The idea of making the European Union bigger will be under the spotlight at two consecutive summits of European countries this week in Granada, Spain.
Enlargement is now back on the top of the political agenda as a result of Russia’s war on Ukraine, but the bloc must first face the difficult task of reforming its budget, institutions and decision-making processes before it can welcome new members.
As many as 47 heads of state and government from across the continent will discuss this and other pressing topics, such as migration, security, the environment, energy and artificial intelligence, when they gather on Thursday for the so-called European Political Community, which, in their own words, aims to “make Europe more resilient, prosperous and geostrategic.”
This novel configuration was set up last year in reaction to Russia’s aggression and is now being used as a forum for Europe-wide discussions, including on how to integrate new members into the EU.
Five Western Balkan countries, which have been in the bloc’s queue for decades, and Ukraine and Moldova, have put pressure on Brussels to speed up the accession process in response to Russia’s aggression.
But for the EU to grow from its current 27 members to potentially more than 30, many things have to change, as Fraser Cameron, an analyst at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, told Euronews.
“There will have to be a reorientation of the big spending priorities on agriculture and cohesion because obviously Ukraine, if it came in without any changes, will eat up most of the budget and that will not be acceptable for many member states,” Cameron said in an interview.
“So, there will have to be a difficult negotiation in terms of the budget, who pays in, who gets what.”
Cameron added that previous rounds of enlargement missed the opportunity to reform the current unanimity vote to avoid vetoes on key topics, such as foreign affairs.
The thinking is shared by the largest member states.
A recent report sponsored by France and Germany highlighted the need to adopt qualified majority voting for decisions on foreign and security policy to prevent them from falling victim to individual vetoes.
The report also pitches four differentiated tiers of political alignment, from full-time EU membership to the broader coalition of the European Political Community.
But for Vlad Gheorghe, a Romanian MEP, belonging to the EU should mean the same rules for everyone.
“We need to be very careful in not having second-hand countries within the European Union. I heard a lot of talk here in Brussels about the idea of having first-grade countries, maybe the older countries, and the newer countries becoming second-hand countries, and it is a very bad thing,” Gheorghe told Euronews.
Meanwhile, ahead of the Granada summit, European Council President Charles Michel repeated his pitch that the EU must be ready for enlargement by 2030.
Michel will chair an informal meeting of EU leaders on Friday where he will have the chance to expand upon his proposition.
“The purpose of setting a date is to open everyone’s eyes and to say we can’t procrastinate any longer. We can’t put it off any longer. It’s clear what kind of world we’re in,” Michel told Euronews in an interview recorded on Monday.
Michel’s 2030 target is opposed by the European Commission, which is tasked with examining the progress made by each candidate country in meeting the criteria and implementing the economic and judicial reforms needed to become EU members.
The executive argues that setting a fixed date is counterproductive since it presumes every potential member is at the same stage and will therefore reach the finish line simultaneously.
“We don’t understand the need for this date. This risks undermining the confidence of many stakeholders in a fair, transparent and merit-based accession process,” a Commission spokesperson said on Wednesday when asked about Michel’s proposal.
“The (EU) treaties give the European institutions a clear role as a neutral and objective intermediate in a clear and defined process.”