What happened to EU enlargement [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Gerald Knaus, the founding European Stability Initiative’s (ESI) founding chairman and a founding member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. They talk about the enlargement policy of the European Union, new potential EU members, the “New Cold War”, and the future of the European project.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): Ho will the eastern enlargement transform the European Union?

Gerald Knaus
Gerald Knaus

Gerald Knaus (GK): Those who argued in favor of the enlargement starting aggressively and with many persuasive arguments in the mid-1990s, like Czech President Vaclav Havel, what they had in mind at the time was that Europe was to use this historical opportunity to consolidate the democratic peace. To integrate democracies, offer protection, and remove barriers so that in case of a geopolitical storm and tensions the European house would be robust.

I remember when in 1995 Vaclav Havel was complaining that there was so little progress in terms of enlargement against the background of the wars in former Yugoslavia. When enlargement actually happened, there was a sense among many Europeans that it was nice to have, but there was not much fear of what we see today – a continental war. What we discover looking back – just imagine that the Baltic states are not members of the NATO or the EU. The same applies to Bulgaria and Romania. A short-sighted EU, having closed the door, we would have to imagine a Europe in which instability and fear would increase immensely, compared to the current situation.

Today, we are faced with one of the biggest wars in the world taking place in Europe. There were eighteen wars happening in Europe after 1990 – and none of them on the territory of the EU member states. There were temporary problems in the Northern Ireland, which ended in peace in 1998, but otherwise all of these wars happened in the former Yugoslavia, the Caucasus, Ukraine, Transnistria, Georgia. And today, we find ourselves in this situation thanks to the enlargement.



We have a united EU (on this fundamental issue) able to present a united front and also a promise that the countries that were not yet included, might also become a part of this project. As a result, we have this vision of a peaceful Europe of democracies, which happened after the enlargement of 2004. If we would not have done it then, we now could not even dream of Europe in which war would become unthinkable, and in which Russia could be deterred by consolidated efforts. Now, we can.

LJ: How does the current enlargement process differ from that of the early 1990s and 2000s?

GK: The striking thing about the European integration is that it has always made its advances under the shadow of war. If we look back at the great breakthrough with the European economic community in 1957 – and I think that today we need the same kind of thinking – when the Treaty of Rome said, ‘let us remove barriers!’, it took place at a time when France was engaged in a bitter eight-year war in North Africa. The big enlargement in 1999 at the Helsinki summit, when the EU decided that it will open talks with twelve countries, followed the Kosovo war. There was a sense of seriousness – if we want to avoid war, we need to do something that takes an effort: to enlarge.

In recent years, this sense of seriousness was lost. Let me give here just one example: the North Macedonia. When there was a real threat – there was fighting in Skopje, in the north of the country, in 2001, – the special envoy (Javier Solana) of the European Union rushed there negotiate a peace. A big war was avoided, a peace agreement was signed, and the central promise of the peace agreement was a promise of European integration to North Macedonia. Then, in the years that followed, there was a sense of seriousness: ‘okay, we support North Macedonia, we need to consolidate this democracy with the promise of integration.’ In 2004, the country submitted an application; in 2005, it became a candidate. Well, great, but it was seventeen years ago…

Although North Macedonia became a candidate these seventeen years ago, since then it became stuck. The sense of seriousness that Europe was a promise to make war unthinkable (also in the Western Balkans) was lost. So now, for the last decade, we have had a fake process, where countries in the Western Balkans are somewhere on this trajectory (some are candidates, some are negotiating, and others are not even candidates yet – like Bosnia and Herzegovina), but nobody is actually moving closer to the European Union, because the EU has created a process in which everyone gets stuck.

North Macedonia has been a candidate for seventeen years. Montenegro has been negotiating for ten years already, while it has been a NATO member for more than five years. It is a small country which has no problems with its neighbors and has followed the EU’s foreign policy a 100% (as has been recently acknowledged by the EU) – it is, for instance, participating in the sanctions against Russia. So, there is this small country that is in the NATO, in the Council of Europe, and yet the negotiations have lasted ten years already. Nobody in Brussels dare say if it will join within the next four years.

This is precisely what I mean by a ‘fake process.’ So, we had a sense of urgency twenty years ago, driven by a very real threat of war, tensions, and conflicts, which was lost and substituted with this fake enlargement process that is not leading anywhere.

