Enlargement is in the air ...

Published on 26/10/2023
Indeed, more than ever since Charles Michel's speech in Bled (Slovenia) on 28 August, in which he declared, to everyone's surprise, "Enlargement is no longer a dream. It is time to move forward. We must be ready - on both sides - to enlarge by 2030".
The following day, the Commission rejected Mr Michel's plan, stating that the candidate countries had to fulfil the criteria and that there was no timetable. Some Member States also expressed doubts. Meanwhile, President Macron has floated the idea of a multi-speed EU when it comes to the accession of candidate countries.
The idea of a multi-speed Europe is not really new. Two-speed Europe was first mooted in the late 1960s, when there were only six Member States. Another variant is the Europe of concentric circles, in which members make fewer commitments as they move towards the outer circles. In a way, this is already the case, since not all Member States have introduced the euro or belong to the Schengen area. Exemption clauses have existed for decades. See also the Group of 12 below.
The President of the European Council certainly got the ball rolling, to say the least.
It is true that some of these countries had been waiting in the wings for a very long time. On 21 June 2003, at the EU-Western Balkans summit in Thessaloniki, a declaration was issued reiterating the EU's unequivocal support for the European perspective of the countries of the Western Balkans. "The future of the Balkans lies in the European Union. Since 2014, the "Berlin Process", launched by then Chancellor Merkel, has aimed to strengthen (economic) cooperation between the Balkan candidate countries.
Turkey has been waiting even longer.
There are several reasons why accession never materialised, including enlargement fatigue and a reluctance to carry out truly fundamental reforms within the EU.
At this stage, we are talking about 8 recognised candidates: Turkey, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, Moldova, Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo (whose independence is not recognised by 5 Member States) and Georgia.
At the European summit in Granada on 6 and 7 October 2023, European leaders spoke out in favour of a larger Union, but stressed the need to avoid dates and warned against shortcuts.
This summit was preceded on 5 October by the third meeting of the European Political Community (EPC), which brings together 47 European countries. The next meeting of the EPC will be held in London.
The key words are long-term process, absorption rate and necessary reforms.
The date of accession will obviously depend on the candidate countries' ability to assimilate and implement EU legislation (the 'acquis communautaire'), which is one of the so-called Copenhagen criteria (the others being the rule of law and the proper functioning of the market economy).
The EU is aware that serious internal reform will be essential. Member States will need to give serious consideration to issues such as unanimity voting.
And of course there is the financial aspect of the question. How do you finance a European Union of 35 members?
New members would be net beneficiaries. Would this mean less money for current members? Some old Member States are already worried that cohesion funds, for example, will be cut.
Or will the EU budget be considerably increased to meet new needs? Such a budget review should be carried out before enlargement.
According to an internal EU report, if the current rules on agricultural subsidies, regional development and other spending were applied to a Union of 35, the budget would have to be increased by 21 %, or some €256.8 billion a year.
T.I.N.A. (= there is no alternative) but there are serious concerns
The process has therefore been set in motion. The Heads of State or Government are expected at the December summit to take some potentially important decisions, provided they are not too distracted by the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East.
Politically, enlargement is probably inevitable. There is no alternative, as they say.
But this prospect should also give cause for serious concern.
There are also the financial and institutional implications, which clearly show that serious internal reforms of the way the EU operates need to be put in place. Plans have been published, for example by the European Parliament and the Group of 12. The Commission has announced "substantial proposals" for October.
The Group of 12 and the United Kingdom
The Group of 12 is a Franco-German working group which unveiled its proposals last September. It suggests a comprehensive approach to reforming the EU, for example by reducing the number of Commissioners and MEPs, getting rid of national vetoes, increasing the budget, and so on. The proposal for a four-tier Europe is very remarkable: 1. an inner circle for the most aligned countries, 2. the EU, 3. associate members ("EU light"), 4. the European Political Community (EPC). The UK could become a light member of the EU.
Sir Keith Starmer, leader of the opposition in the UK parliament, has already told President Macron that, if he wins the election next year, he will seek an "even stronger relationship" with Europe. Brexit supporters clearly disagree.
Ultimately, the EU could be a very different organisation.
What about the results of the much-heralded Conference on the Future of Europe?
On the other hand, anyone who attaches importance to upholding the rule of law and defending human rights cannot help but feel that considerable progress needs to be made in all the candidate countries in these areas.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have voiced their concerns about human rights, freedom of expression and other issues.
And some of the current Member States already have a bad track record in these areas and the EU has struggled to bring them up to speed. Issues such as corruption are still rife in some Member States, and countries such as Ukraine have a bad reputation in this area.
The result of the general election in Poland on 15 October gives us hope that the freedoms that have been suppressed, along with the rule of law, will gradually be brought back up to EU standards. Who knows, other governments may now adopt less extreme positions. There now seems to be a weaker anti-EU bloc in Central Europe.
We will need to be extremely vigilant throughout the enlargement process. There is a great deal at stake. The rule of law, freedom of expression, self-determination, the rights of all minorities and other values essential to a liberal democratic state must always be defended. Organisations that defend fundamental rights (humanists, Masons, secularists, etc.) have a duty to remain vigilant and to speak out in good time.
We'd like to hear what you have to say.
Until Russia's invasion of Ukraine, our association was not in favour of enlargement towards the Balkan countries, fearing that it would import into the Union the tensions and even conflicts that exist between the states in the region, particularly between Kosovo and Serbia. Moreover, Serbia does not hesitate to distance itself from the European Union's common foreign policy by showing its closeness to Russia. Things have changed and we believe that enlargement is now inevitable. We would like to know what you think and are already considering setting up a working group on this subject, which could be integrated into the working group on the future of Europe. An initial report on the progress of its work at the beginning of next year could be put on the agenda of our General Meeting in March.
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