GRANADA, Spain — French President Emmanuel Macron will aim to rally countries behind a historic expansion that would integrate war-torn Ukraine and several other candidate countries into the European Union during a gathering of leaders in the Spanish city of Granada that kicks off Thursday.
However, member states have expressed concerns about the practicality and sustainability of such a significant expansion, posing a major challenge to a project that Macron and other leaders, such as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, have invested their reputation in.
The leader of France and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will work together to initiate challenging discussions about expanding the EU at the third gathering of the European Political Community. This forum was formed in response to the Russian invasion and includes leaders from outside the EU to establish a wider and more diverse European network.
In addition to discussing Ukraine’s potential membership in the EU, informal gatherings will primarily revolve around critical diplomatic negotiations concerning ongoing conflicts in neighboring regions of Europe. These include addressing the humanitarian situation in Nagorno-Karabakh and managing rising tensions between Serbia and Kosovo.
Macron, who has recently changed his stance on Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO and the EU, sees the summit as a chance to enhance his reputation as a pro-European leader and visionary before the upcoming EU elections.
Despite the strong support for Ukraine, convincing EU countries to make major changes, like internal reforms, that would allow them to admit Ukraine is a challenging task for Macron and Scholz. Diplomats report that there is little enthusiasm for altering EU agricultural policy and collective decision-making processes, despite the current situation with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Next year, there will be elections across Europe and certain moderate leaders are facing a rise in populism. As a result, Paris and Berlin must carefully balance between their belief in a united Europe and practical solutions to ease the concerns of nervous leaders.
According to an advisor from the Elysée, France is urging EU leaders to reach a consensus on necessary reforms during the Granada summit, as they consider the possibility of enlargement. However, the advisor also acknowledged that expectations for the timeline of enlargement are not high.
“Many issues must be tackled by 2030,” he stated. The process of expansion must become “more trustworthy, with necessary changes in both candidate countries and the EU.” The president of France has advocated for the expansion to be completed “as expeditiously as feasible… However, I am uncertain if setting a specific date is the most appropriate concern,” he included.
The inability of France and Germany, who are typically close allies, to come to a consensus on a timeline for reform and expansion highlights the extent of the issues at hand.
At the moment, there is no expedited process for joining, as the strict requirements for membership can take more than ten years to fulfill. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, has suggested that the EU should be prepared for expansion by 2030. However, there is not a unanimous agreement on this timeline.
Urging caution, Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Peter Burke said that while Ireland was “in favor” of enlargement, he would be less at ease with setting a date of 2030 by which to increase the union to 30 members.
According to Burke, the European Commission has stated that candidate countries must adhere to all criteria before negotiations can begin, based on merit.
While Macron and Scholz may arrive in Granada with a strong approach, they will face significant challenges that may ultimately be decided by realpolitik.
According to Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU at HEC business school in France, there is not much enthusiasm for the expansion and improvement of the European Union. He believes that leaders such as Scholz and Macron are not truly committed to reform or enlargement, but they recognize the potential consequences of inaction, as it could lead to the disintegration of the EU.
Promoters and petitioners
On Thursday, nearly 50 leaders will gather at the Alhambra palace in Granada for a group photo. This historic location serves as a reminder of the ever-changing borders and alliances within Europe. The Alhambra, known for its intricate fortifications, was once a stronghold for the last Muslim state in Western Europe before it was conquered by Christian rulers many years ago.
At the moment, it is uncertain if Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will be present, but individuals such as Moldova’s President Maia Sandu and leaders from the Balkans may have reservations about their countries being accepted into the EU.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the leader of Turkey, had to cancel his visit to Spain on Wednesday because he was sick. He is known for constantly criticizing the EU for not keeping their promises. In the past few weeks, he has continued to criticize the EU, saying they are as unreliable as Russia and have made Turkey wait for 40 years.
The European Political Community, created by Macron, will once again experience strong efforts from the leaders of countries seeking EU membership who are concerned about being seen as inferior.
Last week, Ukraine’s prime minister rejected Macron’s proposal for gradual entry into the European Union through a “multi-speed Europe” approach. Denys Shmyhal stated to POLITICO that Kyiv’s goal is to become a fully recognized candidate for full EU membership, rather than settling for less.
In the club, discussions are still challenging. The leaders of the EU have not reached a consensus on the wording of their statement regarding enlargement at the informal summit on Friday, due to disagreement in various areas. Germany and France believe that member states should implement reforms before or during the enlargement process, while Nordic countries and the Baltics prefer allowing Ukraine and other countries to join first and then address reform.
The Prime Minister of Belgium, Alexander De Croo, implied a possible exchange scenario for enlargement reform: “We can engage in discussions with Ukraine, as long as it is based on merit and connected to internal reform within the Union,” he stated during a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday. “Both the joining countries and ourselves must complete our tasks. If we do so, we can initiate talks.”
De Croo discussed the movement of money, including cohesion and agricultural funds, as well as internal policies, and emphasized the importance of institutional functioning as crucial aspects to take into account.
There is no cohesive stance on expansion among the Franco-German coalition. Although the French and German administrations have similar views, as stated by a French representative, they face difficulties in reaching consensus on policy objectives. “We have a problem with the Germans,” revealed the representative, who, along with others mentioned in this article, requested anonymity to address a sensitive matter. “Their coalition has conflicting interests and lacks clarity on their own thoughts regarding various issues,” the representative added.
Privately, numerous European authorities responsible for negotiating the specifics of implementing enlargement harbor significant doubts about the entire procedure.
A diplomat from the EU cautioned that there will be no new members joining in the near future.
Barbara Moens and Suzanne Lynch provided coverage from Brussels, while Clea Caulcutt and Nicholas Vinocur reported from Granada.