LJ: Could you elaborate on this reluctance of the European Union to offer real progress in terms of accession? Is enlargement a ‘necessary evil’? So, what has changed – besides the fact that there was no ‘real’ war in that time (even though there actually has been an ongoing one in Crimea)?

GK: The Ukrainian war has restored this sense of urgency. The fact that Ukraine was given the candidate status (which applies also to Moldova and even Georgia being given that perspective) was unthinkable a year ago, before the Russian aggression. And it was stupid, of course – we should have given Ukraine this perspective eight years ago. So, indeed, it was the war that made the EU do something that would have been the right thing to do already back then, after the Euromaidan protests.

So, there is an opportunity. But why are our leaders not seizing that opportunity? This has to do with some very serious questions that need answers. One such question, asked by President Macron, concerns whether the EU is ready to accept nine new members? We are not talking about one of two, as there are already countries in the Western Balkans that want to join – Moldova, Georgia, then there is Ukraine; accession talks are conducted also with Turkey. President Macron has been saying for years that it cannot. He made it clear in 2019, when he blocked North Macedonia and Albania, because he claimed that the EU cannot keep enlarging. It was France that blocked them at first, not Bulgaria. Macron stated that it is not about North Macedonia or what is happening there, but about us – the EU.

According to Macron, the EU cannot enlarge, because it needs to become stronger and deepen integration. Change in the EU is already very harder to achieve with more members. And he is right in this regard. The more members there are, the more vetoes happen. It is a rational argument. The trouble is that he does not acknowledge the fact that we promised them that they will join, but we actually do not want them to. As a result, we have a policy that shows cynicism and creates frustration. What do we do then? He does not have an answer to that.

The problem is that, at the moment, we do not have a good answer to the French question. In Germany there is a similar attitude. The majority of people who are honest about it do not think that the EU cannot absorb many new members. The same situation is in the Netherlands, Denmark, and even in Sweden, there are doubts.

This is the key. Now, also for Ukraine. We gave Ukraine a candidate status, like we did to Serbia – we might also open talks with Ukraine, like it was the case with Serbia, Montenegro, or Turkey. But we do not want the talks to end so that these countries would join the EU. This would be a disastrously cynical policy.

So, what can we offer democracies in Europe that may be a viable political offer? Something that the French, the Dutch, and the Germans would support? Here, we should go back to the Treaty of Rome in 1957. Its core was to remove barriers in Europe. Let us expand the European economic committee. This is the goal for the next four years.

If Ukraine, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Serbia meet the set conditions (which requires extensive reforms), we should welcome them into the common European economic space – also including the environmental policy, the rule of law. But if these countries adopt EU legislation and have the necessary institutions, let us remove the barriers! Let us have the border between Poland Ukraine look in the future like the border between Poland and Germany or Germany and France. Or between Sweden and Norway – the latter is not in the European Union, but it is a part of the common market. Or between Ireland and Northern Ireland – with the latter being a part of the common market as well.

President Macron should support such a goal, as it would not be to reform the EU in the next few years, but to offer every country that wants to join the EU opening the accession talks and, if they meet the criteria, a guarantee that they could join the Single Market and the Four Freedoms. This would imply also economic support, which the EU is giving to the countries in return for opening their borders and joining the Single Market.

This is a vision that is an answer to the French doubts. What is not possible and may be dangerous, as it leads o cynicism, apathy, may result in a backlash, and opens the door to nationalisms and Vladimir Putin’s manipulation, is the current fake process with no goal in mind, in which the EU pretends that we are letting people in. But then, we do not even lift the visa requirement for Kosovo, and we actually are not sufficiently lowering the barriers to make a difference.

LJ: Does this enlargement fatigue have something to do with the way Poland and Germany behave and the general feeling that Romania and Bulgaria were not ready for full membership? Maybe some of these countries (like Ukraine or Moldova) are not perceived as part of the common European sphere? Perhaps many EU citizens and leaders simply have in their minds some invisible borders?

GK: I think that that is the case – some Europeans or EU leaders do not believe that some countries fully belong in the European Union or that some states simply cannot change enough to strengthen the EU and will always weaken it. Many leaders in Europe have many prejudices. Let us take the example of Albania.

