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EU must be ready to accept new members by 2030 - Charles Michel

European Council President Charles Michel.
European Council President Charles Michel. Copyright Andreea Alexandru/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
Copyright Andreea Alexandru/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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The European Union must be ready to enlarge by 2030 if it wants to remain "credible", European Council President Charles Michel said Monday at the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia.

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"As we prepare the EU’s next strategic agenda, we must set ourselves a clear goal. I believe we must be ready — on both sides — by 2030 to enlarge," Michel said to an audience that included the leaders of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, Montenegro and North Macedonia, all official candidates for EU accession.

"This is ambitious, but necessary. It shows that we are serious," Michel said.

In response, a European Commission spokesperson said Tuesday that enlargement is a merit-based process, and that "candidates should join the European Union when they are ready."

The geopolitical impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine has forced the EU to revive its dormant enlargement policy, as countries in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans look to Brussels for closer integration with the West.

Three countries - Ukraine, Moldova and Bosnia and Herzegovina - have gained candidate status since the start of the invasion in February 2022, while engagement with the other five candidate countries has intensified. Ukraine’s path to membership is seen as the most critical for ensuring a geopolitical European Union, but it is also the most politically fraught.

EU needs to "get ready"

The renewed desire for enlargement raises questions about the EU’s capacity to integrate new members, an issue likely to make the agenda when the 27 EU heads of state meet in Granada, Spain, in early October, a day after a gathering of the European Political Community that will be attended by the leaders of these candidate counties. 

Enlargement could require significant EU budget reforms. Seven out of eight candidate countries have a GDP per capita below that of Bulgaria, the poorest EU country, meaning the distribution of funds could leave some current member states with a smaller slice of the EU pie following enlargement.

But Michel suggested that there is a “window of opportunity” opening for the EU to reach a deal on the enlargement process.

"The EU’s next long-term budget will need to include our common goals. This is ambitious but necessary," Michel said, as "it will give a transformative boost to reforms and it will generate interests, investment and better understanding."

Speaking at the conference, Slovenian Prime Minister Robert Golob said EU preparations for accession "must happen in the next 12 months or they will not happen for a very long time."

Changes in the EU treaties could also be needed to ensure decision-making can happen swiftly and effectively in a larger bloc. 

The current 'qualified majority’ voting model, where decisions pass only with the backing of 15 member states representing at least 65% of the EU population, would need to be adapted.

"More members will mean more diversity. We will have to adapt our institutional framework and procedures, so an enlarged EU is able to take efficient and timely decisions," Michel said.

A larger bloc also increases the probability of vetoes on decisions that require the unanimous backing of EU member states, such as those on issues considered more sensitive including foreign and security policy. But in a sign he believes an enlarged EU could reach consensus even on high-stake political decisions, Michel said that “scrapping unanimity could be throwing the baby out with the bath water.”

Removing obstacles to accession

Countries must meet demanding criteria before they can become EU members, including introducing economic and judicial reforms. Michel named rule of law, organised crime, judicial independence, economic reforms and bilateral and regional issues as some of the pending actions Western Balkan countries must address to succeed.

"Enlargement is and will remain a merit-based process. Membership of the Union brings both responsibilities and benefits. To take on the former and reap the latter in a highly competitive environment, you need to be ready," Michel said.

Accession to the EU also requires the unanimous backing of the 27 member states, with Michel’s task of securing political consensus in the Council potentially delicate. 

Addressing concerns that a state in the Western Balkans could become an EU member and then use their power to block the future accession of a neighbour, Michel proposed a so-called confidence clause in the accession treaties.

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"There is no room for past conflicts within the EU," he said.

'Strengthening EU support'

Some countries have voiced frustrations over the slow pace of accession, which has on average taken nine years for the 21 member states who have undertaken the process.

Michel said the EU wants to support by offering progressive and gradual integration into EU policies on energy, the single market and security and defence, so that candidate countries feel the benefits even before formal accession.

This could see future member states contributing to the development of EU policy before becoming members.

Michel believes the European Commission's enlargement package due October, which assesses candidate countries' progress in the accession process, is an opportunity to outline the concrete details of progressive integration. 

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Michel met with leaders of the Western Balkans nations earlier on Monday.

The 18th edition of the Bled Strategic Forum, themed ‘Solidarity for Global Security’ and organised by the Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, takes place just weeks after devastating floods killed six people in Slovenia, in what was described by Prime Minister Robert Golob as the worst natural disaster to ever hit the country.

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