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Deep Pitfalls line the EU’s Path to the Geopolitical Top Table

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The EU is facing a problem that is familiar to business leaders and corporate chieftains around the world: how to
expand without exploding. Overreach threatens the EU too.


Deep pitfalls line the EU’s path to the geopolitical top table


The EU is facing a problem that is familiar to business leaders and corporate chieftains around the world: how to expand without exploding. Overreach threatens the EU too.

Brussels is poised to embark on its eighth enlargement negotiation, so one might think there would be few doubts about how to proceed. That’s not the case, though, and anyone with a nodding acquaintance of EU affairs can point to the main reasons why.

If asked to draw up a list of ‘awkward squad’ candidates for EU membership, most – if not all – of the 10 possible candidates would be on it. For a start, most of them are, diplomatically speaking, at daggers drawn with at least one other candidate. Also, they are relatively poor and politically volatile, and likely to place huge new strains on the EU’s over-stretched budget.

Just as NATO’s Washington Treaty does not allow membership of any country engaged in a territorial dispute, so too must the EU to be very wary of the fact that Russian troops occupy parts of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Of the Western Balkan candidates, Kosovo is still at odds with Serbia as well as Albania and has yet to be recognised by five of the EU’s present Member States. Other squabbles of varying importance pit Bulgaria against North Macedonia, Greece against Albania, and Hungary against Ukraine.

The path to an EU of 35 (we can forget Türkiye for the foreseeable future) is strewn with obstacles. Yet, the case for ignoring these is compelling. If the EU can somehow overcome the huge problems of a further enlargement, it will unquestionably have carved itself a place at the 21st century’s geopolitical top table.

An EU that stretches from the Atlantic to Central Asia would bring the EU’s present 450 million or so to over half a billion souls. The enlargement also promises to neutralise Russian president Vladimir Putin’s attempts to destabilise the Balkans and the Black Sea region, and effectively put a stop to his ambition of recreating both the Soviet and Tsarist Russian empires.

But first the EU will have had to streamline its internal decision-taking methods, and that would arguably be the biggest achievement of all. For decades the Union’s Members have hummed and hawed over genuine reforms to its institutional arrangements. This hugely ambitious enlargement would at last force it to bite the bullet and introduce genuine change.

Part of the impetus for far-reaching treaty changes comes from the less satisfactory aspects of the EU’s more recent enlargements. The founding fathers’ idealism of all states being equal led to blank cheque enlargement deals that either left the EU saddled with problems of ‘unfinished business’ like the partition of Cyprus, or the flouting by maverick governments in Poland, Hungary and Slovakia of some of the EU rules they had signed up to.

The ‘Big Bang’ enlargement that brought ten newcomers into the EU in 2004, and subsequently three more, was essential in post-Cold War geopolitical terms. But it also diverted many of the EU’s energies away from priority areas like the full completion of the Single Market. It was to avoid such disruption that Jean-Claude Juncker when President of the European Commission announced in 2014 a pause in EU membership talks with a number of Balkan countries, notably Serbia.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has now made further enlargement of the EU unstoppable. But that does not diminish the institutional challenges of streamlining the slow and creaky EU decision-making process that was adequate when the bloc was dealing chiefly with internal matters.

The most dramatic change, which experts have long wanted, and the EP is proposing, is the wholesale application of QMV. The details of what would constitute a majority are still heatedly discussed, but the bottom line is that QMV would be extended into security, defence and foreign affairs, with only one important caveat – Member States could not be forced to send troops for an EU military operation.

A fresh round of EU reform discussions between Member States is inevitable, but how fast and how far they will progress is an open question. The Union has for 60 years resembled a convoy of merchant ships sailing at the speed of its slowest member, and now it is proposed that it be transformed into a fleet resembling warships that operate much more flexibly.

Flexibility is the operative word for the champions of radical reform. A Franco-German study group of a dozen experts – the so-called ‘Group of Twelve’ – has suggested a future European political architecture of four concentric circles. At the centre would be the 20 members of the Eurozone. Next, all EU Member States. After that a third tier of countries in the European Economic Area and the Single Market. And lastly, the countries of the European Political Community, which would include the United Kingdom and Azerbaijan.

The revision of EU treaties has always been a complex and lengthy process, and this one would clearly be far more difficult than any that have gone before. But there is a strong sense of now or never. Among the many crucial elements of a reform package is the electoral reform of the EP. A major boost to the EU’s democratic underpinnings is an essential counterbalance to QMV in areas where a Member State is forced unwillingly into a particular course of action.

But if that hurdle cannot be cleared very soon, point out diplomats and MEPs, there can be no EP reform until after 2029, the 50th anniversary of direct elections. In that case, the EU’s urgent need to enlarge could not conceivably take place until a decade from now, by which time the face of Europe will no doubt look very different.


This article was also published on the TEPSA website.


(Photo credit: European Union, 2022)