, criticism of the entry of southern countries in the 1980s, fearing in particular the risk of competition from Spanish farmers; above all, concern about the accession to the EU in 2004-2007 of the countries that emerged from the former Eastern bloc, strongly Atlanticist and pro-market economy and suspected of practising forms of social and fiscal dumping. All this fuelled the traditional French argument that the European project was being diluted.

In fact, what fundamentally explains the relationship of mistrust among the French (both in the political and administrative elites as well as in public opinion) lies in the political logic that defines the relationship between France and Europe: that of “reincarnation” (to use Zbigniew Brzezinski’s expression) or “projection”, according to which European construction is conceived above all as a “France en grand. The immediate consequence is that, from the French point of view, the more the Union enlarges, the more French influence is diluted; this explains the success of the discourse in France on the opposition between enlargement and deepening as well as on variable geometry, multi-speed Europe, and so on. The Europe that France dreams of is a “Carolingian” Europe, and many French are unable to cope with the new continental dimension achieved in 2004.

Since the end of the Cold War, France’s difficulty in discarding the project of a small ‘Carolingian’ Europe has become a strategic disadvantage for France with its partners, while geopolitics on the margins of the continent is imposing itself increasingly on the process of European construction. Now, as we have seen, the war in Ukraine has revived the question of EU enlargement, leading Emmanuel Macron to launch the project of a ‘European Political Community’ (EPC). As the French president made clear rather quickly, the EPC should not be dissociated from the dynamics of enlargement. Thus, by launching the EPC project, France seemed to want to dispel its own reputation for being cautious about enlargement, particularly towards the east of the continent. However, France’s political and administrative elites still have sincere difficulties in admitting that the “geopoliticisation” of the EU requires an enlargement that remains compatible with the original European integration project, and likewise in explaining this to a sceptical public. France’s difficulties in thinking of a “Greater Europe” and enlargement as an element of European power are detrimental to French influence within the EU.

President Macron seems to have understood this and broke with this traditional French view in his speech in Bratislava in May 2023, when he declared that “the question (...) is not whether we should enlarge (...) or even when we should enlarge, for me it is as soon as possible”. This speech marks a shift in the French narrative on enlargement, with a positive message to Central and Eastern European countries. However, this new approach has yet to be translated into concrete initiatives. Moreover, it requires clarification on three key issues, necessary for France to play its full role in the organisation of a “Greater Europe”.

First, the ambiguity that persists over the link between enlargement and deepening must be eliminated by clarifying France’s intentions and demonstrating its capacity to promote reasonable compromises in terms of adapting the institutions of a state to a Union of more than 30 Member States. Secondly, it is necessary to clarify the ambivalence of the French discourse on a “multi-speed Europe” which, on the one hand, has its legitimacy – differentiation can be conceived as a path to integration – but which, on the other hand, may give the impression that France is still trapped in its nostalgia for a “Carolingian Europe” that would seek to relativise the achievements of successive enlargements. Finally, it is essential to work to ensure that French public opinion comes to terms with the new continental scale and the geopolitical element of the European Union.
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