[Opinion] Competing options for EU enlargement

Once perceived as the most powerful foreign policy tool in the EU’s toolbox, “enlargement ‘lately has become only a source of frustration for countries that would like to join the club.

With the European Commission’s recommendation to grant candidacy status to Ukraine and Moldova, and potentially to Georgia in the future, the enlargement policy is back on the agenda. It is not only the Association Triohowever.

The EU-Western Balkans leaders ‘meeting on Thursday (23 June) – ahead of the full EU summit – also set the tone when it comes to Western Balkan countries’ path towards the EU.

But in addition to discussions related to the enlargement policy, various ideas of complementary institutional arrangements for the entire continent are on the rise. We have French president Emmanuel Macron’s European Political CommunityEuropean Council president Charles Michel’s European Geopolitical Communityand former Italian PM Enrico Letta’s European Confederation among others.

These proposals are open to discussion in detail.

Today there are three urgent tasks for the EU when it comes to wider Europe: advance in the processes of candidate countries; secure cooperation through transitionary integration and complementary institutional arrangements in the meantime; and reform the EU where necessary.

The three tasks are different pieces of a broader puzzle. Today, the dichotomy between democracies and autocracies is ever more visible in wider Europe. If the European Union would like to regain its ability to shape the continent and define the borders of democracy and good governance, it is time to revaluate the enlargement policy and start thinking about complementary institutional settlements.

For doing so the European Union should also increase its absorption capacity in the meantime. It is paramount to remember that all these steps are not a favor to (potential) candidate countries but rather an inclusive rethinking of the continent to guarantee cooperation to face common challenges.

Furthermore it should be underlined at this point that, for the candidacy status and accession negotiations to work as real fertilizers of democratic reform, there should be light at the end of the tunnel.

Credible prospects = concrete steps

Only a credible prospect of future membership can lead to durable reforms. Furthermore, the concept of transitionary integration, immediately making that waiting room a tool of further rapprochement – will equally be important.

If concrete short term benefits – beyond the already existing association agreements of candidate countries – could be offered, fostering democracy could be more attainable.

For this to be the vision, we need a change of thinking. The issue is that today enlargement is mostly perceived as a favor to candidate countries. This is why the EU’s absorption capacity (which surely is an important consideration and mentioned in the Copenhagen criteria) is frequently used as a counter argument to accession.

The aspects related to democracy promotion, good governance and the possibility of better cooperation in foreign and security policy are not necessarily seen as primary by many in the EU.

One key reason for that is the democratic backsliding in some EU member states – mainly Hungary and Poland – discourages further investment in the region in the form of EU membership. That perception has to be challenged if the EU is serious about being a geopolitical actor.

It is important to understand that today, rethinking wider Europe is not only about candidate countries’ European future, but also EU’s ability to shape its continent. It was thanks to European integration and the transatlantic alliance that many countries have advanced their democracies in the 20th century. It is now time to extend this model to more countries.

Today, Russia’s war of aggression is taking place to challenge Ukraine’s existence and its path towards a more democratic model. This war is also a war of models. The EU’s ability to act according to this reality will shape the future of the continent. If candidate countries move towards the Union, the collective resilience of the continent will increase.

Today working on wider Europe is not a choice but a necessity. If the European Union would like to keep on transforming countries in the continent, expand its model of governance, encourage democratic reforms and secure cooperation, it has to multitask. If this is a geopolitical competition, the EU still has many attractive things to offer. It should just make its offer tangible and real.


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