News / European Perspective on European Union Enlargement

June 2023

European Perspective on European Union Enlargement

Region: Transatlantic Perspectives: Europe

Author: Lucie Gonçalves and Marie-Sixte Imbert

Difficult, yet necessary: Macron calls for EU enlargement

Consecutive crises, from the Covid-19 pandemic to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and a volatile geopolitical climate characterized by growing tensions between the United States and China have left Europeans concerned for their continent’s sustained security.

Given the EU’s centrality in responding to these challenges, member states have been trying to buttress the Union against geopolitical headwinds, notably by moving forward on enlargement. Over the past year, the European Council has emphasized its commitment to the eventual EU membership of the Western Balkans and granted candidate country status to Ukraine and Moldova. And a few weeks ago, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a seminal speech in which he signaled that France was now squarely in favor of enlargement.

The objective of this renewed push is to strengthen the EU’s visibility and sway on a regional and global stage in a context of great power competition, as well as to insulate the Union’s neighborhood from China or Russia’s inimical influence.

France pushes for enlargement
On May 31, Macron laid out his vision for EU enlargement at the GLOBSEC Forum in Bratislava, Slovakia. The location of this speech mattered, as many Eastern and Central European members view NATO and the United States as their prime security guarantor and worry that French-led initiatives around strategic autonomy might weaken that guarantee. Macron’s attempts at engaging with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the early days of the war in Ukraine did nothing to assuage those concerns.

To mend fences, Macron was quick to recall that he visited all the EU member states during his first term in office “because (…) the European Union is not just Brussels, but all the capitals”. He also followed up on his proposal to build a ‘European Political Community’. He described this initiative as a vehicle to rapidly make progress on concrete projects by fostering greater cooperation and dialogue between all countries on the European continent. Eager to dispel misgivings about France’s motives, he also insisted that the European Political Community would just be “a geopolitical lab” and, crucially, “not a substitute for enlargement”.

In recent years, France had been reluctant to fully embrace further enlargement of the Union. It was usually not the only one to have concerns but was the only one to publicly voice those concerns. This partly changed after Paris advocated for, and obtained, a reform of the enlargement process in 2020. The enlargement process is now more political, with a narrower focus on six main thematic priorities – down from 30 previously – and allows for more involvement from member states, as well as for the process to be unwound in case a candidate country backpedals on promised transformations.

Following this reform, which France saw as fundamental for the credibility of the enlargement process, and in light of shifting geopolitical realities, Macron told the GLOBSEC audience that the EU “should enlarge (…) as swiftly as possible”. This brings France closer to the position Germany has traditionally espoused. Last May, Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz renewed his clear commitment to Eastern-facing enlargement in front of the European Parliament.

Balancing breadth and depth
Nevertheless, Macron stopped short of unconditionally committing to enlargement. Rather, he insisted that the process should be conducted swiftly but also with sufficient care to harmonizing candidate countries’ legal and institutional frameworks with the EU’s to avoid “divergent trajectories”.

This warning alludes to the very real strain that successive rounds of enlargement have already placed on the functioning of the EU. Absent a reform of the Union’s decision-making processes, which still require unanimity in many key policy areas, any additional member is a new potential veto holder. In addition, with all the new potential members being in Eastern Europe, older member states also have concerns about the shifting center of gravity of the EU’s political dynamics.

Once finalized, accession also forfeits the EU’s ability to effect change in fundamental aspects of the now member state’s legal and institutional framework. This is especially true when it comes to rule of law. Brussels has been powerless to revert the democratic backsliding taking place in certain member states and there is a desire to avoid repeating those mistakes with the current batch of candidates.

Finally, the EU needs to support candidate countries adapt to and adopt existing European standards, rules, and legislation, also known as the ‘acquis’. This process of legal, economic, and social convergence will require time, resources, and personnel from an EU bureaucracy already stretched thin by existing geopolitical headwinds.

In the past, Macron had often advocated for a ‘multi-speed’ Europe, in which new countries would be admitted quickly, but with a different status and rights, before slowly converging with historic members. The “several formats” with specific aims that he called for in his Bratislava speech, including the proposed European Political Community, can be seen as his attempt to square the circle and enlarge rapidly without sacrificing the EU’s internal cohesion.

France is not moving alone. In January 2023, French and German Ministers for Europe Laurence Boone and Anna Lührmann launched a bilateral group of experts to work on EU institutional reforms, in particular in the context of future EU enlargement. In a sign of the times, after Macron’s speech, Boone told the press that enlargement was now a question of how, not if.

Autonomy and sovereignty
For Paris, laying the groundwork for successful enlargement is also a way to build up the EU’s strategic autonomy. With the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine having helped move the needle with other member states on this issue, the French are looking to operationalize more deeply the political concept. In Bratislava, Macron called for more European efforts in energy, technology, and military matters. He notably stressed “the need to reduce [the EU’s] dependence”.

With a broad idea to build, buy, and innovate European, France hopes it can convince other member states to further implement strategic autonomy. To facilitate this broad adoption, Paris is cognizant of the need to allow for local specificities. For instance, when dealing with dependencies, France favors a more autonomous approach, while Germany emphasizes the strong partnership with the United States and favors a progressive “de-risking”, rather than a sudden decoupling, in economic relations with authoritarian powers.

There is also an acknowledgement that the move towards a more (geo)political Europe is a massive undertaking that requires Europeans to strengthen their capabilities in critical fields including industry, energy, research and innovation, defense, etc. In Bratislava, Macron pleaded for the “need to harmonize our European standards”, deploring that “there is too much competition between us”, before adding that “there are far more different standards between Europeans than there are within the United States of America”. The ambition is clear: to have Europeans act concretely and cohesively.

Macron’s Bratislava speech signaled France’s clear embrace of EU enlargement. Of course, the devil will be in the details, as Paris tries to foster more support for strategic autonomy and to secure its partners’ buy-in around the idea of intermediate formats like the European Political Community. The upcoming European Council on June 29-30 and NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 11-12 will likely be the backdrop for further discussions around enlargement.

EU enlargement is also likely to draw more attention from the general public as the 2024 European elections draw near. Populist leaders, like France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen, will likely use the issue to attack both Macron and the EU, for instance by campaigning on the idea that new arrivals could dilute the influence of the Union’s founding members. Le Pen is already historically high in polls and aims to become France’s next president in 2027. No doubt that these domestic considerations partly explain why, despite his embrace of enlargement in Bratislava, the current French leader also warned that “our European Union was not designed to be enlarged at will.”

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