Are the new member states on the verge of the EU accession? – The latest dilemmas of the enlargement policy
In the light of the latest events, the leaders of the European Union are under pressure, mainly for geostrategic reasons, which prompts them to think about the enlargement of the Union – however, this will have many consequences for the EU’s institutions, policies, and budget. (The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, has set 2030 as an aim for the Union to be prepared to accept new members – thus Brussels faces the largest expansion in the recent decades.) In view of all this, twelve experts from France and Germany have taken a stand on how the EU could adapt to its new members – the perspective raises the reform of institutions, treaties and the budget, while Ukraine, Moldova and the Western Balkan countries can prepare for the EU accession. (As a result of Russia's aggression against Ukraine, in addition to the European Council granting candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, it launched negotiations for the process of joining the EU with the potential candidate Western Balkan countries. Many European political leaders believe that Europe will be completely whole again if the Western Balkan region joins the Union. In 2016, the Commission published the most important message of its strategy for the Western Balkans, which is to set the aim of the accession of Montenegro and Serbia by 2025. Under the artificially created concept of the "Western Balkans", Montenegro, Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia already have candidate status, while Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina are potential candidate members, which serves as a quasi "ante-room" for becoming a candidate member.)
“Enlargement is a geostrategic investment in peace, security, stability and prosperity.”
“It is clear that the enlargement of the EU is in the interest of all of us” said Anna Lührmann, who presented the report with her French counterpart in Brussels.
Which areas are affected by the indication?
The proposal refers to the concept of the gradual introduction of candidate countries to EU policies – in August 2023, Charles Michel named energy, the single market, and security and defense as key political areas of progressive integration. The proposal also envisions a multi-tier European Union offering four different phases of membership, including the following:
- first, the inner circle of countries that cooperate intensively in areas such as the Eurozone and the Schengen Area,
- they would be followed by the EU in its present form;
- the third level would include associated members participating in the single market – such as Norway, which is a member of the European Economic Area;
- and last but not least, the fourth stage would mean political cooperation without having to implement EU law – among others, the United Kingdom could be included at this phase.
According to the academical experts, this differentiation can be explained by the fact that, on the one hand, some countries outside the EU do not necessarily want to join as a full member, or cannot do so, but would appreciate being associated in another way; on the other hand, it is not inevitably the case that all the countries inside the EU would want to move forward on some policies, but it is necessary to allow the "progressive/ willing group" to do more. (It was also suggested that some current member states may not be interested in being in an EU of that kind or would feel more comfortable in another, external circle.)
Besides, it sets out ideas that would allow the EU to enlarge without necessarily changing the treaties – which at present requires the unanimous support of the 27 member states and a lengthy ratification process. It also envisages a possible supplementary reform treaty which would allow the progressive/ willing member states to move forward if some other member states are more skeptical and do not agree to amend the EU treaties; as well as providing an opportunity for the coalition of these countries to step forward in political and financial decisions.
Another contentious issue is how to transform the EU's decision-making procedures if it were to become a bloc of 30 or more countries. The authors recommend majority voting rather than the unanimity method, including key foreign policy and defense decisions. This would mean that EU member states would no longer be able to veto decisions such as economic sanctions, arms supply, or financial support for Ukraine – as Hungary did before. As a matter of fact, they propose potential omissions that would allow countries who would otherwise consider using their veto power not to join the decisions they oppose.
The experts made a proposal for changing the criteria for achieving a qualified majority. For the time being, when the Council votes on a proposal by the Commission or the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the proposal is adopted if a qualified majority is reached. A qualified majority vote is reached if two conditions are simultaneously met – 55 percent of member states vote in favour (which in practice means 15 of the 27 member states) and the proposal is supported by member states representing at least 65 percent of the total population of the Union. The experts recommended changing each of the two values to 60-60 percent.
According to the proposal, a maximum of 751 mandates should be held in the European Parliament, and European Parliament elections should be uniformized in each member states. For the moment, the European Parliament is made up of 705 Members elected in the 27 Member States. Since 1979, the MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) have been elected by direct universal suffrage for a five-year period. Each country decides on the form its election will take but must guarantee equality of the sexes and a secret ballot. Seats are allocated on the basis of population of each Member State.
On the other hand, the proposal would reduce the number of EU commissioners, or would establish a hierarchical relationship between them in regard to more effective decision-making. (The Commission is composed of the College of Commissioners from 27 EU countries. Together, the 27 Members of the College are the Commission’s political leadership during their five-year term. They are assigned responsibility for specific policy areas by the President.
The report also deals with the sensitive issue of the EU’s budget and the distribution of resources. If Ukraine joins the EU, there is a possibility that most member states will suddenly become net contributors, while all payments will move to the east – to avoid this, a larger budget framework is needed, which is more flexible on spending decisions and joint debt instruments. (Smaller groups of EU member states within the bloc could also make various agreements in order to implement their own spending plans.) The experts said that if the EU wants to be a geopolitical player, this also should be reflected in the budgetary structure.
According to the proposal, the enlarged EU would need stricter rules to protect the fundamental EU values of democracy and the rule of law. As part of the accession process, the current candidate countries must wrestle with corruption and organized crime, implement judicial reforms and strengthen the freedom of media, but many fear that these values will be undermined by the bloc's members. Relatedly, the report pitches more powers for the EU to sanction member states for rule of law breaches and other behaviors such as money laundering, by withholding funds or excluding countries from decision-making procedures.
The report was given a positive reception at the meeting of the Ministers for European Affairs in Brussels; however, it became clear how far the Member States are from each other on key issues.
The report does not represent the official German or French positions; it was created at the meeting in Granada held in October. The national leaders declared that enlargement, in addition to being a geostrategic investment in peace, security, stability and prosperity, is a driving force for improving the economic and social conditions of European citizens and reducing inequalities between countries. Both the Union and the potential member states must be prepared for the future possibility of the Union's expansion. In accordance with the merit-based nature of the accession process, and with the help of the EU, the (potential) candidate countries must step up their reform efforts, especially in the area of the rule of law; in parallel, the Union must create the necessary internal foundations and implement the necessary internal reforms. (The national leaders agreed on the need for reforms, but we do not know what stand they have formed regarding the multi-tier European Union.)
Author: Petra Olesnyovics, law student, University of Debrecen Faculty of Law
 Note: such as the Russian-Ukrainian war, the candidate status of Ukraine and Moldova, the questions arising around the EU accession of the Western Balkan countries.
 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/sep/19/uk-could-become-an-eu-lite-member-of-bloc-suggests-franco-german-report (downloaded: 17/10/2013)
Note: the proposal was made when the UK opposition leader, Keir Starmer, told the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, that he wanted to build an "even stronger" relationship between the two countries if he gains power in the national elections scheduled for next year.
 The Granada declaration https://www.consilium.europa.eu/hu/press/press-releases/2023/10/06/granada-declaration/(downloaded: 17/10/2023)
 https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/council-eu/voting-system/qualified-majority/ (downloaded: 25/10/2023)