EU leaders are pondering the union’s future expansion in the east – and realising that only a radical rethink can make it work
For the first time in two decades, EU governments could soon be ready to embark on reforms that would make the EU as we know it unrecognisable. A final communique from a summit of heads of government in Granada last Friday said the 27 leaders had agreed to “lay the necessary internal groundwork and reforms” needed before Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and six other candidate countries of the western Balkans can join. The accession of these countries may be a long way off, but preparing for it makes radical internal reform inescapable. The leaders’ joint declaration was the first unanimous acknowledgement of that. Separate statements from leaders including Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholzsignalled the growing appetite for the shake-up that they have long avoided.
The big crises of the past decade or more – from the eurozone crisis to Brexit, the Covid pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine – have all tested Europe’s ability to respond collectively to international challenges. The EU proved its resilience with decisions on such measures as new EU-wide taxes to fund Covid recovery, joint procurement for vaccines and weapons and an emergency system to welcome Ukraine’s war refugees. Yet its joint responses also revealed the limitations of a system and structures created for another age.
Despite the manifest inadequacies and the growing signs of strain, governments have – until now – resisted any genuine reform of the EU’s internal structures. Too often, they have muddled through invoking emergency measures, with little or no democratic scrutiny. The EU is also vulnerable to constantly being taken hostage by member states’ national agendas, from migration to grain imports, undermining its ability to act and its overall authority.
Not only does the EU lack some of the powers it needs in key areas, and appear insufficiently accountable to its citizens for newly acquired responsibilities, it is also under attack from within. Over the past decade the EU has proved incapable of taming rebellious member states, such as Poland and Hungary, whose governments continue to defy the core principles of membership, such as the rule of law.
With expansion to nine new states, including Ukraine, totalling 60 million people, now on the cards, muddling through is no longer an option. Ukraine’s size and population alone, were it to join the EU under the current rules, would not only further destabilise day-to-day decision-making in Brussels, it would derail the biggest common policy areas, such as agriculture.
The next enlargement offers an unmissable opportunity to make the union strategically independent in a menacing new world order and capable of leading on the climate emergency. But it can’t mechanically follow the blueprint of previous expansions to the east in 2004 and 2007.
In the years since, the EU has been pretending to negotiate accession with candidate countries such as Serbia and Montenegro – which have in turn pretended to carry out the reforms required to join. Maintaining this fiction has damaged the credibility of the admissions process, which has confirmed the sceptics’ belief that candidate countries will never be ready.
Yet as it is now in their self-interest to expand, EU leaders appear ready to entirely rethink the union’s future and its underlying governance framework. Two parallel initiatives underpin a continent-wide debate that is taking off. First, the European parliament is asking EU leaders to start treaty reform as early as next year. Second, the “Group of 12” – a Franco-German initiative made up of experts – has come up with a set of proposals for sweeping structural reforms. A formal start to negotiations on one of these approaches could happen by December.
While the two initiatives appear complementary, they respond to very different logics. In the EU parliament’s vision, all members must be pressed to integrate more closely or leave the union. The Group of 12 flips that logic. It envisages four distinct tiers of membership, the last two falling outside the EU altogether. These “concentric circles” would include an inner circle whose members could have even closer ties than those that bind the existing EU; the EU itself; associate membership (internal market only); and the looser, less demanding tier of the new European Political Community.
This multi-speed construct would for the first time allow some member states to integrate more deeply in certain areas and prevent others from stopping them. For this, the report proposes to get rid of the requirements for unanimous voting, even if scrapping vetos entails accepting different levels of commitment to integration. This fresh, pragmatic approach to expansion appears more attuned to today’s realities than the EU parliament’s vision.
EU accession and membership can no longer be an all-or-nothing affair. To preserve its credibility, the EU must move away from the dominant yet illusory paradigm of “set menu” membership towards a new understanding in which each country commits to integrate, but on the basis of a more “à la carte” menu of possible arrangements.
This suggests that not only could prospective members choose the degree of integration most suitable to their needs and realities, but that current members (or past ones such as the UK) could reconsider their commitment to the EU. While incoming countries remain free to choose which circle to join, respect for the rule of law is not negotiable. Hence, it would be possible to de facto exclude a non-compliant member from a given circle.
Both sets of proposals would profoundly alter the nature of the European Union. While the former would further entrench it as a fortress of like-minded states, the latter would pave the way to a more heterogeneous multi-speed construct. Paradoxically, by setting aside its historically ingrained “all-or-nothing” approach to accession, the EU would for the first time expand and deepen at the same time. This would be to the benefit of both candidate countries and its existing residents.