The EU needs a partnership for enlargement, not a two-tier Europe

In response to recent membership applications from Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the EU must take concrete and tangible steps towards firmly anchoring the aspiring countries in the Union during the time when they cannot yet be full members, argues Piotr Buras.
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By Piotr Buras

Piotr Buras is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and the head of the ECFR’s Warsaw office

25 May 2022

“Is the messenger the problem or the message?”  

A high-level French diplomat asked me this question when we discussed critical reactions to French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent proposal to establish a European political community. In response to Ukraine’s bid to join the European Union, the newly re-elected French President drew upon the more than 30-year-old concept of a Europe of concentric circles proposed by his predecessor François Mitterrand. A well-integrated core would be surrounded by a loose confederation of countries, from post-Brexit United Kingdom to Ukraine and the Western Balkans, and perhaps even Turkey.  

In 1989, Mitterrand was afraid of central and eastern European countries joining the European Community. Macron, however, is concerned about new dynamics in the enlargement policy and proposes an alternative: a two-tier Europe which would leave a part of the continent, including Ukraine, in an outer circle. 

[EU enlargement policy] is a technocratic nightmare and not a political vision. Do we really want the same for Ukraine, which has been paying for European values with blood and land?

Or has his message been misunderstood? Indeed, the messenger might be the problem. France has never liked EU’s enlargement policy, flirted with Russia and rejected any references to a European perspective for Ukraine in EU’s official documents. Not the best position to become a credible proponent of a new ambitious offer for Kyiv. However, Macron has a point and is again the one who pushed the debate forward. While Germany keeps quiet and Poland lacks a long-term vision, Macron does not shy away from putting his cards on the table. He is right that granting Ukraine the candidate status it is yearning for may not prove to be what its most committed supporters expect.  

The enlargement policy as we know it is a recipe for frustration rather than hope (not least because of the attitudes of countries like France). It is a technocratic nightmare and not a political vision. Do we really want the same for Ukraine, which has been paying for European values with blood and land? Of course, a fast-track accession is an illusion. The Ukrainians understand this very well. But the alternative should not be a loose confederation at the margins of a core Europe. We need rather a partnership for enlargement as a new strategic project for the geopolitical Union.  

The horizon of such a new policy must be a vision of the EU as a strongly integrated community of all European countries that share our values and principles. Irrespective of when that vision may be realised, any action taken today must be designed to achieve that strategic objective. Candidate status for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia as well as all Western Balkan countries should be just the starting point.  

The core of such a proposal should be a set of concrete and tangible steps towards firmly anchoring the aspiring countries in the EU during the time when they cannot yet be full members. This could be done by a clear roadmap of accession to the European single market with meaningful support from EU funds; inclusion of these countries into the European climate and energy policy; observer status in EU’s political institutions; and a security compact boosting these countries’ defence and resilience capacities. An increased focus on compliance with the EU's principles of the rule of law, democracy and human rights would also form a part of the package. All that would give these countries a stronger and immediate grip on cooperation, support them on the way to full membership and restore the EU’s transformative power.  

But such action requires a strategic decision in favour of enlarging the European Union. Perhaps the main problem with Macron’s proposal is not the messenger but the fact that his message conspicuously leaves this fundamental question unanswered. 

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