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The European Union must expand to compete with Russia

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At the end of August, Charles Michel, President of the European Council, had a message for all countries waiting to join the European Union: take a number.

At the end of August, Charles Michel, President of the European Council, had a message for all countries waiting to join the European Union: take a number.

The bloc, which has been teasing candidate countries for membership for years, could well be ready for enlargement, perhaps by 2030. “It will be a difficult problem to solve,” Michel said. said, “but there is no way to avoid this debate now.”

Michel was not content to take stock of eight countries currently on the verge of joining the EU. He also stressed that the bloc will need to accelerate the painful reforms needed to support a larger, even more perfect, union. On the one hand, Brussels must keep its membership promises to countries like Ukraine, Moldova and the Balkan countries in order to prevent its soft power from weakening. On the other hand, what started as a cozy club of six countries has become a cumbersome clan, held hostage by outdated rules and undisciplined leaders.

“The EU can no longer function as it is. It is losing ground on the rule of law, trade, green transition and the fight against global climate change. It cannot move forward in a decision-making process in which any member state can block anything,” said Zoran Nechev, associate researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

The EU enlargement project received a new lease of life when Ukraine and Moldova were granted candidate status in June 2022. But with confidence in rapid accession rapidly diminishing, Brussels’ ability to project its influence across eastern and southeastern Europe is being called into question.

If Brussels balks again and keeps candidate countries on hold forever, it would undermine the bloc’s support for Ukraine, weaken European security and encourage greater Russian malign influence in the Western Balkans, analysts say.

“It would be a very painful decline of what we once knew as champions of openness, rules-based order and global cooperation,” Nechev said.

Michel’s cry of poverty came more than a month before Brussels began buying off friends who are already supposed to be on its side. The European Commission, part of the bloc’s executive branch, is together release around 13 billion euros in EU funds to Hungary, which had been frozen due to concerns about the erosion of the rule of law in Hungary, to avoid opposition from Prime Minister Viktor Orban his veto of EU aid to Ukraine; Brussels needs a unanimous vote to finance 50 billion euros in aid.

Before it can grow, the EU must become more agile. Orban’s Hungary has become an obstacle to EU sanctions against Russia, measures that strengthen Budapest’s pro-Russian stance. But it’s not just about Hungary. In November 2020, Bulgaria blocked North Macedonia wants to engage in EU accession talks over a dispute over history, identity and language. The dispute was overcome with the help of France in July 2022, but frustration over the possibility of Bulgaria vetoing for ideological reasons is still high.

Then there remains the question of money. Another reform on the agenda concerns cohesion funds – financial aid to the bloc’s poorest regions – as well as agricultural subsidies under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. The accession of states like Ukraine, which has 43 million inhabitants, could distort the balance of rights and weakens the main current beneficiaries, such as Poland.

“We are in a phase where we need to rethink and reinvent the EU, and this debate on enlargement is a kind of euphemism for reform,” said Vessela Tcherneva, deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

One approach to maintaining the enlargement process while EU reforms take root is to refocus attention on a so-called staged approach, or as the EU puts it. the dish concisely, Accelerated integration and progressive implementation. The idea is to integrate candidate members into parts of the European market and into European programs, such as the Erasmus education program, while other negotiations continue. It may be a joke, but experts like Tcherneva believe such an approach could bring enlargement closer to reality for the Western Balkans.

“From the perspective of Western Balkan companies, they could see some of the benefits of being closer and closer to the EU with better access to European funds,” she said.

The problem with a step-by-step approach is that the dance never seems to end. Western Balkan countries have been waiting for years to get into a club that never seems to want them, all the while watching their skilled workers decamp to greener pastures, while Russia waits to vacuum up the leftovers. In March, North Macedonian Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani said his German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, that the movement for enlargement was the only way to counter Russian influence in the region.

Russia is relying on “the objective discontent of the population with the difficult process of European integration,” he said. The escalation of tensions between Serbia and Kosovo following the the death The killing of four people in northern Kosovo in September was a stark reminder to European allies that a failure in enlargement could threaten regional security and open new avenues for Russian interference. Russia played with a cut in Montenegro, is in close collaboration coalition with Serbia, and plays footsie with pieces from Bosnia. Moscow is closely monitoring Bosnian Milorad Dodik, head of one of the country’s two federal entities, Republika Srpska, who encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin in May for trade negotiations.

“Russian influence is an invitation. It’s very opportunistic; this has been the case for 10 years,” said Spyros Economides, associate professor of European politics at the London School of Economics. “Putin will benefit from this, whether in Montenegro or Serbia. It’s real and it has influence.

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