If the leaders of the EU listened only to their hearts, they would fully embrace Ukraine into the bloc at their summit in Brussels this month.
As French President Emmanuel Macron said: “We feel in our heart that Ukraine, through its fight and its courage, is already today a member of our Europe, of our family and of our union.”
In that spirit, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen went to Kyiv in April and personally handed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy the application questionnaire.
Illustration: Mountain People
Europeans have not only hearts, but also heads, and the heads of many leaders and Eurocrats — including Macron’s — are shaking rather than nodding.
Giving full membership to Ukraine now would create so many new problems for the EU that the bloc — never a paragon of effective governance to begin with — might break down, or even apart. The same warning applies to accepting Moldova or Georgia, and even Albania, North Macedonia and the other Balkan nations already lining up to join.
Rushing their memberships would be a bad idea, not only because these countries — their economies, judiciaries and other institutions — are not ready. It would also be reckless, because the EU has never resolved an intrinsic tension between what Eurocrats call “widening” and “deepening” — that is, admitting new members versus integrating the existing ones.
With each of the seven rounds of enlargement — from the original six countries to the 27 today — running the show has become messier and more unwieldy. The growing number of institutions and commissioners (each country appoints one) is the least of it, as is the Babel-like chaos of languages, traditions and national interests.
The real problem is that the EU, as it grew, did not rewrite its treaties thoroughly enough to enable the bloc to remain coherent and deal with real-world problems.
Often a single country can veto joint action, even when it is urgent. An egregious recent example is Hungary, which held up the EU’s sixth sanctions package against Russia for weeks, and even then signed off only after blackmailing the other 26 countries to make changes that range from self-serving to bizarre.
These design flaws all but condemn the EU to failure whenever a big problem turns up. Lacking a common fiscal policy, the bloc barely saved its currency union during the euro crisis, and could yet lose it in a future upheaval.
Unable to reform its migrant regime, it was bitterly split during the refugee crisis of 2015. In foreign and defense policy, the EU — as distinct from individual member states, such as France — is a joke. Thank goodness the West still has that other Brussels institution called NATO.
In these examples, the shocks are exogenous — imported from the US after the financial crisis, from Syria and elsewhere when the refugees arrived, from Russia when Russian President Vladimir Putin turned full-bore totalitarian.
However, the tremors are just as often internal. For years, “Brussels” has been irate at Budapest and Warsaw, where populist quasi-autocrats are undermining the domestic rule of law and other democratic institutions.
However, the EU has no mechanism to kick out errant members, and even censuring them is difficult.
These institutional flaws are replicated in the EU’s Kafkaesque process of admitting new members. Accession takes years or decades, during which applicant countries have to adopt all EU laws, clean up corruption and comply with other standards.
Yet once they are in, Brussels cannot stop them from backsliding or obstructing.
Worse, the EU cannot really fix its operating system — the process of doing so is called treaty change — because members do not even agree on what the union should become: a US of Europe, just a loose common market or something in between
The way out of these messes is to formalize the old notion of a “multi-speed Europe.” Groups of countries that want to integrate deeply should be able to do so. Those that want to opt out in one area should be able to keep participating in others and maybe change their minds later.
This already works well in some contexts. For example, the 26 countries in the so-called Schengen area have completely opened their borders to one another, requiring no passports for travelers. Notably, four of those — Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein — are not even in the EU, while five EU countries — Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia, Cyprus and Ireland — are not part of Schengen.
That approach is the way to go, especially if flexibility is baked in. National interests change over time. Denmark has long opted out of the EU’s common defense policy, but then Putin started playing Genghis Khan, and in a referendum the other day, two out of three Danes voted to join it.
Such flexibility would also solve most problems with the EU’s accession protocols. Instead of making membership a binary matter of in or out, it should become a phased integration. As candidate countries get up to speed in, say, their energy or financial markets, they would gain full EU privileges in those areas, but not yet in, say, agriculture or foreign policy.
The worry among some existing and prospective members is that such a multi-speed Europe relegates some countries to second-class participants and creates a hierarchy akin to gold, silver and bronze membership cards.
However, that would not be the goal or the outcome. The continent does not respect and embrace the Swiss or Norwegians any less because they are in the European Free Trade Association and Schengen, but not the EU.
In turn, countries such as Hungary, which keep complaining that the EU oppresses them, might like to take one step out of Brussels’ orbit without blasting off from the continent. The UK, which has left the club, might want to rejoin a new form of European confederation.
“Europe” today is a geopolitical concept and a civilizational ideal based on peace, prosperity, liberty and justice. It consists of multiple national identities, while being open to new ones. All this must be recognized.
This, is maybe what Macron has in mind when he speaks nebulously of adding a “European political community” to the existing union.
Such a Europe of many — shifting but harmonious — “unions” is the future. The best way to start building this vision is not to prematurely admit Ukraine into the EU. It is to welcome the Ukrainians into the European fraternity right now, and simultaneously make the whole family more flexible and strong.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics, a former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of
the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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