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The perennial question: To widen or to deepen?

EU enlargement / COMMENTARY
Fraser Cameron

Date: 22/09/2023
Ever since the founding of the EU, there has been a constant debate about the priority between enlargement and strengthening the institutions. In reality, they go hand in hand, hence the importance of starting a further discussion before the accession of any new members.

In 1991, Boris Johnson, the newly arrived Daily Telegraph correspondent in Brussels, took this author out for lunch and asked how the EU would cope with the prospect of enlarging to include members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Reflecting the views of my then-boss, President Jacques Delors, who strongly favoured strengthening the institutions, I said we could manage enlargement with more qualified majority voting (QMV) in several new policy areas. Two days later, a front-page story in The Daily Telegraph was headed ‘Delors plans to rule Europe’ – and was subsequently used as a poster in the Danish referendum campaign on the Maastricht treaty, which was lost 51-49. Johnson, incidentally, said he was personally keen on enlarging the EU and showed no sign of his later Euroscepticism.

The widening-deepening debate has always been central to the development of the EU. President de Gaulle twice vetoed the UK’s attempts to join in the 1960s, arguing that Britain was too closely tied to the United States. There were also tough debates before the admission of Spain, Portugal, and Greece in the 1980s, and a view that Greece was admitted before it was ready to shore up its restored democracy.

Similar debates were heard before the Big Bang enlargement of 2004/2007, with a number of politicians questioning whether ‘shoring up democracy’ was a good enough reason for taking in ten new members after the collapse of communism in the East. One still hears doubters, given the backsliding of democratic norms in Poland, Hungary, and elsewhere.

Now, fuelled by the war in Ukraine, the debate has resurfaced with the discussion about the potential admission of Ukraine, Moldova, and the Western Balkans, who were promised more than 20 years ago that ‘their future was within the EU’. It is worth recalling that Türkiye has been waiting even longer!

Recently, the President of the European Council Charles Michel, has come out strongly in favour of ‘enlargement by 2030’ while French President Macron has repeated his calls for a multi-speed Europe. A variation has been put forward by Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, who has proposed that the new candidates should join EU policy areas as soon as they are ready. Further interesting proposals in this vein have just been published by a group of experts at the request of Paris and Berlin. The Commission is sticking to its traditional ‘merit-based approach’ without regard to any specific timeline. The EU executive is due to issue its country reports next month, while the European Council is set to debate the issue in December. To date, there seems to be little sign of a consensus on how to move forward.

One of the key issues is how an EU of 35 member states would function. New members want to join an EU that is efficient and effective. But institutional reform has always been fraught with difficulties. In the 1990s, the EFTA countries fought tooth and nail to ensure they had a Commissioner. There was some tinkering with the voting system and the number of MEPs at Nice but no fundamental change. This made it more difficult to secure institutional reform prior to the Big Bang enlargement.

Among the more sensitive questions are: a) How would the European Council and Commission function with so many members? b) How to secure legitimacy for decisions when the balance would swing heavily towards the smaller member states? c) What would be the impact on the budget when the poorer new member states would be major beneficiaries of the funding for agriculture and regional development?

It is too easy to mouth support for enlargement without seeking to answer the above questions. The situation is even more difficult without any enthusiasm in the member states for treaty reform. However, the current treaties provide considerable scope for reform if there is the political will to move forward. For example, the passerelle clauses allowing increased scope for QMV in foreign and security policy have never been used, which is telling.

Any debate on enlargement might also touch on Brexit. The issue remains toxic in UK domestic politics, but after the next election and assuming a change of government, there could be scope for a closer UK-EU relationship. The UK has always been a champion of widening the EU and, even outside, continues to push for Ukraine and others to join. The future of the European Political Community might also play a role in enlargement discussions.

Thus, politicians and civil society have a duty to go beyond nice speeches about the geopolitical importance of enlargement and start discussing the nitty-gritty of how an enlarged EU would function. Previous enlargements have led to a deepening of the EU in policy areas such as research and regional policy, and this trend has continued under recent external influences, notably COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine. But the piecemeal approach can only go so far, and there needs to be a Europe-wide debate, involving as many citizens as possible, about the institutional reforms necessary to ensure the future, enlarged EU can continue to offer prosperity to its citizens and play a constructive role in global affairs.

This Commentary is part of the EPC’s ongoing Task Force on EU enlargement.

Fraser Cameron is a Senior Adviser at the European Policy Centre.

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