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“There is no second-rate membership”: what agreements were reached at the EU enlargement conference


Top diplomats, foreign ministers, ministers for EU affairs, and others, gathered in Berlin on November 2 for the first big discussion of the issues and conditions under which the European Union will be ready to accept new members, including Ukraine, which is on the “first line” in terms of EU enlargement, i.e., among the countries whose accession is considered most likely and realisable.

European Pravda has previously reported that there have been positive signs from key European capitals leading up to this meeting. Europeans began to realize that the preconditions for enlargement that have been set so far are unfairly harsh.

Last year, the dominant opinion in the EU was that Ukraine’s accession would be impossible until the EU had undergone a complex, lengthy (and unlikely) reform of its founding treaties, which would change the decision-making system and the operation of the governing bodies.

This condition made it seem unlikely that Ukraine would ever be able to join the EU. Now, however, it is no longer seen as an axiom. There were no such references from politicians, who gathered in Berlin. Instead, a clear position was heard from everyone without exception: EU enlargement must happen. Now, this decision is considered and openly called a geopolitical one.

Another important focus of the conference was the idea of gradual integration of EU candidates, which is being promoted by both key EU countries, such as Berlin, and some candidate countries. The main challenge is to ensure that Ukraine or others do not get stuck at the so-called “semi-membership” stage.

Another point, and it is something that Kyiv, in particular, insists upon, is that it is extremely important to change the accession procedure itself, depriving countries like Hungary or Bulgaria of the tool to blackmail their neighbours, EU candidate countries.

Read the article by European Pravda to find out more.

Europe up close to Russia

On Thursday morning, when many foreign representatives were still on their way to Berlin, a meeting started at the building of the German Foreign Ministry attended solely by experts, not public officials. That was the idea. The German Foreign Ministry brought together representatives of key European think tanks that deal with EU issues to offer their opinions on how European capitals should act in the current situation, when after a long pause, the discussion about accession of new members to the EU has once again been reopened.

In fact, experts were previously tasked with drafting a written enlargement plan (European Pravda cited some of it). Now, independent experts had an opportunity to concisely outline their position so that it would serve as a basis for political discussion.

Before presenting the advice to the ministers, the co-founder of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), Danish expert Lykke Friis, emphasized that there is a key thesis that should be the basis for further actions: enlargement is needed not only by candidate countries, but also by the European Union itself. “Inability to expand will leave countries in a grey zone and could be seen as an invitation to aggression,” she stressed.

Fortunately, it turned out that European countries no longer need to be convinced of this.

From France to Germany, from Portugal to the Baltic states, everyone who spoke emphasized that they did not question this. “The accession of new members to the EU will take place; there is not even a discussion about it. It is, however, necessary to decide how exactly this will happen.” This statement summarizes the positions of European ministers.

Over the past decade, public support of a new enlargement by EU countries has probably never sounded so clear and unanimous. More importantly, EU leaders have started talking about it in terms of geopolitics, something that European capitals have categorically refused to do for several decades in a row.

“We can no longer afford grey areas in Europe. Enlarging our union is a geopolitical necessity, but it’s also a geopolitical opportunity for the EU,” said Annalena Baerbock, opening the conference.

She also stressed several times that she considers the situation unacceptable when candidate countries that gradually and over a long period of time do their “homework” for EU membership, do not receive benefits until their full accession to the bloc.This became the subject of a separate discussion.

EU without “semi-members”

“And we should think about ways to integrate candidate countries into the EU incrementally. Why don’t we, for instance, already invite countries that have completed individual accession chapters to Brussels to attend the associated Council meetings as observers?”

This statement from Baerbock’s speech at the start of the conference became one of the most discussed topics. According to information at European Pravda’s disposal, throughout the day, during closed discussions, Germany continued to actively lobby the idea of the “by-stage” EU accession process. The idea, however, was not perceived completely positively or negatively.

The biggest danger is that this way the candidates could get ‘stuck’ halfway through, because in that case the EU governments that would want to hold back the enlargement for some reasons will be able to argue that the candidate countries have already got something and there is no need for them to rush to gain full membership.

Another problem that was publicly voiced by Portuguese Secretary of State for European Affairs Tiago Antunes is that gradual integration could lead to the so-called “cherry picking” effect on the part of candidate countries. In other words, they might choose the free market, but refuse to integrate in terms of human rights or foreign policy. Or, they integrate in this sector of the economy, but not in another.

In short, the EU has not yet found a unified position on this.

Ukraine’s position on this idea is cautious.

