The EU needs to detail a 'Ukraine strategy' free of empty promises

Frankly Speaking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt examines the strong case for further EU enlargement, and also warns of the potentially destructive pressures it would generate.

What sort of European Union lies ahead? It’s tempting to think that it will be larger and more powerful – after all, the ‘Big Bang’ enlargement chiefly towards central and eastern Europe helped turn the EU from a trading bloc into a key geopolitical player.

But this could be a dangerous assumption as further growth looks fraught with peril. Arguments over the pros and cons of admitting Ukraine and a string of fractious Balkan nations now loom over the EU’s already daunting agenda.

The problem isn’t only the parlous state of the candidates. It’s also that another enlargement could make the EU’s political architecture unstable enough to collapse. A telling comment on integration by the late French cartoonist Jean-Jacques Sempé comes to mind. He drew the leaders of the original six EEC members seated at a roundtable and all asking a waiter for “just a coffee, please”.

In the next frame they number fifteen and each is requesting a different brew. That was some thirty years ago. Now, at 27, the European Council still manages its members’ demands surprisingly well, but what would it be like with 36?

Bringing in Ukraine and others would mean a revolutionary re-think of the EU’s priorities, procedures and institutions

Ukraine is the latecomer of the nine hopefuls wanting to join the EU. But accepting it even as a candidate with years of negotiation ahead poses major difficulties. And then there’s Albania, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Moldova and Georgia.

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine and his aggressive stance towards Europe has made these countries’ EU ambitions a security need as much as an economic goal. It would be hard – even foolhardy – for the EU to ignore these enlargement pressures and pull up the drawbridge. Yet bringing in Ukraine and others would mean a revolutionary re-think of the EU’s priorities, procedures and institutions.

“It would amount to opening Pandora’s Box,” says Jean-Louis De Brouwer, who heads the European affairs side of the Egmont Institute, a leading Belgian think tank. He points to uncomfortable questions over the EU’s future direction that have long been ignored and that would become unavoidable with another enlargement.

EU decision-making is the most obvious area for reform, but progress on this will be difficult because Berlin and Paris favour different solutions. Germany backs an extension of qualified majority voting to ensure that unanimity requirements no longer allow ‘stand-out’ member states to block consensus. France wants a more radical root-and-branch approach, although details of its new model of ‘EU democracy’ are unclear.

The EU needs to develop a strategy to reassure public opinion on the necessity of enlargement as well as its costs

EU governments have been wrangling over institutional reform for years. The last serious attempt at the start of this century culminated in an over-ambitious ‘European Constitution’ that was abandoned. Its pallid successor, the Conference on the Future of Europe, concluded a year ago without making any real progress.

Streamlining the EU’s institutional structures is only one of the challenges presented by further enlargement to include Ukraine and others. A massive overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) would be required because many member states still depend heavily on farming. The admission of an agricultural super-power like Ukraine would force the EU back to the drawing board.

On top of that, there are the financial demands of re-building war-torn Ukraine and integrating it, along with other candidates’ woefully under-performing economies, into the EU’s single market. Some analysts warn that these burdens, when coupled with the mounting costs of demographic ageing and post-covid recovery, could deal a crippling blow to the whole European project.

So far, the spotlight has been on European solidarity in the face of Putin’s aggression. That is clearly essential at this juncture of the Ukraine conflict. It is nevertheless clear that the EU needs to develop a strategy to reassure public opinion on the necessity of enlargement as well as its costs.

Ursula von der Leyen, who has unambiguously backed Ukraine’s eventual membership, is expected to seek a second term as EU commission president following next June’s European elections. She seems likely to be reappointed as there’s a strong case for continuity in the EU’s leadership while the war still rages. What is also needed is a game plan to handle the challenges of welcoming Ukraine and potentially troublesome Balkan counties into the EU fold.

The views expressed in this Frankly Speaking op-ed reflect those of the author and not of Friends of Europe.

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