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[EWB Interview] Schwarzer: The EU should strive to be enlargement-ready by 2030 and encourage candidates to fulfil the accession criteria

The discussion of the enlargement of the European Union was given an impetus last September with the report by the Franco-German expert working group on EU institutional reform. The document proposed, among other initiatives, that the Union should be ready to accept new members by 2030. It was subsequently presented to Member States, which are expected to adopt a roadmap for the reforms later this year.

What has happened with the EU’s thinking on enlargement since the start of the war in Ukraine and, more specifically, since the publication Franco-German report? Will the EU become more ready for enlargement in the foreseeable future and how will the upcoming elections for the European Parliament affect this process?

We posed these questions to Daniela Schwarzer, one of the co-authors and rapporteurs of the report. Ms Schwarzer is an executive board member of the Bertelsmann Foundation and former Director of the German Council on Foreign Relations.

European Western Balkans: In September last year, you and your colleagues released a report on EU institutional reform. What have been the reactions of the EU national governments so far, especially to the parts of the report related to the possibility of enlargement by 2030?

Daniela Schwarzer: We were glad to see that our proposals have been discussed in most capitals of current and prospective EU Member States. The escalating conflicts and competition in the EU’s neighborhood drive enlargement, and some governments argue internal reforms should not delay enlargement. Yet, within an ever more volatile environment where countries seek to secure stability, wealth, and protection by joining the EU, it follows that enlargement only makes sense if it makes the EU stronger. It is thus crucial to get the EU ready for enlargement which means improving its functioning before welcoming new members.

While European leaders have so far not made an official commitment to preparing for enlargement by 2030, several high-ranking European politicians, most notably European Council President Charles Michel, have called for this target date for both the EU and accession candidates. It would be a very strong signal to EU candidate countries and EU citizens if the European Heads of State and Government committed to getting the EU enlargement ready by 2030.

It would be a very strong signal if the European Heads of State and Government committed to getting the EU enlargement ready by 2030.

The EU’s next strategic agenda, shaped for the new political leadership after the European elections in June 2024, should thus establish a clear goal: The EU should strive to be enlargement-ready by 2030, encouraging candidate countries to fulfil the accession criteria as soon as possible. Such a shared commitment and strong message to applicants could rebuild trust in the accession process, which has suffered from a lack of commitment in recent years.

EWB: Do you think that there is currently enough political will in the EU to launch a serious reform process along the lines of your report after the European Parliament elections and the formation of the new Commission?

DS: While Russia’s war on Ukraine has intensified pressure on European institutions and Member States to push forward with enlargement and to improve the EU’s functioning, many governments fear that a Convention could not bring satisfying results or that the ratification of treaty change fails. Memories from almost 20 years are coming back: In 2005, the EU faced a severe setback with the rejection of the EU Constitutional Treaty in referendums in France and the Netherlands. This experience has left many national governments cautious about further treaty changes, which are nonetheless essential for enlargement to occur.

Also, the process of enlarging the EU can fail, irrespective of institutional reforms. It involves the adoption of accession treaties between the EU and the respective candidate countries, and their ratification in all EU Member States and the candidate countries.

Pro-European parties should communicate the benefits of improving and growing the EU to their national electorates.

This underscores the importance of involving the publics, both within in the EU and in candidate countries. Without a broad debate about enlargement and the future shape and functioning of the EU, the process is unlikely to succeed. For the EU, the upcoming European elections provide a good opportunity for pro-European parties to discuss these big questions across Member States. They should communicate the benefits of improving and growing the EU to their national electorates, while also emphasizing what is at stake if the Union fails to adapt to the more hostile geopolitical context.

EWB: Will the outcome of the European Parliament elections affect the trajectory of future reforms? What might be the consequence of the rise of right-wing populist parties, which the polls predict, for the proposals that you made?

DS: The European Parliament plays a crucial role in the enlargement process. Therefore, its composition after the June elections is decisive for both the course of internal reforms and enlargement. Recent polls indicate a surge in right-wing support, with the two far-right groups “Identity and Democracy” and “European Conservatives and Reformists” projected to collectively secure a quarter of the seats in the European Parliament. While it is anticipated that the European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats will remain the largest groups, thereby wielding considerable influence over the European agenda, dynamics in the Parliament would still change, also impacting our reform proposals.

However, perhaps even more significant are the seven upcoming national elections scheduled to take place in EU Member States until the end of the year. These elections are likely to bring about changes in national governments, thereby altering dynamics in the European Council.

Should the influence of right-wing nationalist forces in both the European Parliament and the Council grow, this can badly affect the protection of the rule of law, which is a non-negotiable constitutional principle of the EU. Securing the necessary support from Member States and within Parliament to sanction violations of core European principles would become significantly more difficult. The political will to utilize existing mechanisms to uphold the rule of law against adversaries within the EU is likely to diminish as right-wing nationalist forces strengthen their influence. Also, with more political polarization and a growing influence of EU-sceptics in the EU institutions, the much-needed reforms of EU policies and the budget might become more difficult. It will be interesting and important to see whether those, who loudly criticize the EU in national and European election campaigns will contribute ideas how to reform the EU.