Kyiv does not deny the gradual approach, but perceives it without enthusiasm, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, who also took part in the meeting in Berlin, told European Pravda. “Ukraine believes that gradual integration, such as access to the common market, was the goal of the Association Agreement. Meanwhile, the candidate status has a different purpose, namely, Ukraine’s involvement in the decision-making of the EU, the European Commission, with a vote in the Council of the EU and the European Parliament. There cannot be a status of a semi-member, when states only have an advisory vote,” Kuleba explained.

Performance of the Association Agreement, which is still in effect, is also still on the agenda. “Therefore, we are calm (about the idea of gradual membership benefits – EP), but under the condition that representation in the EU bodies is not delayed because of that,” summed up the Ukrainian minister.

The main positive news here is that the idea of “semi-membership” as an enlargement goal is also not supported by key EU countries, and they voice their opinion both publicly and in private conversations.

Furthermore, officials in Paris, Berlin and some other capitals are currently rejecting the proposal to create a format of “curtailed membership” for countries around the EU. The interesting fact is that there are countries among EU candidates that are currently willing to agree to “under-membership”, possibly having lost faith in their full accession in more than 20 years since they received the official European candidate status, as some of them hinted at the meeting in Berlin, particularly, North Macedonian Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani. However, the course of history has changed, and now the European Union prefers to fully integrate candidate countries.

It is just as important that the aforementioned group of experts supports this very idea. “We do not consider it possible to invite candidates to “second-rate membership,” explained Professor Gaelle Marti, who presented expert findings to diplomats in Berlin.

Notably, the first position paper left room for interpretation on this issue (it proposes, among other things, associate membership), and Marti acknowledged this, emphasizing that this does not apply to those countries that aspire to gain membership. For them, the terms of membership, representation in EU bodies, etc. must be identical to those of the countries of the “old Europe”, without any options for “semi-membership”.

The opinion of non-governmental experts really matters, and that is why they are involved in discussions on the sensitive issue of EU enlargement. Their advice is not always taken into account, but it is always considered. In this matter, there is a consensus between independent experts and key capitals, which is not the case on all issues.

Good news for Ukraine

The main source of disagreement between EU countries is the question of how the European Union should be reformed and what the connection between the reform and enlargement is. There is no discussion about the fact that the EU needs reform now and will need it even more once new members join. And this question, even though it may seem technical, is actually decisive for Ukraine.

The EU can carry out a full-fledged reform only through amending the basic treaties of the European Union, which are frequently referred to by the unifying name “Lisbon Treaty.” These treaties determine, among other things, the distribution of powers between the branches of government in the EU and member states; the principles of forming EU bodies and the rules of decision-making; the criteria for EU membership and the rules for punishing countries that violate them.

All of the above rules are currently not very effective, and there is a general agreement in Brussels and in Western European capitals that they need to be changed. Moreover, the opinion has emerged and become popular in the EU since last year that the accession of new members to the EU, including Ukraine, will only be possible after such a full-fledged reform. The problem is that this requirement makes Ukraine’s accession nearly unrealizable.

Unlike West European countries, Eastern EU members are against changing the EU treaties. In fact, the resistance is so categorical that a comprehensive reform of the EU seems almost impossible. Meanwhile, linking enlargement to the reform would mean that Ukraine’s accession would be blocked for a long time.

In its announcement of the conference in Berlin, European Pravda reported that key EU countries, including France and Germany, had begun to lean towards abandoning this link.

We have good news: the meeting in Berlin confirmed positive changes for Ukraine.

None of the politicians publicly mentioned the need to change the treaties in order to implement the pre-accession reform. Conversely, politicians in Berlin seriously discussed the idea of reforming the EU less fundamentally, changing only those rules that can be changed under the current EU constitution.

Although there was a discussion about which path of reform to take behind the closed-door meetings of EU ministers, according to the European Pravda’s sources, and there were also supporters of changing the treaties in these meetings, these opinions did not spill over into public statements. As it turned out, this is a conscious policy to avoid creating a negative effect and disappointment.

“We need to focus on the content of the reform, not on the procedures. Remember how painful and difficult the process of changing the EU Treaties was the last time (before the signing of the Lisbon Agreement in 2007 – EP). Therefore, if we start talking about the need to change the EU Treaties, it will create a lot of problems. Once we agree on the goal, we will see if it can be done with the flexibility that the Lisbon Agreement gives,” explained the Portuguese Secretary of State for European Affairs.

