European Western Balkans

High-level conference in Germany: There is consensus on EU enlargement and reform, roadmap needed

Annalena Baerbock addressing the high-level conference in Berlin; Photo: Auswärtiges Amt

BERLIN – There is consensus that the EU should enlarge and that it should reform before it does. Now, a concrete roadmap for reforms is needed, and it should be developed under the next Presidency of the Council, in the first half of 2024. These were the main messages of today’s high-level conference organised in Berlin by the German Federal Foreign Office.

The conference, under the heading „A larger, stronger Union – making the European Union fit for enlargement and future members fit for accession“,  gathered Foreign Ministers of the EU Member States and ten countries seeking membership, together with the members of the EU institutions, academia and civil society.

In her opening speech, Foreign Minister of Germany Annalena Baerbock said that the EU had found a consensus that it must enlarge, which is the geopolitical consequence of the Russian aggression against Ukraine.

“But a larger EU will only be stronger if we beforehand do what we have been restrained about – a revision of the functioning of the European Union. Because if the number of members of the EU is to increase by almost a third, we need a strong structure for our society from top to bottom. And we need to be honest – that is anything but easy”, Baerbock said.

She said that the heads of state and government have agreed to launch a reform process that will run in parallel to the enlargement at the informal European Council in Grenada in October.

“The enlargement is a geopolitical necessity, but also a geopolitical chance for the EU. If Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and the Western Balkan are permanently susceptible to Russian destabilization, that makes us all vulnerable. We cannot afford grey zones in Europe anymore. But if we strengthen the candidates’ democratic institutions, improve their resilience and offer the economic perspective to their people, we do not only close a geopolitical flank, we also strengthen our community”, Baerbock said.

She emphasized that twenty years ago, Western Balkans were told that the doors of the EU would open if the conditions were met, which has not happened, leading to frustration and resignation.

“This is why we need to ask ourselves how to arrange the accession process so that another generation does not spend their lives in the waiting room”, Baerbock said.

Conference family photo; Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of North Macedonia

She added that this is why the EU needs to enable the people from these countries, especially young people, to enjoy the benefits of the EU even before their country is a full member.

“We should open more resources and EU programmes for candidate countries. From research grants and Erasmus programme to practical issues of everyday life: EU roaming and simplified visa procedures. And we need to think about the ways to integrate the candidates into the EU step by step”, the Foreign Minister said.

However, she stressed that this gradual integration cannot be a buffet, because the issues of fundamentals are important.

“Rule of law and democracy must remain the foundation of our Union. That is our strength. That’s why we should tie the payments of the resources to the fulfillment of the rule of law standards”, Baerbock said.

Given this difficult task, she added, the EU should not impose a date on the candidate countries by which they should have implemented the necessary reforms.

“But it is clear that we as the EU should – and I think must – think about where we stand together at the end of this decade”, Baerbock said.

She pointed out that there is no timetable for internal EU reforms. This should be changed so that a roadmap is developed under the next EU Council Presidency, which will be held by Belgium.

European Council in December should discuss the reform roadmap

Following Baerbock’s speech, the public part of the conference featured two public discussions, one on EU enlargement and another on EU reform.

Speaking at the first panel, Foreign Minister of North Macedonia Bujar Osmani said that he could testify that Europe today is facing a geopolitical awakening, which should ensure a geostrategic investment in the security of the EU.

He also supported the change of the current binary approach to enlargement, in which a country is not involved in EU policies or institutions nor has access to EU funds as long as it is not a member.

“Instead, each candidate, through the successful implementation of reforms and the harmonization of their policies with those of the EU, should progress at their own pace through gradual integration”, said Osmani.

In the second panel, Anna Lührmann, German Minister of State for Europe and Climate, said that the situation in the EU has changed significantly from when she first came to government in late 2021 when there was no enthusiasm for enlargement or reform.

Now, due to the war in Ukraine, the situation is different and there is no doubt that the EU is attractive

“No European government doubts the enlargement anymore, it is high on the agenda, there is a consensus after the Grenada summit”, Lührmann said.

She said that, at the meeting of the European Council in December, there needs to be an agreement about this roadmap and then after the EU elections in 2024 the main institution must decide how to make the EU ready for enlargement.

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