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COMMENTARY

The European (geo)political community and enlargement reform: Two important but separate discussions






EU enlargement / COMMENTARY
Marta Mucznik

Date: 14/07/2022
If a European (geo)political community is to be taken seriously across Europe, its debate must be dissociated from that of enlargement reform. Otherwise, it will continue to be dismissed as a concealed alternative to EU membership.

The recent ideas put forward by French President Emmanuel Macron and European Council President Charles Michel for a ‘European (geo)political community’ mark the start of a collective reflection on how to expand the EU’s geopolitical reach beyond enlargement. With war raging on the European continent, a global geopolitical race and “a tectonic shift in European history” underway, such proposals are timely contributions to rethinking how the EU should engage with its vicinity.

The existing institutional arrangements arguably cannot adequately respond to such challenges and help restore peace and stability on the continent. In parallel, ideas to overcome the current paralysis in EU enlargement towards the Western Balkans are also welcome. But for the sake of clarity, these are two separate discussions that should be handled as such.

Proposals to create a European (geo)political community are about like-minded allies jointly addressing complex issues that result from a new security reality. Resolving the current enlargement deadlock is about removing the stumbling blocks in the membership negotiations with the aspiring members. The latter is about processes, conditionality and reforms. Unlike the former, it does not deal with grand visions about Europe’s role in the new global order.

If the idea of a European (geo)political community is to be taken seriously across Europe, its discussion must be dissociated from that of enlargement reform. Otherwise, it will continue to be dismissed as a concealed alternative to EU membership.

What say the proposals?

In the wake of the Ukraine war, Macron advanced the idea of a European political community, followed by Michel’s similar proposal to create a European geopolitical community. These discussions intensified with the Ukrainian, Moldovan and Georgian membership applications, gaining, as a result, significant traction in the media and the larger enlargement debate. But neither dwelled on specifics, thereby triggering much speculation about their intents and purposes. The latest European Council conclusions provide little clarity, although it does refer to the European political community proposal to conclude that “such a framework will not replace existing EU policies and instruments, notably enlargement”.

The geopolitical response to a new security reality

Although some quickly dismissed these ideas as second-class tickets to join the EU, they need to be understood against the backdrop of the larger regional and global contexts of the Ukraine war and beyond. In today’s increasingly contested geopolitical environment, the EU needs new instruments in addition to enlargement policy to anchor stability in its vicinity and expand its reach. Macron explicitly said that the overriding goal of the European political community would be to fill in this strategic and geopolitical void and stabilise the continent. Michel proposed a similar formulation, adding that his vision of a geopolitical community “extends from Reykjavik to Baku or Yerevan, from Oslo to Ankara.”

The EU can no longer rely exclusively on its transformative leverage to engage countries in its wider neighbourhood. New structures are needed to cope with a new security reality. And while EU accession may be a promising prospect for many, not every European country wants in. Moreover, political coordination among allies should not be held hostage by the complex and lengthy process that is EU accession.

In this regard, a European political community is a promising idea. It would convene EU states, aspirant members and other European countries (e.g. the UK, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland) around one table to politically coordinate and address Europe’s most pressing challenges. As reiterated by Macron and Michel, these range from European geopolitics, to defence, energy, infrastructure, food security, and the free movement of people. A European alliance of like-minded democracies, with the EU at its helm, would also help deliver a stronger and more assertive geopolitical EU.

A multi-tier/multi-speed EU?

But while the two proposals’ geopolitical dimension has its merits, the debate around them has again ignited speculation that a ‘multi-tier’ and/or ‘multi-speed’ Union is also on the cards. And that is where the connection between the hypothetical creation of a political community, on the one hand, and the ongoing enlargement policy, on the other, becomes fuzzy. Indeed, many observers have drawn parallels between the proposed European political community and former French President François Mitterrand’s 1989 idea of a European Confederation. The goal of this confederation, which would be organised in concentric circles, was to unite European countries politically post-fall of the Berlin Wall.

The concept of a multi-tier Europe implies more than mere political coordination among like-minded allies, thus raising the question of whether a Europe à la carte is actually on EU leaders’ minds. It suggests different levels of cooperation with and integration into EU programmes for all countries willing to join, depending on each individual member’s pace and degree of alignment with EU policies.

Such configurations would mostly likely relegate some members to the sidelines of the core EU group. While this is not a problem per se, it is precisely this fine line of where political coordination ends and integration into EU programmes begins that raises concerns. Macron’s specification that “we may not all live in the same house, but we share the same street” feeds scepticism that these structures could relegate the Balkans and other EU hopefuls to the waiting room indefinitely. The possibility that ‘in the meantime’ could become ‘forever’ explains the aspiring members’ hesitation.

Is enlargement reform also necessary?

In addition, a parallel discussion on EU enlargement reform to overcome deadlocks in the ongoing accession negotiations has resurfaced in recent weeks. When Michel first advanced his idea of a European geopolitical community, he also called for rethinking accession processes, suggesting the aspirant members’ faster and more gradual phased-in integration into the EU’s work. In practice, this would mean “tangible benefits” for candidate countries during accession talks, instead of withholding rewards until they join.

But while the current moment invites out-of-the-box thinking to re-energise the enlargement process, Michel’s proposal appears to be merely rehashing ideas already carefully calibrated and negotiated in the March 2020 revised methodology. The revised approach not only places greater emphasis on conditionality but also calls for the accelerated integration and phasing-in of individual EU policies, markets, and programmes. The methodology is yet to be implemented due to Bulgaria’s block of North Macedonia’s (and, indirectly, Albania’s) EU accession talks.

Embarking on another reform before giving the 2020 revised approach a proper go seems counterproductive. And while attempts to turn the enlargement process into a more flexible, gradual and country-specific exercise might make sense, they do not address the elephant in the room: the role that EU member states have played in past years in obstructing accession negotiations. Before rethinking accession procedures, EU leaders should reflect on how to instil political will and overcome internal differences on the dossier. If member states stopped hijacking enlargement for reasons that have more to do with their domestic politics than the process as such, then the EU would be one step closer to finding the remedy to the current deadlock. It would also help restore credibility in the enlargement process for the Western Balkans and make it a realistic prospect for the Associated Trio.

The devil is in the details

As leaders prepare to discuss the European political community in Prague later this year, they should clarify the nature and purpose of this proposal. Creating a European political community and breaking the deadlock in the enlargement process are not mutually exclusive exercises. They are both equally relevant, yet they warrant separate discussions. If the purpose is to pursue the former, then its consideration should be dissociated from that of enlargement reform so that it is not interpreted by would-be members as a lukewarm appeal. If and when addressing the latter, EU leaders should work towards re-energising the accession process while candidly recognising their role in the current stalemate and avoiding the temptation to reinvent the wheel – again.

Whatever the case, lack of clarity fuels a polarising and misguided debate. Proposals to create a European political community are about reframing the EU’s relationship with the wider European continent in the context of war. At this critical juncture, it would be a shame to reduce this vital discussion to a simplistic for-or-against enlargement dichotomy, instead of focusing on the geopolitical merits of the proposals at hand.

Marta Mucznik is a Policy Analyst in the European Politics and Institutions programme.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.


Photo credits:
LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP

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