20 Oktober 2023

The European Policy Quartet: New proposals for EU enlargement and reform

  • Minna Ålander, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Helsinki
  • Carmen Descamps, German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW), Brussels
  • Manuel Müller, Finnish Institute of International Affairs / Der (europäische) Föderalist, Helsinki
  • Julian Plottka, University of Passau / University of Bonn
  • Sophie Pornschlegel, Europe Jacques Delors, Brussels
This conversation was conducted as an online chat in German. The transcript below has been edited and translated.
Close-up of a wooden gear
For an enlarged EU to keep functioning, its gears will need an overhaul.

Institutional reforms of the EU have been discussed since the euro crisis, but there was almost no tangible progress for a long time. Recently, this has changed due to various events: First, there was the Conference on the Future of Europe, which made several proposals for institutional changes in its final report in May 2022. This prompted the European Parliament to formally call on the European Council in June 2022 to convene a treaty convention. Now, in September, a working group of the Constitutional Affairs Committee has put forward detailed proposals for treaty changes, which will be debated and voted on first in committee and then in plenary in the coming weeks.

Second, the Russian attack on Ukraine has led to an EU enlargement debate and subsequently to a discussion on how an EU with 30, 35 or more members can maintain its capacity to act. The German and French governments set up an expert working group on this in January 2023, which has also presented its proposals this September. Later in the year, the German Foreign Office wants to convene a major European conference in order to make progress also at the government level.

And there is even more going on; for example, a “High-Level Group on bolstering EU Democracy” of the think tanks SWP and CEPS has presented its report just yesterday. In short, the debate is gaining momentum. What do you think of the proposals that are now on the table?

I like your optimism that the debate is gaining momentum. I hope you are right, but don’t really see that happening yet.

Gaining momentum

Hello everyone! It’s nice to meet again. I’ll be brief: I think it’s very positive that the debate has gained momentum and that concrete proposals have been put forward that can now be discussed seriously.

But there are barely eight months left until the European elections, and I fear that these reform proposals will get lost in the electoral campaign. The big question, of course, is whether the new European Commission and the national governments will push the proposals further after the election. But if Donald Tusk returns to government after last Sunday’s Polish elections, it could indeed be that EU reforms and the enlargement debate will be taken forward in a constructive way.

In principle, I agree with Julian and Sophie that the new momentum in the reform debate is to be welcomed. There really is no shortage of proposals, both from the institutions and from capitals and various think tanks. It’s to be hoped that this momentum will now be used and will not fizzle out. I consider this a great opportunity, and I would really like to see these reforms happen. I’m sure we’ll be discussing exactly what that means in a moment.

Hello from me too – unfortunately I can only stay for the first half of our conversation today because I have to go to another event in a moment.

In Finland and Sweden, the debate on EU reform is not a major issue in public discourse at the moment; everything is still overshadowed by NATO accession. Counter-intuitively, this could also be an advantage: If the EU is not so present in the public debate, there may be less opposition to reforms.

The role of the Finns Party in the government is interesting: On the one hand, it is Eurosceptic, but on the other, the former party leader and current speaker of parliament, Jussi Halla-aho, is also very pro-Ukrainian. In general, there is also strong support for Ukraine’s membership perspective – which could be used in the public debate to highlight the need for reform.

A matter of years – or decades?

It is absolutely true that EU enlargement is impossible without fundamental reforms. However, that’s not enough political pressure for timely reforms. The accession process of Ukraine, Moldova and perhaps soon Georgia will take decades, not years.

After all, what has changed since the Conference on the Future of Europe? If anything, the situation has become more difficult. The possible change of government in Poland could be a silver lining, but I think it will be more helpful in terms of policy-making (for example on climate protection) than in terms of polity-making.

The European Council President, Charles Michel, has mentioned the year 2030 as a time horizon for enlargement. This is, of course, a very ambitious goal – but if we take it halfway seriously (as we should, so as not to frustrate the candidate countries once again), the debate on the preconditions for it must begin almost immediately.

In any case, Berlin seems determined to make progress by the end of this year. Annalena Baerbock announced in September that she would “issue an invitation to a conference on Europe in Berlin before the European Council in December to discuss precisely that – the necessary steps for us in the European Union in view of the enlargement and the reforms on which it needs to be based”.

So her aim seems to be to lay some groundwork in time for the European elections, which can then be used as a basis for further discussions. Incidentally, I have also heard from Finnish diplomats that it would not be unwelcome if there were more “leadership” in the debate on enlargement and reforms.

