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“The international order is changing [and] The EU must change accordingly. ” When Spain took over the EU’s rotating presidency this summer, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s words summed up the new consensus in Europe. A decade of desperate efforts to prevent disintegration of the EU has given way dramatically to internal integration to expand outward (especially is the political necessity of Ukraine).
The shift was given a strong push last week by a group of 12 Franco-German experts tasked with studying how to reform the EU ahead of enlargement. While its report represents neither French nor German policy, it has enough official endorsement to inform talks between EU leaders. It also strikes just enough of a balance between bold and achievable to spark serious discussion.
The “Group of 12” is facing an unavoidable dilemma and an inconvenient truth. The dilemma is that while there is widespread agreement that EU enlargement requires reforms to the EU, there is little consensus on what those reforms should be. The fact is that even without new members, the functioning of the EU needs urgent improvements – both to increase decisiveness and to restore the rule of law and the universal application of the EU’s founding values.
The group concluded – and rightly so, of course – that ambitious reforms must be combined with a clear embrace of a multi-speed Europe. They envisioned Europe as consisting of four concentric circles: one was the core; The EU itself; “associate membership,” which mainly refers to the single market; and the loose linkages of the new European political community. (“Overlapping” is a better word than “concentric” because the groups pursuing deeper integration already vary by region—for example, non-EU countries are members of the Schengen Area.)
As for reforms, they call for several major shifts, each of which would transform European politics. They want EU and member state candidates to commit to being ready for enlargement by 2030. They want to simplify EU decision-making, in particular through more common spending and more qualified majority voting – ideally on all EU-level decisions, including fiscal matters, except for constitutional ones. They want a bigger EU budget. They want a strong anti-corruption office to oversee the EU institutions themselves. They also want to make it easier to withhold funds and suspend voting rights for violations of the rule of law.
Many of these are not new ideas, but the context gives them new relevance. The proposal for a “coalition of the willing” to manage new common spending in the QMV (sub-EU budget) is particularly promising at a time when changes to everything from supply chains to energy links are urgent.
What is also not new is that some countries will never accept these ideas. The group therefore recommends measures such as opting out of deeper integration; sovereignty “guarantees” when strong national interests come into play; and the EU and national top courts being able to disagree on EU law and its tension with national constitutions “court”. The organization demonstrates its ecumenical character here – Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki proposed the creation of such a conference hall two years ago.
Will that be enough to find a way forward—at least for the Vanguard core? Skeptics would say no: most changes would require the support of Hungary and Poland. But two years ago they did accept new rule of law conditions for EU funding, which will predictably be used against them. The power of the wallet is powerful: if the country that pays most of the bills thinks such reforms are worthwhile, it will be difficult to follow through.
The organization was guilty of one crime of omission and one crime of commission. They missed the opportunity to view differentiated integration as a geopolitical tool to bring more countries into the EU orbit, except once for mentioning that North African countries could gain “guest status” at the European Patent Board.
The sins committed were far more serious.The panel held that “… countries with protracted military conflicts cannot join the EU… countries with disputed territories cannot join the EU.” [non-EU country] A provision must be included that these territories can only join the EU if their inhabitants wish to do so.” This applies to Moldova and Ukraine – remembering that the plight of these two countries drove this new reform process – This, parroting the Kremlin’s dictatorship, effectively gives Russia a veto over the two countries’ membership. It is a slap in the face to the age-old dream of a “Europe whole and free.”
This particular idea should be resolutely ignored when EU leaders meet in Granada in a few weeks. However, they will do just fine getting involved in other things.