A multi-speed Europe holds the key to EU enlargement

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“The international order is changing [and] the EU must change with it.” The words of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez when Spain took over the EU’s rotating presidency this summer sum up Europe’s new near consensus. A decade when the EU was desperately holding off disintegration has dramatically given way to a political imperative of integrating internally in order to expand externally — to Ukraine, above all.

That shift received a strong boost last week by a Franco-German group of 12 experts tasked with studying how to reform the EU ahead of any enlargement. While its report represents neither French nor German policy, it has enough official imprimatur to inform talks between EU leaders. It also strikes the balance between the bold and the achievable well enough to unlock serious discussion.

The “Group of Twelve” squarely faces up to an inescapable dilemma and an inconvenient truth. The dilemma is that despite broad agreement that enlargement requires reform of the EU, there is little agreement on what the reforms should be. The truth is that even without new members, the bloc’s functioning needs urgent improvement — to both boost decisiveness and restore a universal application of the rule of law and the EU’s founding values.

The group concludes — and it is surely correct — that ambitious reform must be combined with a definitive embrace of a multi-speed Europe. They envisage a Europe of four concentric circles — an inner core; the EU itself; “associate membership”, largely meaning the single market; and the loose ties of the new European Political Community. (“Overlapping” would be a better term than “concentric”, since the groups pursuing deeper integration already vary by area — non-EU countries are members of the Schengen area, for example.)

As for reforms, they call for several big shifts, each of which would alone transform European politics. They want both the EU and the membership candidates to commit to being ready for enlargement by 2030. They want to streamline EU decision-making, in particular through more common spending and more qualified majority voting — ideally for all EU-level decisions bar constitutional ones, including fiscal matters. They want a larger EU budget. They want a powerful anti-corruption office to monitor EU institutions themselves. And they want to make it easier to withhold funding and suspend voting rights for rule of law violations. 

Many of these are not new ideas, but the context makes them newly relevant. The proposal for “coalitions of the willing” to govern new common spending by QMV — sub-EU budgets — is particularly promising when the need to transform everything from supply chains to energy links is pressing.

What is also not new is that some countries will never accept these ideas. So the group suggests some sweeteners, such as opt-outs from deeper integration; sovereignty “safeguards” when strong national interests are in play; and a “chamber” where EU and national supreme courts can air differences over EU law and its tensions with national constitutions. The group shows its ecumenical colours here — Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki proposed just such a chamber two years ago.

Is this enough to find a way forward — at least for a pioneering core? Sceptics will say no: most changes would require Hungary’s as well as Poland’s endorsement. But two years ago they did accept the new rule of law conditions on EU funding, which would predictably be used against them. The power of the purse is strong: if countries paying most of the bills see such reforms as worthwhile, it will be difficult to be a holdout.

The group has committed one sin of omission and one of commission. They missed an opportunity to see differential integration as a geopolitical tool to pull more countries into the EU orbit, apart from a single mention that north African countries could be given “guest status” to the EPC.

The sin of commission is much worse. The group thinks “ . . . countries with lasting military conflicts cannot join the EU . . . accession of countries with disputed territories with a [non-EU country] will have to include a clause that those territories will only be able to join the EU if their inhabitants are willing to do so”. Applied to Moldova and Ukraine — whose plight, remember, drives this entire new push for reform — this parrots the dictator in the Kremlin and in effect gives Russia a veto on their accession. It is a slap in the face of the old dream of a “Europe whole and free”.

This particular notion should be resolutely ignored by EU leaders when they meet in Granada in a few weeks’ time. They would do well, however, to engage with everything else.

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