France and Germany on Tuesday will present their joint pitch on how the EU could adapt to new members during a meeting of European affairs ministers in Brussels.
The two countries' report, authored by twelve French and German experts, pitches a reform of the EU's institutions, treaties and budget as countries such as Ukraine, Moldova and the Western Balkans prepare to join the bloc.
"We now have pressure - for geostrategic reasons - to think about the enlargement of the EU, especially to Ukraine, which has consequences for the EU institutions, policies and budget," Olivier Costa, Director of Studies at the College of Europe and one of the report's co-rapporteurs, told Euronews.
The authors say tighter rules on rule of law, new voting procedures in the European Council, and a bigger EU budget could be among the necessary reforms.
They also propose "differentiation" between four tiers of a broader bloc, including a tier of "associate" countries that subscribe to the EU's principles and single market without becoming full-fledged EU members.
France and Germany's Europe ministers, Laurence Boone and Anna Lührmann, are expected to present the paper to ministers in Brussels today as a potential roadmap for enlargement, before the EU's 27 heads of state consider it during an informal summit in Granada, Spain, next month.
It comes as the EU enlargement debate intensifies, with European Council President Charles Michel setting a 2030 target for the bloc to be prepared to accept new members.
The paper, first reported on by Contexte, references the well-known concept of gradually 'phasing in' candidate countries into EU policies. In August, Michel named energy, the single market and security and defence as some of the policy areas for progressive integration.
It also pitches a multi-tiered bloc composed of an inner circle of select EU countries, the EU itself, "associate members" of the single market, and the 44-country European Political Community as an outer tier.
"Maybe some countries outside the EU don't want to join as a full member or cannot do that, and they would appreciate being associated in another way," Costa explained.
"And maybe some countries inside the EU don't want to move forward on some policies and there's a need to allow a "coalition of the willing" to do more," he added. "We may even be in a situation where some current member states would not be interested anymore in being in an EU of that kind, or would feel more comfortable in another circle."
The proposal suggests a small coalition of "willing" EU countries should be able to move ahead with policy and spending decisions even if other EU members are not in agreement.
Treaty, decision-making and electoral reforms
The paper sets out ideas that would allow the EU to enlarge without necessarily changing its treaties, which would require the unanimous backing of the 27 member states and a lengthy ratification process.
It also floats a potential "supplementary reform treaty" that would allow the "willing" member states to move forward with treaty reform without the backing of more sceptical countries.
One of the other contentious issues is how to adapt the EU's decision-making procedures to ensure a bloc of 30 or more countries could green-light policy decisions.
The authors recommend more majority voting rather than unanimity voting in the Council, including on key foreign policy and defence decisions. This would mean EU countries would no longer be able to veto decisions such as economic sanctions, arms supply or financial support to Ukraine, as Hungary has done in the past.
They also suggest changing the majority vote thresholds to 60% of countries representing 60% of the EU population, from the current 55% of countries representing 65% of the population.
The European Parliament should be kept to a maximum 751 seats, and the European elections should be made consistent across member states, the report says. It also recommends reducing the number of EU Commissioners or introducing a hierarchy within the College to ensure swifter decision-making.
Budget overhaul and rule of law
The report also tackles the thorny issue of the EU's budget and funding distribution in a bigger Union.
"If Ukraine joins the EU, most member states will suddenly become net contributors and will not get any more money and everything will move toward the east," Costa explained, "so if we want to fix that situation, we need more budget."
The budget would need to be bigger in size, the paper says, with more flexibility on spending decisions and joint debt instruments. Smaller groups of EU countries within the bloc could also make "intergovernmental financing agreements" to move forward with their own spending plans.
“If we want to be a geopolitical player, I think this also needs to be reflected in the budgetary structure,” EU budget commissioner Johannes Hahn said in response to the report on Tuesday.
Hahn suggested it would be difficult to reduce the proportion of the EU budget that funds agriculture and cohesion policy, which currently stands at two-thirds, saying that the “alternative would be an increase of the budget.”
An enlarged EU would also need stricter rules to protect the core EU values of democracy and rule of law, the paper says. Current candidate countries, including Ukraine, must crack down on corruption, implement judicial reforms and strengthen media freedom as part of the accession process, but many fear these very values are being undermined by the bloc's members.
The report pitches more powers for the EU to sanction member countries for rule of law breaches and other behaviours such as money laundering, by withholding funds or excluding countries from decision-making procedures.