Window of opportunity

Overall, the political situation is very volatile – this can also mean that a window of opportunity will suddenly open to have a very fast enlargement, and then reforms might also be supported very quickly. Of course, this same volatility can also backfire and have a very negative impact on the EU’s capacity to act. My point is that, even if it doesn’t seem at the moment that there is much political will for reform, we don’t know how the political dynamics will develop over the next few years.

The biggest danger, in my view, is that we will have an enlargement without reforms, which could take us to a situation in which the EU is paralysed and no longer able to take decisions.

Yes, I agree with Sophie. It is very possible that external events will overtake the plans of the EU – and then reforms will have to be implemented, whether there has been sufficient debate or not. In the end, this could lead to a classically sub-optimal result.

“Failing forward” is what they call it these days … 😉

Such a window of opportunity presupposes that the war in Ukraine ends with a solution with fixed borders. The condition that the EU will not accept states with (border) conflicts will certainly not be abandoned – and rightly so. This alone will significantly delay the accession process.

The other reason why I am sceptical about a 2030 target is the experience with Bulgaria and Romania. Again, I think the principle of “no more shortcuts” will remain. Just seven years for reforms in Ukraine is really tight.

On the other hand, I fully agree that a longer time horizon also increases the risk of disappointment and reform fatigue in Ukraine and Moldova.

Getting the EU ready for enlargement

At least with regard to the German government’s attitude, I think that they want to be very clear that they take enlargement seriously and therefore want the EU to be in a state where it can take in other countries as quickly as possible. If reforms in Ukraine, Moldova or elsewhere take longer, so be it – but if progress is made in these countries, then enlargement should not fail because of the EU itself.

The question, of course, is whether other governments – some of which would be prepared to accept new member states even without institutional reform anyway – will accept this logic.

Sophie’s point that there must be no enlargement without reform, because otherwise the EU would no longer be able to act, is not new. Former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had already underlined this for the 2014-2019 legislative period.

Since then, not much has happened on the reform front – although there really is no shortage of the “external events” mentioned by Minna!

It is always difficult to look into the crystal ball. What is important, however, is that the reform proposals exist now and are already being discussed seriously and at the highest level. This increases the likelihood that, if a window of opportunity opens, the reform proposals won’t fall by the wayside and the focus won’t be on enlargement alone. But in any case, these will be difficult processes.

I agree – and with that, I must already say goodbye for today. Take care and see you next time! 👋

Reform priorities

Let’s have a look again at the reform proposals themselves. The debate focuses mainly on the transition to more (qualified) majority voting in the Council, but also on mechanisms to protect the rule of law. If the European Parliament has its way, representative and direct democracy at EU level should also be strengthened, for example by parliamentarising the election of the Commission or by introducing Europe-wide referendums.

What do you think are the main areas where the EU needs institutional reform?

This is not an easy question, because of course all reforms are important. But I would like to highlight two points: First, it is important that in the future the EU’s fundamental values can no longer be trampled on – in other words, that there are mechanisms to prevent authoritarian rulers like Viktor Orbán from being treated as equal partners and from blocking EU decisions when they have long since left the club of democracies. This means a reform of Article 7, but also stronger conditionality and possibly sanction mechanisms for the EU budget.

Secondly, I believe that in general there should be more opportunities to take initiatives forward with a “coalition of the willing”, especially when the EU has more than 30 member states in the future. How exactly this can be done without weakening the institutions is, of course, a crucial question to which I have not yet found a satisfactory answer.

European democracy and EU citizenship rights

I agree. Strengthening European democracy is, of course, an evergreen, too. However, beyond the transition to majority voting (where democracy and capacity to act go hand in hand), it will be rather difficult to explain why more democracy increases the efficiency of the EU and is therefore necessary as a precondition to enlargement.

Manuel, you’re asking us for a confession here. Apart from the usual suspects, such as the extension of majority voting, I have another issue that is not so high on the agenda, but very close to my heart – EU citizenship rights. There is still room for improvement, especially as regards the voting rights of mobile citizens, i. e. those EU citizens who live in a member state other than their country of origin. Among the members of our little quartet, this applies to a whopping 60%, which is of course disproportionately high compared to the EU population.

Yes, but you are quite right: Even in relation to the total population, the proportion of mobile citizens is not insignificant. In 2020, they were around 3.3% of all EU citizens of working age, with a rising trend.

What role for the European Political Community?

For three reasons, I would also add the EU’s external relations as another important reform issue. (I deliberately say external relations rather than CFSP or CSDP because, in my view, one of the challenges is precisely to achieve greater coherence between the various policy instruments in that area.)

