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Putin wants more land. The EU is racing to get there first

Vladimir Putin’s warmongering land grab has pushed European Union leaders to make their own plans to expand. Moves are now under way to bring as many as eight new members into the 27-country bloc.

But the historic drive for enlargement poses its own risks for the EU.

Adding new states — potentially including the agricultural powerhouse of Ukraine — would open a Pandora’s Box of challenges. Sweeping internal reforms would be required, and that would likely trigger years of toxic infighting between current EU members.

Despite the painful complexities of any enlargement process, Russia’s aggression has convinced some EU governments they can’t afford to wait.

“This is now the moment to be bold and to change our approach to enlargement — to get the six Western Balkan countries, each and every one of them, and Ukraine and Moldova, clearly into our family,” Austrian foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg told POLITICO.

“Enlargement is not a bureaucratic endeavor … It’s about exporting and safeguarding a certain model of life of free, open Western democracies.”

Enlargement is expected to be a theme running through European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s annual set-piece speech on the state of the EU on September 13. European affairs ministers from the bloc’s 27 capitals are also due to delve into the matter at a meeting at the end of October, according to two senior EU diplomats granted anonymity to discuss confidential matters.

Crucially, Germany and France appear to be on board. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s bid earlier this year for an “enlarged” Europe as well as upbeat signals from Paris, where Europe minister Laurence Boone told POLITICO the EU should give a “consistent message” to candidate countries about joining the union — not least to help them fend off Russian influence campaigns.

Seven-year deadline

One question is timing. EU Council President Charles Michel has called for new members to be admitted to the bloc by 2030. French President Emmanuel Macron backs the idea of an expansion in stages, with countries first gaining access to the single market before becoming full EU members.

Austria’s Schallenberg floated the possibility of letting candidate countries sit as observers on the EU’s political and security committee (PSC), a Brussels body where foreign policy decisions are made. “Instead of simply sending them an EU or common Foreign Security Policy declaration, saying ‘sign it,’ we make them part of our thinking, part of our decision-shaping,” he said.

The renewed push for a larger Europe marks the first such expansion drive since the bloc accepted Croatia into its ranks in 2013. Talk about letting in Turkey ended with France’s then president Nicolas Sarkozy bluntly saying no to Ankara in 2011, putting a damper on further enlargement.

But if they are to realize their ambitions, the EU’s leaders will need to cope with acute growing pains. The debate is likely to be fierce between European capitals as officials weigh the suitability of candidate countries — concerns about corruption in Ukraine, for example, loom large. And then there’s the nightmarish prospect of reforming the EU’s internal decision-making processes to accommodate a much larger bloc.

EU Council President Charles Michel has called for new members to be admitted to the bloc by 2030 | Pool photo by Francisco Seco via AFP/Getty Images

No sooner had Michel set his 2030 target date than a spokesperson for the European Commission, which is responsible for assessing candidate nations’ fitness, poured cold water on such a rapid timescale. The process to join the EU was purely “merit-based,” the spokesperson said. The Commission is due to present progress reports on candidate countries later this year, although one senior EU diplomat said the presentation was likely to be delayed amid intense scrutiny of Ukraine’s accession bid, in particular.

Corruption

“We want to give a positive signal to Ukraine but things such as this proposal to give more power to [Ukraine’s] intelligence [services] over corruption can send the wrong message,” said a Western European diplomat. At the same time, Ukraine was a “very corrupt country.”

Agricultural policy is the most obvious flashpoint in any future accession talks between Brussels and Kyiv. Ukraine’s cheap grain exports could flood the EU and drown the bloc’s heavily-subsidized farmers. Poland and several other EU countries have already shut their doors to Ukrainian grain exports, saying the move aims to protect their farmers.

The internal reforms that expansion would trigger include: overhauling the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, redesigning the bloc’s long-term budget, and rewriting its decision-making process to move toward greater use of so-called “qualified majority” voting in areas like foreign policy, where unanimity between capitals is currently required.

“What we see … is that the current framework, whether it is budgetary or policies or decision-making procedures, is not fit for a Europe with 30-something members,” said Portugal’s Europe minister, Tiago Antunes. “Sometimes it’s already very, very difficult, as you know, with 27.”

As always, politics is never far away. A major expansion in the EU would shift the bloc’s center of gravity to the east, potentially diluting France and Germany’s traditionally decisive influence over key decisions.

A group of EU lawmakers is already drafting far-reaching plans for treaty change, obtained by POLITICO, which they argue would be needed for enlargement.

Referendum, anyone?

But changing the EU’s fundamental treaties is an arduous process requiring referendums in several countries. Appetite for that sort of exercise is limited among EU diplomats, some of whom argue that reforms can be implemented under the bloc’s existing Lisbon Treaty. “In Council there is no majority for treaty change,” said one EU diplomat. “The Council’s legal service has been advising us for months already that the Lisbon Treaty is enlargement-proof.”

The expansion debate is set to step up in the coming months, including at the third meeting of the European Political Community of countries beyond those in the bloc, due to take place on October 5 in Spain. Michel plans to meet EU leaders in small groups ahead of the summit to gather their views on enlargement.

Despite the intense focus on Ukraine, smaller candidate countries are also pressing at the bloc’s gates.

Kosovo’s President, Vjosa Osmani, whose country officially applied to join the EU last year, gave a cautious welcome to the renewed focus on enlargement. “We believe it’s in the interest of all, for all of the Western Balkan countries to join,” Osmani said.

But she added that countries weren’t willing to wait forever for the EU to make up its mind. “It’s hard not to get impatient, especially when you do everything that you’re asked to do and then nothing happens,” she said.

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