People remember Albania as a failed state from 20 years ago and wonder how can this country strengthen the EU? What these people forget (and it is natural, it is human) is how Spain has transformed in the last 30 years. Portugal had a debate in the 19070s on whether they belong in Europe, and, at that time, the Portuguese dictatorship, which only fell in 1974, was fighting to maintain control over the Portuguese territories in west and east Africa – which at the time was considered part of Portugal. Back then, it did not look like a natural member of the European Union. Then, another revolution came, but Portugal was still desperately poor. Nowadays, nobody doubts that Portugal is not only a valid member of the EU and that it has strengthened the union. The same applies to Albania and the Balkan states – if they transform in the same way. And why would they not?

I lived in Bulgaria for three years in the 1990s. At that time, Bulgaria was lost – it looked like a part of the former Soviet Union. It was never part of it, but it was jokingly referred to as the ‘16th republic of the Soviet Union”, because it was so close to Moscow and communism. Its economy was collapsing. Meanwhile, there were wise people in Europe (like Helmut Schmidt, the former German Chancellor, or Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president), who claimed that Bulgaria is not a part of the Western civilization, because it is orthodox.

The same argument was made about Romania and look at it today! 20 million people, a huge success story. The economic transformation of Romania in the last 15 years was as miraculous as in Estonia or Poland. Politically, there is fighting with corruption. But nobody doubts that it was a success.

We need to remember that countries transform – like Portugal, Greece, or even Germany. Who would have thought in the 1940s that Germany would become a stable democracy that its neighbors would trust? Europe is a story of transformations. Bringing countries together has made this transformation possible.

What we now see in the case of Ukraine is that its image in Europe is changing. I lived in Ukraine. And when I left and talked to people, they often have this feeling that it is a failed state, more corrupt than Russia, without an identity. People did not know much about it in Germany and the West. This has changed completely.

It is still changing because millions of Ukrainians are now actually in Western Europe – in Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, France, Italy. The stories are becoming familiar, and people are beginning to see that Kyiv or Lviv are European cities. If they also realize – and this is why we need a process – that these countries can transform and are full of capable people, then with the right incentives and structure, they can be as successful as the Portuguese, the Irish, Germans, or Austrians. For instance, Ukraine today is not a Ukraine from years ago and its e-government is better than in Germany. If Europeans see and change their perception, then this invisible border will be shifted.

Now, we need time, and we need a clear-cut process. Constant interaction changes the image of countries. Take Poland and Germany, for example.

As regards the backlash against the rule of Law in Poland and Hungary, yes, it has changed some things. But it has nothing to do with enlargement. Poland’s Constitutional Court was very respected until 2015. There was a sense that Poland had well-established rule of law – nobody doubted it in 2014. These backlashes can happen in any democracy. The European Union needs to find ways to deal with such situations anyways.

Now, let us take a look at what happened across the Atlantic, in the United States. Suddenly, they had a democratically elected president who was not only inciting a violent mob, but also attacked legislature not to certify a free election and was willing to accept that his vice-president might lose in the process. The U.S. was very close to a coup.

Such things can happen in any democracy, which is why we should become vigilant. However, this should not stop us from trying to integrate democracies and strengthen all of them. The challenges that Poland and Hungary pose can be dealt with in the European Union in a way that is actually good for both their citizens and Europeans in general. We must first defend the core principles and then integrate other democracies. There is no reason we should not do it.

LJ: How should the European Union transform itself to be ready to accept Ukraine and Western Balkans – and perhaps even Turkey – as full members? How different does it have to be from the EU we know?

GK: From a pragmatist standpoint, the next step for the European Union should be to offer the Balkans, Ukraine, and Moldova a chance to prove that they can conduct reforms together with a massive incentive and a vision for future by allowing them to join the Single Market. If right now, the Czech presidency declares that any democracy in Europe that meets the criteria for joining the European project is offered to join the Single Market, then I am convinced that in the next four years we will see all of these countries making a massive progress.

This step, however, would create pressure in two ways. First, the image of these countries would change. Secondly, the European Union would then, for the very first time, have a serious debate about reforming itself. President Macron wants to have this discussion, but most EU states do not feel any pressure to do so. If there are 7-8 countries that may join the EU, the reform will be necessary. For example, there are some areas where the power of the veto should be reduced. Then, if Poland wants Ukraine to be a member, there must be a reform in terms of decision making.