The first reason is simply the urgent need for reform, which has been clear for years. The second is the link between the reforms and the enlargement debate. If the impending enlargement is the reason for reforms, then they should address the policy area that is particularly important for the accession countries – which to the most part want to join the EU for geopolitical reasons.

The third reason is that, as in 2004, the forthcoming enlargement will change the EU’s neighbourhood, and external relations with the immediate neighbourhood will have to be reorganised. In this context, the Franco-German expert group has proposed the European Political Community as a solution. What do you think of that?

You’re making an important point there. In principle, I liked the idea of the European Political Community because it creates a forum where all governments can meet and exchange ideas. Of course, the EPC has been criticised for being nothing more than a talking shop. But that criticism depends on your expectations. From my point of view, there is already added value in the EU talking more regularly with the UK again – many channels of communication had been cut after Brexit. Exchange and dialogue at the highest level should never be underestimated, even if it does not immediately lead to political initiatives.

What is problematic, however, is that the EU does not have a coherent strategy in its neighbourhood policy – and that there is no alternative to EU accession that is attractive enough for the neighbouring countries.

In principle, I also think the EPC is a good idea, bringing together states that wouldn’t otherwise have such a forum – the UK and the EU, but also third countries such as Azerbaijan and Armenia. But frankly, after the meeting in Granada on 5 October my expectations are somewhat dampened. Still, perhaps I am too focused on results, as the EPC summits are only supposed to be a forum for exchange.

In fact, many governments seem to see the lack of goal-orientation as the main value of the EPC, because they are overwhelmed by the constant pressure to deliver results that exists in other formats of EU neighbourhood policy.

Reinventing neighbourhood policy

Many of the countries involved in the EPC are themselves candidates for accession, however. If the enlargement policy is a complete success, all democratic states in the eastern part of Europe could soon become part of the EU, and the remaining neighbours would be countries like Turkey or Azerbaijan. This would indeed require a reinvention of the neighbourhood policy – but would it also require institutional reforms?

One question is whether the neighbourhood policy should be transferred from supranational policy-making to the intergovernmental CFSP, since it would become part of genuine foreign policy.

So far, the neighbourhood policy – especially where it has been successful – has been conceived as an external governance of the EU: a policy to partially integrate neighbouring states into the EU’s legal framework. The big question is whether this will still work in the future. The expert group seems to think so, because the paper places the EPC outside the union of law. But then, it also makes proposals to institutionalise some policy areas, which would require the application of EU law.

Considering the potential addressees of an enlarged EU’s neighbourhood policy, I doubt that these states would be willing to go along with even partial integration. And if they’re not, we need a new approach that treats neighbourhood relations as part of classic foreign policy. In my view, this raises fundamental questions about who is responsible for external relations within the EU. Answering them will also require institutional reform.

Petrified constitution

Another issue that has been on my mind a lot lately is the question of what reforms are actually needed to improve the EU’s ability to reform itself. Even today, the debate on institutional reform is often stifled by the argument that the process is “too complex”, would lead to years of “navel-gazing” or even “open Pandora’s box”. This is not an acceptable situation, because if the treaties can no longer be reformed, the EU can’t adapt its institutional framework to new challenges.

The main cause of this petrified constitution is that there are too many procedural obstacles to changing the treaties – unanimity among the governments, followed by ratification by each member state, sometimes even by referendum. The European Parliament’s draft report therefore proposes to simplify the procedure for treaty revisions, so that in future only four-fifths of the member states would have to agree and ratify a reform. However, this could cause problems with national constitutions in many countries – including Germany, where the Federal Constitutional Court insisted on a national Kompetenz-Kompetenz in its Lisbon judgment.

An alternative could be more differentiated integration, but as Sophie mentioned above, this is very difficult without weakening the existing supranational institutions.

In any case, I think the possibility and active use of differentiated integration is very useful. This is not welcomed in some member states for fear of being left out. But as a matter of principle, every member state is free to participate in any differentiated EU policy. So I don’t really see the problem and I think that differentiated integration is a very good way to go forward as an EU30+. “One size fits all” won’t get us anywhere.

The future of differentiated integration

The Franco-German expert group also suggested that, if necessary, we could move forward by means of “supplementary treaties” – similar to a model that I myself described here last year in one of our European Policy Quartets. Under this model, a group of countries could, for example, agree among themselves not to use their veto in the EU Council. This inner circle could also have its own budget (which would make it more attractive to join) and take the lead on other issues, such as voting rights for mobile citizens.

