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GRENADA, Spain — French President Emmanuel Macron will aim to rally countries behind a historic expansion that would incorporate war-torn Ukraine and several other European Union candidate countries at a gathering of leaders in the Spanish city of Granada which will begin on Thursday.
But member states’ concerns about the mechanics and viability of such a large-scale expansion pose a serious threat to a project. Macron and other leaders, like European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, have put their credibility on the line.
The French leader will jointly push with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to launch difficult negotiations on EU enlargement at the third meeting of the European Political Community, a forum created in response to the Russian invasion that brings together leaders Europeans from third countries to build a broader and more inclusive European network.
Beyond the key issue of Ukraine’s EU membership, the informal meetings will be dominated by high-stakes diplomatic discussions on other conflicts in Europe’s backyard: the crisis humanitarian in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh and the escalation of tensions between Serbia and Kosovo.
For Macron, who made a U-turn on Ukraine’s future within NATO and the EU In recent months, the summit has also been an opportunity to burnish his legacy as a European builder and idealist in the run-up to next year’s European elections.
While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine played a large part in propelling enlargement to the top of the agenda, Macron and Scholz face the difficult task of convincing EU countries to undertake massive changes , including the painful internal reforms that would be necessary to admit Ukraine. According to several diplomats, the appetite for changes in EU agricultural policy and collective decision-making rules is weak, despite strong support for Ukraine.
With European elections next year and some moderate leaders struggling against a populist surge, Paris and Berlin must strike a balance between Euro-idealism and hard-line pragmatism over what might help appease nervous leaders.
France is pushing for EU leaders to agree on a statement in Grenada on reform needs as they consider enlargement, an Elysée adviser has said. But the same adviser admitted limited expectations regarding the enlargement timetable.
“A lot of things need to be sorted out (by 2030),” he said. The enlargement process must be made “more credible, through reforms in the candidate countries and within the EU”. The French president maintained that enlargement should “be done as quickly as possible… But I am not sure that setting a date is the most legitimate question,” he added.
The fact that even such close allies as France and Germany cannot agree on a timetable for reform and enlargement is a sign of the scale of the problems.
There is currently no fast track path to membership, which can take over a decade given the strict membership criteria. President of the European Council Charles Michel proposed the EU should be ready to enlarge by 2030 – but there is no consensus around this date.
Urging caution, Irish Foreign Minister Peter Burke said that while Ireland was “in favor” of enlargement, he would be less comfortable with setting a 2030 date to bring the union has 30 members.
So even if Macron and Scholz land in Grenada with guns blazing, it will be an uphill battle for them that may ultimately come down to realpolitik.
“The level of enthusiasm for EU enlargement and reform is, in reality, quite low,” said Alberto Alemanno, an EU professor at the HEC business school in France. “Scholz and Macron don’t really want to reform or expand, but they realize that if they don’t do anything, the EU could collapse.”
Proponents and petitioners
When nearly 50 leaders gather for a family photo at the Alhambra palace in Granada on Thursday, they will be reminded once again of Europe’s shifting borders and alliances. The complex fortress of high walls and towers was once part of the last Muslim state in Western Europe before being ceded to Christian monarchs centuries ago.
Figures like Moldovan President Maia Sandu, Ukraine’s representative and Balkan leaders will likely worry about whether the EU will let their countries into the European fortress. (At the time of publication, it was not confirmed whether Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy would attend the rally.)
Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who canceled his trip to Spain on Wednesday due to illness, is the first of those who do not fail to return to the EU’s “broken promises”. Erdogan relaunched his to attack In recent weeks, the EU has been criticized for being “as reliable as Russia” and for keeping “Turkey waiting for 40 years.”
Macron’s original idea, the European Political Community, will again be the subject of intense lobbying from the leaders of EU candidate countries, who fear being relegated to a second division club.
The Ukrainian Prime Minister last week rejected Macron’s offer of gradual membership via a “a multi-speed Europe” track. Denys Shmyhal told POLITICO that Kyiv was aiming for nothing less than being a “full candidate for full membership.”
And within the club, conversations are not easier. EU leaders have yet to agree on the language of their enlargement statement at Friday’s informal EU summit, given the lack of agreement on several areas. While Germany and France want member states to reform before or during enlargement, the Nordic and Baltic countries want Ukraine and others to join first and then tackle reforms.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo hinted at a quid pro quo scenario in terms of enlargement reform: “You can start to have a discussion with Ukraine, provided it is based on merit and it is linked to an internal reform of enlargement. the Union,” he told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday. “Then we can talk. The countries that join must do their homework – but we must also do our homework. If we do our homework, we can start discussions.
De Croo highlighted financial flows – including cohesion and agricultural funds, as well as domestic policy – as well as the functioning of institutions as key areas to consider.
The absence of a united front on enlargement even extends to the Franco-German coalition. Although the French and German governments have “converging” views, according to a French official, they have difficulty agreeing on policy objectives. “We have a problem with the Germans,” said the official, who like others cited in this article was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. “Their coalition has many different interests and on many issues – they don’t know what their own thinking is,” he said.
Behind closed doors, many EU officials charged with ironing out the details of how to make enlargement work have deep reservations about the whole process.
“No one will join us anytime soon,” warned a European diplomat.
Barbara Moens and Suzanne Lynch contributed reporting from Brussels. Clea Caulcutt and Nicholas Vinocur reported from Grenada.