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EU Expansion Dilemma: Surging Pressures Clash with Waning Reform Willpower

Thursday, 23 November 2023 18:27 Opinion

"EU Expansion Dilemma: Balancing Security and Reform Challenges"

As the specter of Russia's invasion of Ukraine looms large, European Union (EU) leaders are confronted with the geopolitical imperative of embracing Ukraine, Moldova, and Western Balkan countries as potential EU members. While the urgency for enlargement for greater security heightens, the will to reform the bloc to accommodate these new members seems to be waning, clouded by daunting financial and political costs.

The resurgence of EU expansion discussions follows two decades of governmental procrastination regarding the admission of six small Western Balkan states with a combined population of 20 million. Although these countries were granted a "European perspective" in 2003, progress on necessary reforms has been sluggish, and a sense of being unwelcome in Brussels has persisted. Russia, under Vladimir Putin's influence, strategically exploits frozen conflicts and unresolved disputes in Moldova, Georgia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina to sow instability in Europe's borderlands.

Acknowledging the geopolitical landscape, the European Commission recently recommended opening accession talks with Ukraine, Moldova, and Bosnia once specific conditions are met, while also proposing candidate status for Georgia. The endorsement of these steps toward enlargement is expected at the December summit, barring potential obstruction by pro-Russian Hungary.

However, the path forward is clouded by uncertainty regarding a comprehensive review of the EU's decision-making procedures, administration, budget, and financing – essential elements for accommodating up to 10 new members in the coming years. In the quest for expansion, EU leaders face the challenge of reconciling the immediate need for bolstered security with the long-term imperative of reforming the bloc to ensure a seamless integration process.

President of the European Council, Charles Michel, has set an ambitious goal for enlargement by 2030, but many diplomats view this timeline as wildly optimistic, raising concerns of unrealistic expectations in Ukraine. The potential candidates are still far from meeting EU standards on crucial fronts such as the rule of law and the fight against corruption, adding layers of complexity to the delicate balancing act between security imperatives and the imperative for a reformed, resilient EU."

"Enlarging the EU: Balancing Ambition and Realities"

The prospect of absorbing Ukraine into the European Union presents a formidable challenge, not only economically but also politically, as the EU grapples with the aftermath of Russia's devastating onslaught on the agrarian nation of 40 million people. The economic and political magnitude of this endeavor is underscored by Ukraine's pre-existing economic challenges, making the inclusion of such a vast and struggling nation a complex undertaking.

Crucial to the success of this expansion is the necessity for radical internal changes within the EU. The current structure, with national veto powers over foreign, sanctions, and taxation policy, poses a potential roadblock to unanimous agreement on admitting new members and, once admitted, the effective functioning of the EU itself. The sentiment is echoed by Mariá Lledó, a senior official of the EU's current Spanish presidency, who emphasizes the impracticality of maintaining uniform rules for a growing number of countries.

Germany and France, pivotal forces in European unification, advocate for increased decision-making through qualified majority voting, proposing a model of concentric circles where an inner core pursues deeper integration. However, resistance to altering the governing Lisbon treaty is prevalent among EU governments, with fears of prolonged negotiations and the potential risk of unfavorable referendums.

The resistance is particularly strong among smaller EU states, including Poland, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Sweden, who are hesitant to relinquish national vetoes, fearing potential dominance by larger member states. The debate extends to symbolic considerations, such as retaining a national member in the commission, highlighting the challenges of balancing national interests with the collective European vision.

As discussions unfold, the EU grapples with the need for comprehensive reform while navigating the delicate dynamics of power, representation, and decision-making. The path to enlargement is intertwined with the broader question of how the EU envisions its future structure, functionality, and ability to adapt to an evolving geopolitical landscape."

"Navigating the Costs: The EU's Dilemma in Expanding Without Reform"

As the European Union contemplates the admission of new members, notably Ukraine, the political and financial implications loom large. Admitting nations without concurrent changes to voting rules and spending policies could potentially paralyze the union politically and transform current net recipients into net contributors. This shift becomes particularly challenging as it risks altering the budget dynamic, with some of the biggest recipients becoming contributors, all while facing the significant costs of accommodating Ukraine.

An internal note for the Council of EU governments estimated that admitting Kyiv under existing rules could incur a staggering €186 billion in EU funds over seven years. A substantial portion of these funds, approximately half, would be allocated to payments for farmers. This projection underscores the imperative for the EU to overhaul subsidy mechanisms for agriculture and strategies for reducing inequality between regions to make Ukrainian accession financially viable.

The challenge intensifies when considering the potential public backlash in Western European countries, particularly among politicians who remember the 2005 referendums on a proposed EU constitutional treaty. The fear of public resistance to sacrifices needed for Ukrainian admission is palpable, emphasizing the delicate balance between expansion and maintaining domestic support.

In response to these challenges, federalists in the European Parliament, led by former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, advocate for sweeping treaty reform. They propose convening a convention of national and EU lawmakers, along with government representatives, to devise a blueprint for a new voting system, expanded EU competences, a streamlined commission, and the ability for the parliament to initiate legislation.

The ongoing debate echoes past discussions on "widening versus deepening," notably preceding the 2004 eastward expansion. However, the current geopolitical pressure to unite the European family under a single EU roof is more pronounced, juxtaposed against a backdrop of seemingly waning willpower for reform. The EU stands at a critical juncture where the imperative to adapt its structures to accommodate new members intersects with the challenge of retaining cohesion and support among existing member states."

"In conclusion, the European Union finds itself at a crossroads, grappling with the intricate challenges of expanding its membership, notably considering Ukraine, without concurrent reforms to its voting rules and spending policies. The prospect of admitting new members, particularly one as significant as Ukraine, presents not only political hurdles but also financial complexities that demand a reassessment of the EU's subsidy mechanisms and regional inequality reduction strategies.

The staggering estimated cost of admitting Ukraine under existing rules underscores the urgent need for a comprehensive overhaul of the EU's financial framework. Balancing the geopolitical imperative to unite the European family with the potential for public resistance, particularly in Western European countries, adds another layer of complexity to the expansion discourse.

The debate on treaty reform, spearheaded by federalists in the European Parliament, reflects a recognition that institutional changes must either precede or align closely with the accession process. This echoes past discussions on 'widening versus deepening,' but the current geopolitical pressures to unify Europe under a single EU roof amplify the urgency for reform.

As the EU navigates these challenges, the delicate balance between expansion aspirations and the need for internal adaptation will shape the future of the union. The quest for a united European family necessitates not only a reevaluation of financial structures but a reaffirmation of the EU's core values and the delicate art of maintaining cohesion among its diverse member states. The conclusion of this pivotal juncture will shape the EU's trajectory, determining its ability to evolve, adapt, and sustain a collective vision for a stronger and more united Europe."

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