For this to work, such a supplementary treaty would have to have the quality of European law, so that its provisions could be enforced by the ECJ. This is only possible if the other member states allow it – but they wouldn’t have much to lose as it wouldn’t change their own status anyway. So the real challenge would rather be to find a certain minimum number of states willing to take the step of creating such a vanguard. I’m not sure whether Germany and France themselves would be enthusiastic about it.

Differentiated integration is usually seen as an emergency instrument to increase the efficiency of decision-making, but I think it is also important not to forget the democratic side. If the legitimising function of differentiated integration is simply to let each member state do what it wants, we will end up with cherry-picking and chaos.

That’s why, in my opinion, there can be no differentiation by policy area, but only in the form of clear, transparent tiers – otherwise it will be completely confusing for the citizens. For each tier, a balance of rights and obligations must be defined. It’s good that the expert group’s proposal goes in this direction.

I find the supplementary treaty model interesting, but I can’t quite agree with you on that last point, Julian. Realistically, there will be differentiated integration by policy areas, because it’s hard to imagine how member states would organise themselves into “tiers”. The countries that could be interested in differentiated integration also have their pet policy areas where they definitely don’t want to give up their veto – be it agricultural policy for France or tax policy for Ireland.

Yes, I’m afraid you’re right there. 🙄

And unfortunately, the EU’s political system is already quite confusing for citizens now – simply because there are not only different institutions, but also very different forms of competences and procedures. Of course, this shouldn’t be an argument for making things more complex than necessary.

No panacea

But Julian is right that you have to be very careful about how differentiated integration is designed. It’s sometimes used as a buzzword these days, and some almost see it as a panacea that will resolve all the problems of the EU’s political sclerosis. Especially since Europhiles like us can never go fast or deep enough when it comes to integration. 😉

How exactly the member states would agree on such supplementary treaties is something I can’t quite see yet. But I would be happy to be proved wrong. I see it as an opportunity, as long as it doesn’t lead to an EU with first- and second-class members.

Well, that would just be a continuation of the different classes on the trains for the MEPs and their assistants when they travel to Strasbourg every month. 😅

Or to Disneyland … 🚄

Institutional erosion?

My concern remains that if we don’t succeed in making progress on reformability, we will soon be talking about uncontrolled differentiation, institutional erosion and ultimately disintegration.

The external conditions for agreeing institutional reforms are not going to get better in the foreseeable future. Increased geopolitical uncertainty, the rise of right-wing parties, the democratic backsliding in many member states, climate change and its social consequences: all this will make consensus in the EU even more difficult in the future than it is today. So if we don’t make progress on institutional issues now, in the face of all these crises, after the Conference on the Future of Europe and with enlargement on the horizon, when will we?

Now I need one of you to make an optimistic closing statement, please …

Here is one: The current political uncertainty means that positive changes can sometimes happen very quickly. I admit that this has rarely been the case recently, but the results of the Polish elections this week make me feel hopeful at the moment. And that’s why I think the reform proposals do at least have a chance.

Carmen Descamps works as Manager for EU Energy and Digital policies for the German Association of Energy and Water Industries (BDEW) in Brussels.
Sophie Pornschlegel is the Director of Studies and Development at Europe Jacques Delors in Brussels.

The contributions reflect solely the personal opinion of the respective authors.

Previous issues of the European Policy Quartet can be found here.

Translation: Manuel Müller.
Pictures: Wooden gear: Manuel Müller [all rights reserved]; portrait Carmen Descamps: Life Studio [all rights reserved]; portrait Minna Ålander, Manuel Müller: Finnish Institute of International Affairs [all rights reserved]; portraits Julian Plottka, Sophie Pornschlegel: private [all rights reserved].

Keine Kommentare:

Kommentar veröffentlichen

Kommentare sind hier herzlich willkommen und werden nach der Sichtung freigeschaltet. Auch wenn anonyme Kommentare technisch möglich sind, ist es für eine offene Diskussion hilfreich, wenn Sie Ihre Beiträge mit Ihrem Namen kennzeichnen. Um einen interessanten Gedankenaustausch zu ermöglichen, sollten sich Kommentare außerdem unmittelbar auf den Artikel beziehen und möglichst auf dessen Argumentation eingehen. Bitte haben Sie Verständnis, dass Meinungsäußerungen ohne einen klaren inhaltlichen Bezug zum Artikel hier in der Regel nicht veröffentlicht werden.