Ukraine-Southeast Europe Summit 2024 family photo; Photo: X / Volodymyr Zelenskyy

EWB: Many have pointed out that the war in Ukraine has been the main factor in forcing the EU to seriously consider deepening and widening. Two years after the start of the Russian invasion, is this effect of the war still strong? Are there other factors causing the change in EU’s thinking?

DS: Russia’s war on Ukraine has exerted significant pressure on the EU and its Member States to prioritize enlargement as a means of stabilizing the EU’s neighborhood. In 2022 and 2023, as a direct response to the large-scale invasion, the EU took measures that would have been considered unthinkable just a year or two earlier. The political determination to move forward more decidedly with the accession of the Western Balkan countries, efforts to harmonize the Open Balkan regional initiative with the Berlin Process, and, most notably, the European Council’s decision in December to initiate accession talks with Ukraine, Moldova, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, all indicate that the new enlargement momentum to this date remains robust.

Russia’s brutal war must be seen within a broader framework of escalating tensions between democracies and autocracies, a systemic conflict that increasingly structures the international order and shatters certainties on which the EU was built. The EU and its Member States have reacted to this increasingly conflict-ridden environment by reassessing their relationships with other regions and countries, and adopting a new, more cautious economic security approach.

EU will have to take more responsibility for stability and security in its eastern neighborhood.

Europeans are acutely aware that the US perceives China and not Russia as the most decisive security challenge. As a result, and especially in the event of Donald Trump’s re-election, the EU will have to take more responsibility for stability and security in its eastern neighborhood. Enlargement, as mentioned earlier, is considered a key tool for addressing this responsibility. However, since enlargement can take very long or fail altogether, more needs to be done below full EU membership to work with EU neighbors. One such format is the newly created European Political Community, which, while not designed as an alternative to enlargement, can help with stabilization.

EWB: How would you assess the current state of the EU enlargement policy? What are the main challenges?

DS: EU enlargement policy is currently facing a triple challenge: Driving accession negotiations, designing stronger pre-enlargement policies to effectively stabilize candidate countries in a significantly more hostile geopolitical environment, and the necessity of reforming the EU internally. While the war in Ukraine has revived the tired enlargement debate, the road to get there is long and the pace of progress will depend on critical political questions that are yet to be fully addressed. Consider internal reforms, for example: Although the two largest Member States, France and Germany, have conditioned enlargement on internal reforms, they have yet to reach a consensus among themselves, let alone with the other governments, regarding the precise goal of internal reforms and how to achieve them.

Secondly, given geopolitical pressures, the EU needs to reevaluate its policies towards candidate countries. It must consider how to provide optimal support for candidates as they prepare for accession. Similarly, the EU must explore which political forums can foster a relationship of honesty and respect, conducive to the transformation of candidate countries into stable democracies and market economies, and eventual success in negotiations. Rebuilding mutual trust among all parties involved is also a crucial aspect to be addressed, especially given the lack of progress and ambition in the accession process in recent years.

Rebuilding mutual trust among the EU and the candidates is crucial, especially given the lack of progress and ambition in the accession process in recent years.

Ultimately, the next enlargement round, along with the ongoing accession talks, is unfolding in a significantly more challenging international context compared to the conditions of the 1990s and 2000s. Besides counteracting Russian malign influence in neighboring countries, the EU should also pay closer attention to the economic activities of China, Turkey and other in candidate countries, while offering feasible alternatives.

EWB: Your report recommends that political criteria (democracy, rule of law and other EU values) remain the first precondition for accession. It currently seems that multiple candidates have significant problems with these criteria. Is there, then, a risk that this principle will ultimately be “sacrificed” to an extent so that the EU can enlarge in the foreseeable future?

DS: Regardless of any new flexibility in the accession process, compliance with the political accession criteria and EU principles remains the precondition for EU and thus Single Market membership. The rule of law is as a cornerstone of the EU, not only as a theoretical constitutional principle but also integral to its operations: Most EU policies, including those governing the Single Market, rely on independent national courts and the recognition of the primacy of EU law to function effectively. Corruption within national administrations must be incompatible with the disbursement of EU funds. Therefore, the rule of law is a fundamental requirement for both current and future EU Member States.

Unfortunately, the troubling reality of certain existing members questioning the rule of law undermines the EU’s credibility vis-à-vis candidate countries. Prior to any enlargement, the EU needs to address this problem and ensure its ability to enforce the rule of law with current and future members alike.

For countries unwilling or unable to join the EU and comply with the necessary criteria, a new partnership status should be designed that is distinct from the accession procedure.

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