The December 2023 European Council raised high stakes and expectations some time ago. It was supposed to pave the way for another wave of EU enlargement and simultaneously trigger the internal reform of the EU. That would eventually lead to a profound change in the Lisbon Treaty. As an off-shoot, the EU’s multiannual financial perspective would be revised to help Ukraine economically and militarily. Only the first among these three points has come to life. As it often happens in the EU, the reality proved challenging.
Winding path towards enlargement
At the beginning of November 2023, the European Commission introduced the package of EU enlargement policy, in which it recommended, among others, to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova to admit the conditional candidate status for Georgia (after fulfilment of EU’s demands), and advanced the integration of some Western Balkans countries. In the latter’s case, the course is generally well-known, full of incremental forward or backwards steps. This southern EU enlargement is a long-established process, full of disappointment and misunderstandings. It contradicts the assumption that came to the fore in the example of CEE countries that the credible accession perspective to the EU is so attractive that it pushes countries to reform and catch up with other EU members. Nevertheless, nobody invented something better. Popular thinking suggests that the past conflicts could resurface if the EU does not encroach on the Western Balkans.
At the same time, the ‘Eastearnization’ of the EU is a process of different magnitude. It changes the EU’s geographical range and exports European integration to areas Russia considers her sphere of influence and is willing to attack. For many EU countries, Europe’s exposure to the East is a source of fear, which can only be addressed through wide-ranging reforms of the EU itself, they think. The EU must be more powerful externally and less fragile internally, i.e. strengthen its Common Security and Defence Policy and reform the way it does things in Brussels and the capitals. Many countries also think that considering Eastern and Balkans countries’ level of corruption and the rule of law problems, a multi-speed Europe is unavoidable. This should be reflected in the treaties and the proposals offered to candidates. Additionally, no one wants another ‘Hungary’ in the EU, which openly advocates for Russia’s interests.
All these challenges caused the Europen Council to become a political drama instead of celebrating the ‘enlargement package’. The Hungarian PM Viktor Orban had to be courted by other European leaders not to veto Ukraine’s opening of membership negotiations. Ultimately, he eased off, underlining that there would be plenty of occasions to stop Ukraine’s moves towards the EU in the future. One has to admit that blackmailing is not a new phenomenon in the EU negotiations. However, now it happens over one of the most critical decisions the EU is making, and it takes place from a member who is a close friend of Putin’s Russia, a country hostile to the EU.
More discussion is awaiting — both short-term and long-term.
The mood became even more sobering when Orban’s veto did not allow for the revision of the EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework. It was aimed both to help Ukraine (50 bln EUR) and supplement (14,6 bln EUR) or redeploy (21 bln ) money for policies of EU high needs. In consequence, an additional summit in this regard will be needed in January 2024. There are ways to circumvent Orban’s eventual subsequent veto via the intergovernmental agreement of 26 countries or their bilateral grants or loans for Ukraine. It would, however, complicate and slow down the process. Some diplomats also suggested that things may go smoothly during the next summit as Orban could not accept two significant blows for one meeting.
The discussion on the future of Europe is also in disarray. The change of the Treaty of Lisbon will very likely go through referenda in some member states. Legally, though, the Treaty does not have to be changed as it is flexible enough to contain further enlargement rounds. Much can also be improved without changing the Treaty. The debate has been opened by the Conference on the Future of Europe, some interesting think-tank reports, and the project of Treatie’s revision introduced by the European Parliament. The natural expectation was that the European Council would discuss whether to gather the so-called European Convention, which consists of representatives of national governments, parliaments and the EU institutions. The Convention would aim to propose new reforms for the EU or even a new Treaty. However, it appeared that most states would not be happy with such a debate now. It is not a foregone conclusion that nothing will happen about that in the coming year.
Nevertheless, politically, it is difficult to imagine that such a controversial issue will be intentionally put to the heart of the 2024 election to the European Parliament. After this election, the public opinion polls show we can have a new European political constellation. It will be challenging to form the winning majority in the EP. Conducting the debate about the EU reforms can be even more difficult.
All in all, the December 2023 European Council leaves the glass half-full. More thrillers are yet to come.
Author: Dr Bartłomiej E. Nowak, Senior Advisor at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation and lecturer at the Vistula University.