Reform and enlargement: Europe’s next struggle…

The first stage of the Brexit process, the ‘withdrawal’ is nearing its completion with a vote in the EU parliament on the withdrawal package now done. Barnier and the Commission throughout the process have presented a unified message with little breakdown in communication between them and the EU capitals.

It may look to EU federalists like a stepping stone on the process of sovereign status for the Brussels institutions but upon closer inspection this notion is easily dispelled. The Brexit process on the EU side has been driven by Ireland, France and Germany in this order. Beyond the Brexit drama there is an enlargement battle brewing among the 27 member states left.

Berlin policy makers have turned completely inwards just at the time when that bastion of insularism, France, has started looking outward. President Macron has planned a programme of ambitious EU reforms and to show Germany just how serious he was about it he used the accession of North Macedonia as a warning shot. France blocked the small Balkan republic from joining the Union in December on grounds that it was not the correct time for enlargement, this is known in wonk circles as EU ‘widening.’

The Parisian establishment want to ‘deepen’ the union and they do not buy into the notion that widening means deepening further down the line. This was the mantra of the accession in 2004 of the former soviet satellite states of most of Eastern Europe, such an event in modern times would be deemed unthinkable due to the deep structural problems already existing within the EU institutions. In December Politico reported that:

The French leader argued the EU must reform itself before adding new members and called for an overhaul of the accession process, which he complained lacks transparency and can’t be reversed — only frozen — if a candidate country changes political course.

The reference to the poor quality accession process is of course careful political theatre, but the first point is clearly aimed at particularly German ears who have been slow to the mark on France’s call for reforms, Macron potentially sees this juncture (especially while the British diplomatic muscle leaves) as a chance of grabbing more power:

Among diplomats in Brussels and politicians in the Balkans, Macron is suspected of using enlargement as part of a bigger power struggle to become the predominant leader in the EU as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s power wanes. Some suspect he may eventually give way on new members in return for concessions on his broader EU reform plans.

This month it has been reported that Germany has led a call by nine member states to cast aside France’s ambition to reform the accession process (effectively calling their bluff) and allowing Macedonian and Albanian accession to proceed. Merkel in a last show of strength has aligned herself with Commission President von der Leyen in promoting the mantra of a ‘geo-political commission.’ This in short means a commission focussed nearly entirely on external affairs, pushing forward a common foreign policy and fighting for multilateral free trade in the face of protectionist Trump.

The present malaise in many EU member states is in part due to low bandwidth on domestic reforms. The stagnant growth, high youth unemployment and resulting inequalities across the Eurozone are the results of such malaise. Even before Macron, President Sarkozy twisted the arm of the European Central Bank to release its vast reserves to act as a stimulus in the fledgling debt markets after the 2008 crash. This was a deliberate policy of stabilising the Eurozone and therefore stabilising France, any notion of a federal European policy of reform will only happen when it is in the mutual interest of the driving member states and that will take generations to change.

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