The great challenges of an exhausted Europe

Bandera de la Unión Europea - PHOTO/FILE
PHOTO/FILE - Flag of the European Union

Enlargement and/or substantial progress in its integration. These are the two challenges, the keystone of a European Union whose successful model, unique in history, is showing signs of exhaustion. The two go hand in hand, so that either the issue is tackled decisively or the model runs a serious risk of imploding. 

Many miles away, but almost simultaneously, two reports were presented on this issue: the first in Brussels is the European Commission's assessment of the progress made by the countries aspiring to EU membership, especially Ukraine and Moldova, which themselves aspire to candidate status. The other report, presented at the European Commission's office in Madrid, is the annual report produced by the Fundación Alternativas and Friedrich-Ebert Stisftung, which looks more broadly at the major challenges the EU will face after the June 2024 elections.

Since the first six members signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the European club has undergone seven enlargements to 28 members, and one departure, that of the United Kingdom, a Brexit that had quite a few negative consequences. Now the 27 face a new enlargement. As many as seven more countries have knocked on the EU's door; some, such as Turkey, did so 24 years ago. It is difficult to see Ankara and Brussels resuming accession talks after they broke off in 2018, unless President Recep Tayyip Erdogan returns to the path of democracy, freedom and the rule of law, the immovable epigraphs of the acquis communautaire. 

PHOTO/PEDRO GONZÁLEZ - Fundación Alternativas
PHOTO/PEDRO GONZÁLEZ - Fundación Alternativas

According to the assessment, three of the Balkan countries - Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro - do not have a hard time. This is not the case of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, both of which have strong divergences among themselves. Belgrade, moreover, has its own dispute with Kosovo. Although a little further afield territorially, Georgia also seeks EU and NATO protection, with part of the Russian fleet anchored off the coast of its separate region of Abkhazia, which has become a pawn in Russia's exclusive service. 

At the same time, the Commission has adopted a new growth plan for the Western Balkans: 6 billion euros, to be paid out only after agreed reforms have been introduced. The aim is to accelerate the socio-economic convergence of the partners, so that they step up reforms and investments and speed up the enlargement process accordingly.

The cases of Ukraine and Moldova are particularly sensitive for an EU that, according to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, has a natural enlargement horizon, both economically and geopolitically. The invasion and devastation of Ukraine by Russian troops and Russia's threat to extend operations to Moldova forced the EU to promise them last May that one day soon they would join the EU club. 

It is only fair to acknowledge the strenuous efforts of Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenski to comply with European demands amidst the enormous tragedy of war. EU evaluators estimate that the country still fails to pass on corruption, economic domination by the oligarchs and respect for the Hungarian, Slovak and Polish minorities; the Russians do not count. 

PHOTO/PEDRO GONZÁLEZ - Fundación Alternativas
PHOTO/PEDRO GONZÁLEZ - Fundación Alternativas

Maria Sandu's Moldova is in a similar situation, although, although threatened, the country is not suffering from the war and devastation that Russia is subjecting the tormented Ukraine to. In any case, as hard as it may seem, enduring war does not automatically make a country a candidate for EU membership. It must be helped financially and with every possible means at its disposal, since it is also putting the dead in the fight for freedom. But such commendable merits must not exempt it from meeting the demanding requirements of EU membership, lest the whole edifice collapse. 

For its part, in the debate in Madrid on the aforementioned report by the Fundación Alternativas, it was strongly emphasised that such a necessary enlargement of the EU will do more harm than good if the essential reform of the treaties is not tackled beforehand or, in the worst case, simultaneously, and with urgent urgency, the abolition of unanimity. 

There has already been too much negative experience of vetoes, which impede the EU's progress in an increasingly fiercely competitive world. Vetoes and blockages already make it impossible to reach agreements in situations that would require greater dynamism, or else they are agreed with so many nuances and exceptions that they are so watered down, however many there may be in favour of eternal talk of greyhounds or hounds when our rivals are gaining ground on us by leaps and bounds. 

And if this happens with 27 members, it is logical to think of the ungovernability of an EU with 33 or 35 countries, all of them with the right of veto, whatever their size and contribution to the EU coffers. This and the tradition of each country having a citizen in the College of Commissioners, who in the end is no more than a de facto ambassador for his or her own country, would pave the way for the exhaustion of the great historical experiment that is the European Union. 

Such mammoth challenges, as well as measures for energy efficiency, industrialisation, the social agenda and rampant illegal immigration, will be on the table at the December European Council, which will also mark the end of Spain's rotating presidency. However long and tense such a meeting of EU heads of state and government may be, it cannot end in recipes for mere poultices.  Euro-parliamentary elections aside, the very survival of the EU will depend on whether or not the decisions that are being imposed are taken.