Migration, defence, competitiveness: Here's what will drive the EU's work for the next five years

A European flag at the Delegation of the European Union to China in Beijing, Sept. 26, 2023.
A European flag at the Delegation of the European Union to China in Beijing, Sept. 26, 2023. Copyright AP Photo/Andy Wong
By Alice Tidey
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What directions should the European Union take during the next five years? That's the question leaders started to wrestle with on Friday at their informal summit in Granada.


The declaration endorsed by all leaders at the end of the European Council gathering in the Andalucian city lists getting the bloc ready to welcome new members, migration and building the bloc's "resilience", notably in defence and competitiveness, as the priorities for the EU going forward. 

But the summit was also proof of how heated some of the debates around the Strategic Agenda will be in the coming years as Hungary and Poland refused to back a set of conclusions that included a paragraph on migration. 


The debate on enlargement for instance is likely to focus on money: who gets it and why? 

Russia's war on Ukraine has reignited the desire to enlarge the EU after a decade of standstill with Council chief, Charles Michel, even calling for a 2030 deadline. 

In Granada, where a summit of the European Political Community attended by 45 leaders also took place on Thursday, most EU leaders touted their pro-enlargement credentials. 

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, for instance, told reporters that "if you take the broader view, the longer term view, enlargement is always good for Europe. It helps to provide us with security, helps to embed democracy and human rights, and also helps the European economy to grow".

"So I think it's really important that when we look at these questions, we don't see them just as a financial calculation," he added.

But while they all agree the bloc must enlarge, they also largely agree that it can't do so without first reforming itself. Roberta Metsola, the European Parliament President, urged leaders to "start a genuine discussion on EU absorption capacity and internal reform", describing it as "long overdue".

Seven countries now have candidate status, including war-torn Ukraine, Moldova and five Western Balkan countries, whose bids are now well over a decade old. All are much poorer than EU member states and would therefore likely receive the lion's share of EU cohesion and agricultural funds going forward if their criteria for attribution were left unchanged. 

A point Kaja Kallas, the Estonian Prime Minister drove home, pointing out to reporters that when her country of 1.3 million inhabitants spread over just 1 per cent of the EU's total surface areas accessed the EU in 2004, they received "like 20% of the agricultural funds in the first place."

"So it requires also reform on our side. Is it really sustainable to do it this way?" she said.

Another idea that has been floated to encourage candidate countries to continue on the reform path towards the EU is one of gradual integration: allowing countries to join EU policies and programmes when they successfully close a negotiation chapter until they become full-fledged members. Backed by the French President, the concept was welcomed by some of the candidate countries including Albania and Serbia.

Meanwhile, some member states are calling for a change to voting rules, arguing the continued use of unanimity for certain topics would likely make the EU slower in its decision-making with more members. 

Leaders are now expected to discuss in more detail in which ways the bloc should reform to welcome new members at their summit in Brussels in December.


Migration, one of the most contentious topics of the last few years in Brussels, should remain top of the agenda during the next legislative term. 

According to the latest numbers from Frontex, the number of detections of irregular border crossings at the EU’s external borders during the first eight months of the year stood at over 230,000, the highest tally recorded for that period since 2016.

The EU is currently racing to conclude negotiations and approve a New Pact on Migration and Asylum before the end of the Commission's mandate in June after member states finally adopted on Wednesday their position on the so-called Crisis Regulation. It was the missing piece of the sprawling legislative puzzle, and it prevented the opening of negotiations between Parliament and member states. 

The pact includes plans to speed up processing at the bloc's external borders, create a mechanism of "voluntary and temporary" solidarity, and boost the returns of irregular migrants. The aim is to put an end to the ad-hoc crisis management mode that has been in place since the 2015 migration crisis.


But not everyone is happy. Hungary and Poland, in particular, have decried the adoption in the Council of the EU of migration positions on a qualified majority basis, robbing them of their opportunity to veto. 

On Friday, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán set the tone for the coming years. Referring to the adoption by the Council of the Crisis Regulation earlier this week, he said: "Legally, we were raped".

"So after this, there is no chance to have any kind of compromise and agreement on migration, politically. It's impossible not today, generally speaking, for the next years," he added.

The summit conclusions, Euronews understands, were scrapped because Warsaw and Budapest insisted a line be added about the need for consensus for migration questions. 

Yet the EU now wants to focus on the root causes of migration and stronger cooperation with countries of origin and transit countries to stem the flows and boost returns 


It is touting its recent deal with Tunisia, under which it provides funding for border management and faster return of asylum seekers whose applications are denied, as a possible blueprint for partnerships with third countries, despite strong criticism from members of the European Parliament and humanitarian organisations over human rights concerns. 

"The better we are with legal pathways and humanitarian corridors, the stricter we can be and have to be with the return of those who are not eligible for asylum," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also said on Friday. 

Defence and competitiveness

Finally "resilience", a word used four times in the Granada declaration, in relation to climate, security and defence and competitiveness. But in Granada, leaders focused primarily on the latter two.

"For us, it's very important that we increase the defence readiness of Europe," Kallas said. "We have a war going on in Europe and we have to prepare for that. That means also boosting defence industry, but it also means increasing the defence expenditure because this is the reality that we live in."

The EU has already operated a 180-degree spin on defence since Russia first attacked Ukraine nearly 600 days ago by notably, providing weapons to a country at war. EU funds are also being used to boost the production of ammunition by European defence firms. 


Debates about whether EU money should be used to buy foreign-made military equipment, what role a common EU defence will play and how it would fit with NATO have already erupted.

On competitiveness, the declaration states the EU must strengthen its "position as an industrial, technological and commercial powerhouse, putting a special focus on areas of high added value where we already have a competitive edge or can become a frontrunner".

Brussels has in recent months become more combative in its bid to protect European industry from unfair practices and its access to critical materials and technologies. This has been welcomed with delight by some, like France, and cautiousness by others, like Germany .

The main issue here is how to deal with China, its stranglehold on critical supply chains and large state subsidy programmes that allow Chinese manufacturers of renewables and cars, among others, to flood the European market with cheaper products. 

But it also encompasses topics such as energy, how to ensure European companies can power themselves cheaply while still continuing to curb their emissions, in a bloc with as many energy mixes as there are member states.

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