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The road towards an enlarged EU – How to maintain momentum after the Swedish Presidency

Article by Jessika Roswall Minister of EU Affairs of the Kingdom of Sweden

The reason why we need reform is simple: the EU needs to change because the world has changed. In particular, Russia’s awful, unlawful invasion of Ukraine showed the shortcomings of several long-standing policies in the EU and in the member states.

As a result, developments that seemed unthinkable even at the beginning of 2022 now suddenly seem natural. The EU has now financed arms to a country under attack, a historic first, for over a year. Germany has gotten rid of its dependence on Russian natural gas. France has wholeheartedly embraced EU enlargement. Sweden has left more than 200 years of military non-alignment behind to apply for NATO membership.

Thus, when my colleagues and I gathered in Uppsala, there was broad agreement on what we need to accomplish to make the EU better equipped for a new geopolitical reality with war on our doorstep.

Enlargement is back on the agenda

First and foremost, this new geopolitical reality requires EU enlargement. For many years, enlargement stalled due to a lack of political will both in some member states and in candidate countries to make the necessary reforms. However, the war in Ukraine has led to a new ‘enlargement momentum’ which will define the EU for years to come.

The fact that there is now such strong support for enlargement, even from countries who have previously been sceptical, highlights that the issue is now viewed through a different lens. Today, enlargement has become an existential matter essential to the security of our continent, especially for countries haunted by the spectre of Russian imperialism such as Ukraine and Moldova.

Therefore, there will be considerable efforts to make sure that the EU is ready for future enlargement. Just as this Commission has spent a great amount of time to make the EU ‘Fit for 55’ (decreasing our greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent by 2030), the next Commission will have to work to make the EU ‘Fit for 35’ (member states).

Obviously, enlargement raises many questions. For example, how should we construct the Common Agricultural Policy in the future given that Ukraine’s farmlands cover an area greater than Italy? Ten years from now, what would be the ideal distribution of the EU budget to deal with our most important future challenges?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers to such questions yet. But we cannot and will not bury our heads in the sand, and the political discussions on the future of the EU that began in Uppsala will continue during the Spanish and Belgian presidencies.

Don’t forget the fundamentals of our cooperation

Still, as we embark on this journey of reform and renewal, it is important to bear in mind that some things don’t need a radical makeover.

For instance, it is not necessary to revise our treaties. At a time when the EU needs to stand united, becoming consumed by a debate about treaty change risks dividing the member states. Instead, Sweden believes that the flexibilities that already exist in the treaties could be used to a greater extent. Qualified majority voting could be used more often in foreign policy, and Sweden recently joined the Group of Friends on QMV in EU Common Foreign and Security Policy to explore this further.

Moreover, even in a world increasingly defined by great power competition and conflict, the EU’s influence will still derive from two main sources: our economic strength and our fundamental values. Going forward, we must protect these pillars of our cooperation.

The Single Market is one such pillar, which forms the foundation of the EU’s economic and geopolitical competitiveness. As the world’s largest integrated single market area making up 15 percent of global GDP, it helps the EU punch above our weight in world affairs and exerts a powerful pull on businesses, investors, candidate countries, and trade partners.

But we cannot rest on our laurels and take the magnetic force of the Single Market for granted. According to the European Commission, 60 percent of the barriers that businesses report today are the same ones that were reported 20 years ago. At the national level, many administrative requirements in the field of services prevent some workers and businesses from making full use of the Single Market.

Furthermore, without an ambitious trade policy, the Single Market cannot serve as a geopolitical lever. An open trade policy should also be seen as a way to boost our resilience and avoid repeating the mistake of being too dependent on a single, potentially hostile supplier for vital inputs such as critical raw materials.

Another pillar that must be protected is the EU’s fundamental values and the rule of law. In fact, if the EU is to enlarge to 35 member states or more, rule of law and judicial independence becomes even more important in the future.

For the EU budget, European arrest warrants, the Single Market and much else to function, we need to have the trust that comes only from respect for the rule of law across the Union. Indeed, that is what makes our cooperation possible to begin with. Thus, making sure that we have effective tools to uphold the rule of law will be a key question in the next few years, because no enlargement will take place at the expense of the rule of law and the EU’s fundamental values.

Yet, as we wrapped up the informal ministerial in June, I could not help but marvel at how although we don’t yet agree on the route to get there, we do agree on the final destination: an enlarged EU. We all want Ukraine, Moldova, and the Western Balkans to join us some day.

How far away into the future that day is I cannot say. Sometimes, integrating a country at war and the size of Ukraine looks almost impossible. However, as the Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev has said, the only thing that looks just as impossible is not integrating it.

This article was published in Bled Strategic Times 2023. Bled Strategic Times is the official gazette of the Bled Strategic Forum. Check the full 2023 edition here.

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