In fact, the same approach prevails in the European Parliament. European Pravda had an opportunity to see a draft resolution that is being prepared for adoption and has broad support; in it, the European Parliament plans to call on member states to “make maximum use of the flexibility of the Lisbon Treaty” for the reform in the extent that does not require changes to the basic treaties of the EU.

Reform deadline – 2030?

This, of course, does not mean that internal European obstacles for Ukraine’s accession have been lifted. One of the biggest challenges is that European experts, unlike diplomats, still insist on the need to change the treaties and call it a mandatory condition of the reform. “The expert group believes that the reform is possible only through changing the treaties and sees no possibility of ways to work around it,” Professor Marti stated categorically in Berlin.

Considering that there are capitals among Western European countries, as mentioned above, that are unofficially inclined to reform through changes to treaties, this issue has not been finally resolved.

Even if the option of “reform through flexibility” is ultimately chosen, this still does not remove questions about the clarity of Ukraine’s European future. After all, even under this scenario, the reform, according to most capitals, should include a change in the voting principle from consensus to qualified majority, whereas several countries in Eastern Europe are categorically opposed to this. Currently, Poland is the loudest opponent of this change, and even a change of power in Warsaw is not expected to resolve this.

Nearly the entire Central Europe and many southern countries are against losing the veto right, and finding a compromise with them will be a challenge.

So, what happens if Ukraine completes the required reform and is ready for accession, but the EU reform continues to be stalled? Up until recently, this was a clear condition, “first the reform, and then or simultaneously the enlargement”. Experts continue to support this message, while public officials have become less categorical.

Dmytro Kuleba insists that none of the countries raised such a requirement at the closed-door meetings in Berlin. “Obviously, some still believe so, but these thoughts are not voiced publicly. And we need to convince them to chase these thoughts out of their heads,” he said in a commentary for European Pravda.

Admittedly, political ‘separation’ of the EU reform and EU enlargement remains an ambitious goal, and the conference in Berlin is the first step.

The political rhetoric at the meeting in the German capital really softened, and the statements no longer said that the completion of the reform is a prerequisite for any enlargement. Also, for the first time, the idea appeared on how to separate these components if the EU reform, expectedly, stalls.

This is the idea of setting a deadline for when the EU will be ready for enlargement. In case the EU does not meet this deadline, while some of the candidate states, including Ukraine, are ready to join, the condition of the reform should not hinder their accession. Such a deadline can be set for 2030, which is already mentioned in the statements of the European Union. Will this approach find unanimous support? Time will tell, but the process is slowly moving in the direction Ukraine needs.

Reform of the accession to the EU

On a separate note, all players agree that the EU reform should not only concern political issues that require changing the Lisbon Treaty and raise serious discussions up to the blocking of the entire process. The need for the reform is much wider.

The aforementioned Portuguese Secretary of State for European Affairs Tiago Antunes, for example, believes that financial issues are more of a priority than political ones. “The main area where we need reform is the budget. This includes agricultural policy and equalization policy. And the second area is decision-making, including the composition of the European Commission, etc.,” he said in Berlin.

Meanwhile, the enlargement procedure of the European Union also needs reform. It is undeniable that it is slow and inefficient. Moreover, there is a widespread opinion among politicians and experts that the current complicated enlargement procedure, adopted after Croatia’s accession to the EU, was designed to keep candidate countries in the negotiation process for as long as possible. Indeed, there has been almost no progress in the negotiations of the current candidates in recent years, and the negotiations on North Macedonia have been politically blocked due to a political ultimatum from neighbouring Bulgaria, which does not even have a connection to European integration.

European representatives in Berlin said that now, given the political willingness of the capitals to accelerate enlargement, the procedure must be changed. In particular, the problem is that each step in the negotiation process requires the consent of all 27 member states. “We need to understand how to protect ourselves against vetoes, seeing as around 100 steps will require unanimous approval,” explained German Minister of State for Europe Anna Luehrmann.

Dmytro Kuleba also stressed this problem. He reminded that while the EU is now talking about moving from unanimous decision-making to qualified majority voting, in the case of enlargement, the reverse process has taken place in recent years, as the last reform in this area transferred even intermediate technical decisions to the principle of unanimity. “Now all decisions during the negotiations are based on the principle of veto, and this destroys the merit-based approach, because you can do everything, but one country will veto everything,” he addressed his European colleagues at the open part of the conference.

Therefore, reforming the accession process is another challenge the European Union is facing. The scale of the tasks for the EU is truly impressive. And only the fact that the EU has realized the geopolitical importance of enlargement gives hope that these challenges will be overcome. In this case, the countries that complete the required reforms will be able to use the current thirst for enlargement and join the European Union


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