As leaders meet in Granada, bloc heavyweights can’t agree on a time frame for reform and enlargement.
GRANADA, Spain — French President Emmanuel Macron will aim to rally countries behind a historic expansion that would integrate war-torn Ukraine and several other candidate countries into the European Union during a gathering of leaders in the Spanish city of Granada that kicks off Thursday.
But concerns among member states about the mechanics and viability of such a large expansion present a serious threat to a project Macron and other leaders, like European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, have staked their credibility upon.
The French leader will make a joint push with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to kick start difficult EU enlargement talks at the third meeting of the European Political Community, a forum created in response to the Russian invasion that includes European leaders from beyond the EU to build a broader, more inclusive European network.
Beyond the key question of EU accession for Ukraine, informal meetings will be dominated by high-stakes diplomatic talks about other conflicts in Europe’s backyard: the humanitarian crisis in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and escalating tensions between Serbia and Kosovo.
For Macron, who has made a U-turn on Ukraine’s NATO and EU future in recent months, the summit is also an opportunity to burnish his legacy as a European builder and idealist ahead of EU elections next year.
While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has provided ample fuel to propel enlargement to the top of the agenda, Macron and Scholz face the difficult task of convincing EU countries to undertake massive changes, including the painful internal reforms that would be required to admit Ukraine. According to several diplomats, appetite for changes to EU agricultural policy and rules on collective decision-making is low despite strong support for Ukraine.
With Europe-wide elections next year and some moderate leaders fighting a populist surge, Paris and Berlin must walk a fine line between Euro-idealism and hard-nosed pragmatism on what might work to soothe jittery leaders.
France is pushing for EU leaders to agree on a statement in Granada about reform needs as they contemplate enlargement, said an Elysée advisor. But the same advisor admitted limited expectations about the enlargement timeline.
“A lot of things need to be addressed [by 2030],” he said. The enlargement process needs to be made “more credible, with reforms in candidate countries and in the EU.” The French president has argued enlargement should “be done as quickly as possible … But I’m not sure setting a date is the most legitimate question,” he added.
It’s a sign of the scope of problems that even allies as close as France and Germany can’t agree on a time frame for reform and enlargement.
There’s currently no fast track to accession, which can last more than a decade given stiff membership criteria. European Council President Charles Michel has proposed the EU should be ready for enlargement by 2030 — but there’s a lack of consensus around that date.
Urging caution, Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Burke said that while Ireland was “in favor” of enlargement, he would be less at ease with setting a date of 2030 by which to increase the union to 30 members.
So although Macron and Scholz may land in Granada guns blazing, it’ll be an uphill battle for them that could ultimately come down to realpolitik.
“The level of enthusiasm for EU enlargement and reform is, in reality, quite low,” said Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU at HEC business school in France. “Scholz and Macron don’t really want to reform or enlarge — but they realize that unless they do something, the EU could come apart.”
Promoters and petitioners
When nearly 50 leaders gather on Thursday for the family photo at the Alhambra palace in Granada, they will once again be reminded of Europe’s shifting borders and alliances. The complex fortress of high walls and towers was once part of the last Muslim state in Western Europe before being surrendered to Christian monarchs centuries ago.
People like Moldova’s President Maia Sandu, Ukraine’s representative and leaders from the Balkans will likely have concerns over whether the EU will let their countries inside fortress Europe. (At the time of publication, it was not confirmed whether Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy would attend the gathering.)
Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who cancelled his Spain trip Wednesday due to an illness, is chief among those who never fail to harp on the EU’s “broken promises.” Erdogan has re-upped his lashing out at the EU in recent weeks for being “as reliable as Russia” and for making “Turkey wait for 40 years.”
Macron’s brainchild, the European Political Community, will again see intense lobbying from the leaders of EU candidate countries, which fear being relegated to a second-division club.
The Ukrainian prime minister last week rebuffed Macron’s offer of gradual accession via a “multi-speed Europe” track. Denys Shmyhal told POLITICO Kyiv was aiming for no less than being a “fully fledged candidate for full-fledged membership.”
And inside the club, conversations aren’t any easier. EU leaders have yet to agree on the language of their enlargement statement at Friday’s informal EU summit, given a lack of agreement on several areas. While Germany and France want member states to reform before or during enlargement, Nordic countries and the Baltics want Ukraine and others to join first, and then tackle reform.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo hinted at a quid pro quo scenario in terms of enlargement reform: “You can start to have a discussion with Ukraine, as long as it is merit-based and as long as it is linked to an internal reform of the Union,” he told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday. “Then, we can talk. The countries joining have to do their homework — but we also have to do our homework. If we do our homework, we can start discussions.”
De Croo outlined financial flows — including on cohesion and agricultural funds, as well as internal policy — along with the functioning of institutions as key areas to consider.
The lack of a unified front on enlargement extends even to the Franco-German coalition. While the French and German governments have “converging” views, according to one French official, they struggle to agree on policy aims. “We have an issue with the Germans,” said the official, who like others quoted in this story was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. “Their coalition has lots of different interests and on many topics — they don’t know what their own thinking is,” he said.
Behind closed doors, many European officials in charge of hashing out the details of how to make enlargement work have deep reservations about the whole process.
“No one is joining anytime soon,” warned one EU diplomat.