At the moment, this debate is abstract. No Polish government will give up its veto power now. But if in five years Ukraine is to join the EU and then, suddenly, the debate becomes real, then perhaps the European Union would be able to reform.

Furthermore, I hope that within the next five years the EU will be ready to solve the problem of how to protect the fundamental rule of law in every member state. A problem that could happen in any so-called ‘new member state’, which have been in the EU since 2004 (so they are now that new after all). We already have an instrument for that, we do not need any new tools.

Every time the European Commission or member states feel that the rule of law is at risk in any given country – that the courts are no longer independent – the said country can be taken to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). For the very first time in history, the ECJ declared in the case of Poland that the basic rule of law, independence of courts (Article 19) was violated. It is not a political process but an infringement process, in which the European Commission states that the EU treaties are broken and the ECJ decides whether they indeed are and can impose any fine it wants to (e.g., 1% of GDP). In the case of Poland, if the European Commission went straight back to the European Court of Justice and made the judgment implemented, so that the courts may be independent again, the goal is not to have Poland pay the fine, but rather to adhere to the rules.

If we have such a system, in which the ECJ defends the treaty and the independence of judiciary according to the set criteria, with a real threat of massive fines, no country in Europe will dare to not implement such rulings. And the whole EU will have made a big leap forward in defending the rule of law for every citizen. If this happens, then we can enlarge the EU.

We already have what we need. We just need to use it.

LJ: Is there a way to enforce the rule-of-law mechanism, even though now the European Commission does not seem willing to do it? What is the future of Poland and Hungary in regard to the EU funds in this respect?

GK: This is an existential question for the European Union – regardless of whether it enlarges or not. The EU is based on a very simple principle:  sovereign states share sovereignty, but they actually do not give over the control to any ‘center’. It is not an empire. Nobody in Brussels can order a single policeman in any member state to enforce the law. There is no national guard, no European FBI. The European law enforcement does not really exist – except for the European Court of Justice and the option of imposing fines.

Any country can leave the EU at any moment, there will never be a war of secession. We saw it in the case of the United Kingdom – a country wants to leave, it can leave. This is what makes Europe great and unique. It is a voluntary association of countries and societies that want to stand together. This, however, only works if a few key principles are truly defended – access to justice, independent rights’ protection assured through national courts.

I strongly feel that after many years of not having to face such a challenge, the European Commission was rather slow to act as it has never dealt with a case such as placing Poland before the European Court of Justice before. The ECJ ruled that there is a threat to the rule of law. Now, because of the geopolitical situation, the European Commission is at risk of giving up – which would be very dangerous, because the rule of law is what keeps Europe together. It is the only thing that keeps European together. Not defending it would pose an existential threat.

Nevertheless, this battle is not lost. It is crucial that we keep making the argument that this is not about Poland versus Brussels or other member states. It is about any EU citizen being able to rely on European institutions to defend these core principles on which the European Union is based.

The case of Hungary is different than that of Poland. Here, the real issue is whether the EU can make sure that – when it gives a country many percent of GDP per year (the biggest transfer of grants in the European history!) – this money is not used to build networks that undermine democracy. In Ukraine, we would be talking about oligarchs – rich people close to the government who get a lot of this money and then buy media. The European Union must be able to prevent this from happening.

These are but two big challenges. But they can be met. In a way, Russian intellectuals have for a long time considered the EU to be a threat to Russia. Because it is not an empire, btu a voluntary association of states that came together based on a principle that makes these countries stronger. Putin’s Russia wants to destroy it. And it has tried to do so – by supporting Brexit and anti-EU forces.

In this new Cold War, Europe needs to strengthen its foundations. This involves two things: strengthening the rule of law inside the European Union and making a credible promise to democracies that want to join that they can come closer to the EU. If Europe meets these two challenges, not only will Putin fail, but the vision of a continent of peace with united democracies where war is as unthinkable as it is today (between the Netherlands and Germany, or Germany and Poland, Poland and Lithuania, or Hungary and Romania) will become reality. We are getting closer to having this vision come true on a continental basis. It is possible. And it is worth fighting for.

Find out more about the guest: www.esiweb.org/esi-staff/gerald-knaus

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.

Continue exploring:

French Parliamentary Election [PODCAST]

Business in Light of War in Ukraine, Davos, and Lobbying [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum