Having survived several waves of enlargement and a series of large-scale cataclysms, the European Union now finds itself in need of structural reforms. Plans for the fast-track integration of a large group of new members, including Moldova and Ukraine, may trigger these long-overdue transformative changes.
Over the past 15 years, the European Union has accepted only one new member state into its ranks: Croatia, the richest, most developed and most Catholic state in the Western Balkans. Its accession to the EU was registered in 2013. However, the community soon suffered an unexpected loss: after a referendum, the United Kingdom left its ranks. So, today, the EU includes 27 states, just as it did in 2007, when Bulgaria and Romania joined the European family.
For the EU, these fifteen years were marked by many cataclysms. The most severe have been the financial crisis, which required huge injections into the economies of Ireland, Greece, Portugal and some other members; the migration crisis, resulting from the so-called Arab Spring and the war in Syria; and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has substantially slowed the pace of economic growth. Since February of this year, the conflict in Ukraine has become an additional factor, all the catastrophic consequences of which are yet to be estimated.
Every time, problems arising mostly from the outside generated disputes over the community’s internal reconstruction and the need for structural reforms. The recurring dissatisfaction with union policies on the part of national governments, as well as Brussels’ negative attitude to the political process in some member states, contributed to the problem. Yet every time the EU bureaucracy managed to freeze reformist impulses and leave them at the level of mere talk not allowing them to turn into practical measures to transform the community. And even if changes did take place, they were conservative in nature and only tried to delay the union’s full-scale evolution.
However, current trends seem to be hinting at a tectonic shift in European Union policy. Brussels is preparing for another enlargement, comparable in scale to that of 2004. At that time, eight states joined the EU. On June 23, the EU Summit of Heads of State granted the candidate status of membership to Ukraine and Moldova. As I have already written, Kyiv and Chisinau can hardly expect to outrun the candidates from the Western Balkans in their European aspirations.
At the same time, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is openly promoting another enlargement wave. Even if we ignore the European prospects of Turkiye, which has been a candidate for four decades, and Georgia, where reservations have emerged (most likely due to its reluctance to openly confront Moscow), there is still an extremely diverse team of eight countries waiting in line. It is impossible to completely exclude such force majeure events as Scotland’s independence followed by a sovereign application for EU membership or Ireland’s enlargement at the expense of the territory of Northern Ireland, whose population reacted to Brexit with criticism.
All eight candidate states contrast with each other and with the European Union in terms of economic development, domestic political landscape and foreign policy traditions. Many have no control over their own constitutional territory, Kosovo is still not recognized by the UN, Serbia is in constant conflict with neighboring Muslim territories, and Serb-Croat relations have a dismal history.
Therefore, yesterday the German chancellor opened a public debate on reforming the union. He expressed ideas on the European Parliament composition, European Commission staffing and decision-making in the field of foreign policy and human rights.
It is clear that setting up eight additional general directorates of the European Commission would further bureaucratize and fragment the governing system, making it more complicated and degrading. The number of the European Parliament MPs peaked in 2004 due to the Union’s large-scale enlargement, and then decreased to 705 after the 2020 elections. Increasing this body seems simply unprofitable, especially given the deliberately marginal status of some European elected officials. In addition, Brussels, Paris and Berlin are regularly mocking the self-reliance of some member states – in energy security and negotiations with Moscow, in readiness, or the lack thereof, to accept migrants, in the politics of values and governance processes. In recent years, Poland and Hungary have been the subject of a particularly large number of complaints.
Therefore, it is inevitable that the European Union will undergo organizational changes in the coming years. The reforms will primarily affect the key decision-making principle. An equivalent of the UN security council is very likely to be created, with veto power to control the main directions of the Union’s development. Such a council could be made up of the Union’s founding states – France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries. The decisions on, for example, the climate agenda, the purchase of electricity, the allocation of financial aid, or sanctions would be taken by simple majority (subject to the mandatory support by the EU founding states).
In turn, the European Parliament risks losing the rudiments of its own influence and power. The role of the key Nordic economies and the all-powerful Eurobureaucracy will be reinforced, and the total dictate of “new candor” and “new morality”, which Poland and Hungary are still actively struggling with, will finally take shape and become entrenched.
This can lead to a paradoxical situation in which Moldova ends up in a completely different union than the one which the current government is so actively striving to. It is the prospect of Ukraine and Moldova’s fast-track membership driven by geopolitical logic that might trigger the long overdue sweeping reforms that would hit, first and foremost, the interests, representation and dignity of the new members. Most probably, the new EU will not be the kind of community and Moldova will not have the kind of voice Maia Sandu, Igor Grosu and their whole team are dreaming about.