Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock has said the European Union must enlarge to avoid making everyone on the European continent more vulnerable.
“Putin’s Moscow will continue to try to divide not only Ukraine from us, but also Moldova, Georgia and the Western Balkans,” Baerbock said in a speech on Thursday.
“If these countries can be permanently destabilised by Russia, then that also makes us vulnerable, it makes us all vulnerable. We can no longer afford grey areas in Europe,” she added.
Baerbock’s comments came as she hosted 17 foreign ministers from EU and candidate countries, including Ukraine’s Dmytro Kuleba, for a conference in Berlin focused on EU enlargement.
The war raging in Ukraine has forced the EU to revive the stalled debate on enlargement.
The European Commission is due to publish an annual assessment next week of candidate countries’ progress in implementing the key institutional, judicial and economic reforms needed to be fit for EU membership.
But the bloc also needs to deeply re-think its own institutional, financial and decision-making frameworks to ensure it remains efficient with more members. European Council President Charles Michel has pitched 2030 as the deadline for the EU to be ready to enlarge, but the European Commission has distanced itself from such a timeline.
In her speech, Baerbock urged the bloc to make the bold reforms needed to ensure speedy accession to the bloc for candidate countries such as Ukraine, and pitted enlargement as essential for the EU to hold on to its geopolitical influence and cement its unity.
“If we support these countries in the accession process to strengthen their democratic institutions, improve their resilience and offer people economic prospects, then we are not just closing a geopolitical flank but we strengthen our community,” Baerbock said.
In an echo of proposals made in a recent report commissioned by France and Germany, she also pitched scrapping the current ‘all or nothing’ approach in favour of phased integration, so that the citizens of candidate countries feel the benefits of EU membership even before they become fully-fledged EU citizens.
“Sometimes seemingly small or technical-sounding things can have a big impact (…) for example, students from North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey who can study in the European Union with Erasmus scholarships,” she said, suggesting other “practical” benefits such as free EU roaming and simplified visa procedures should be offered to candidate countries.
Baerbock also shared ambitious ideas on how the EU could reform its institutions, including abolishing the current system whereby each member state is allocated its own commissioner to oversee a key aspect of Union policy.
Germany is ready to “forego” its commissioner for a set period of time, she said, suggesting a rotating system of commissioners that could be difficult to contemplate among smaller member states.
An alternative could be splitting the largest Commission portfolios – such as economic policy or external action – between a group of commissioners representing various member states.
In a nod to the divisions that have emerged between senior EU officials in the bloc’s incoherent response to the Israel-Hamas war, Baerbock said “responsibilities and competencies” should be clarified.
“Is it really helpful if foreign interlocutors do not know whether they should invite the President of the Commission, the President of the European Council or the High Representative on such geostrategic issues if they want to talk about their relationship with the EU?” Baerbock asked.
Candidates warn of ‘frustration’
In a debate with Baerbock and the foreign ministers of Slovenia and North Macedonia, Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba warned the EU against using its own reforms to delay Ukraine’s accession.
“I think the trap we all have to avoid jointly to succeed and to make the EU a stronger player in the world is frustration,” he said, saying the EU’s inability to promise membership has created frustration in Ukraine, and its inability to deliver on its promise of membership has sowed the same frustration in the Western Balkans.
“Now we have to build a process of enlargement and reform in a way that there will be no frustration from a protracted reform of the European Union,” he explained. “We have to avoid a situation where the reform of the EU will be used one way or another as an argument to delay enlargement.”
The foreign minister of North Macedonia, Bujar Osmani, also called for a phased integration into the bloc to provide assurances to his population that the EU is serious about expanding.
He said North Macedonia’s accession process was “derailed” despite his country being the “best student in the class” for years.
“We have concluded that the sources of the frustration is the focus on the formal membership itself,” Osmani said. “Therefore we have promoted this concept of more integration before membership.”
Osmani also warned that there are “malign” actors looking to hijack candidate countries’ frustration with lack of progress in the path to EU membership.
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