“Europe can no longer afford gray areas”

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The geopolitical shock of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 led the European Union to make decisions that were unthinkable a short time ago, including the promise to open its doors to Kyiv. In this new security context, enlargement is "a geostrategic imperative", defends Luuk van Middelaar in an analysis published by the Brussels Geopolitics Institute a few days before the Granada summit, where from tomorrow the EU leaders will address this debate in depth. "The more concrete that idea becomes, the more difficult it will be. Our small contribution to the debate is to say that we must start looking at these difficult questions head-on," advises Van Middelaar, historian and former advisor to the former presidents of the Council European Herman Van Rompuy and Donald Tusk.

Their analysis concludes that expansion is “a strategic imperative.” What do you mean by that?

The situation on the continent changed fundamentally with the start of the war. If we look back, when the Berlin Wall fell, the end of the USSR occurred and for a few decades we were able to have a sort of intermediate zone between Europe and Russia. It was not a very comfortable situation for countries like Ukraine or Belarus, which were in the middle, but it was something we could live with. With the war we see that there is a deep dividing line on the continent, further east than in the times of the cold war, with Russia and Belarus on one side and all the other European states of our side . Now there is no longer any place for those gray areas on the European map. It's not just about the EU. Sweden and Finland, two countries that have long been neutral, have now asked to join NATO. They also feel that there is no longer any conceptual or territorial margin for that non-aligned status. The EU must ensure that the countries on our side of the new dividing line are part of our sphere of prosperity and security. All of this is new and has accelerated discussions about what to do with the Western Balkans. Because we are talking not only about Ukraine and Moldova, but about six more countries in this region and perhaps also Georgia. We are talking about going from 27 to 36 states and this opens up a long list of questions.

Türkiye is not part of the equation, where would it be?

No, because although Turkey is formally a candidate country, there is a lot of ambiguity on both sides and today no one believes that they will be part of the EU in the short term. It's a special case. It is the only country that has the strength and will necessary to be neutral. Erdogan wants to be able to talk to Moscow and Kyiv, and has the military strength and as a country of more than 80 million inhabitants to be an actor. It is the exception to the new dividing line. Only Türkiye can afford to be neither inside nor outside.

A still abstract "imperative"

“People still don't realize what opening the EU door to Ukraine means”

At the informal summit in Grenada, EU leaders will speak for the first time about enlargement in very concrete terms. Ukraine poses enormous challenges from all points of view. How to prepare?

The key discussion will be to decide whether there is a link between enlargement and internal EU reforms. Some countries, like Lithuania, do not even want to talk about making changes because they give full priority to enlargement. Others, like Germany and France, do not see it that way and say that reforms must be made first. Deciding how these processes are linked, whether they will be parallel or whether the reforms must be completed first before opening the doors, is something deeply political. We say that some internal changes should be made beforehand, or at least prepared for them, and that it is not necessary to change the treaties as was done last time (Lisbon cost almost 10 years of discussions) because we can make quite a few adjustments within the current framework. Better that than focusing on making changes to the treaties, because there is no magic formula that will satisfy everyone and perhaps they can never be made.

But there are things that can be changed now, from within, to prepare the EU for the next enlargement.

Yes, for example the budget. If you go from 27 to 36 states, it is simply impossible to remain the same and maintain the policies as they are designed. According to some estimates, Portugal and even Bulgaria, the poorest country in the current EU, would pay more than they would receive from the community budget. It is a discussion that will arise soon and that is inevitable, because the discussions on the next budget, for the period 2028-2035, will begin in 2025 and by then we would have to at least foresee a scenario in which there are more countries in the EU .

There are countries that want to limit the right to veto on certain issues so that the EU is more agile. The president of the European Council, Charles Michel, on the other hand, does not see it as necessary and believes that it will damage the unity of the EU.

I am with Michel when he says that sometimes what it would mean to not have a veto and decide by qualified majority is overestimated. Many important things have been done in the current framework [vacunas, fondos Next Generation, envío de armas a Ucrania...] and there are decisions that, although the treaty says that they can be approved without the vote of all countries, are politically complicated, as was seen for example with the reform of the asylum policy, which was approved with the Eastern countries against and wounds were opened that have never fully healed. Our conclusion is that eliminating the veto would not be a panacea. There are countries that will never give it up. Not only Hungary, but also some small ones. Efficiency cannot be the only criterion and it does not seem to us to be the most important thing to achieve progress with enlargement and for the EU to be more strategic.

How to explain to public opinion that the EU must open the door to Ukraine, a country that, at the very least, will have territorial conflicts with Russia in the future?

There is a lot to do there. There is a large gap between the determination of political leaders about Ukraine's European future, which they are convinced is a strategic imperative, and the support that exists today in public opinion. The solidarity that people have shown with the country is impressive. In general, there has been broad support in parliaments for sending military aid and people have not minded turning down the heating a few degrees if that would serve to punish Putin. That solidarity is something natural, it is helping a neighbor in need. But people have not made the connection of what it means to open the door to them and share with them our institutions and policies, our internal market, the funds.

All those things make it look like something more concrete...

Yes, this is what is happening in Poland and grain from Ukraine. It is its greatest ally and its sister nation, but when it has suddenly felt the cost of its decisions on its farmers – a few weeks before the elections, okay – it has backed down, closed the solidarity corridors and suspended the shipment of weapons. European leaders must not forget this at the Granada meeting. After the meeting they will have to speak to their public opinions and defend (not explain, because we are not talking about science) that we are facing a new strategic situation, that history is changing, that Putin is there and it is no joke, and that the moment demands assuming responsibilities. It is not enough to say that Ukraine is part of the European family, fairy tales can turn against us. People want to be taken seriously.

The political Europe of the future will, it seems, become closer to the geographical one. How will it affect your identity? Will there be more strategy and less values ​​in the way we think about Europe?

It is a very relevant question and it is one of the underlying tensions in this entire process. It would be too easy to say that it is something unsolvable, but I think it is true. As things are, today Europe has always thought of itself as a geographical space on the continent although we do not know very well where its eastern border ends. There is a geographical vocation of Europe that was there from the beginning. Since the time of the founding fathers in the 1950s, the idea that Europe must expand was there. But, on the other hand, there is the idea of ​​Europe as a set of values. We like to think that both ideas or conceptions overlap each other but this is not the case. We now have countries within the EU that do not much like the democratic or liberal values ​​of the EU, ideas that are also questioned in some of the candidate countries. It is one of the tensions that exists in this process. It seems that the calculation [respecto a este dilema o dicotomía] It is changing but this discussion is just beginning.

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