The EU has a new project on track for summer that expands bloc benefits to and deepens cooperation with neighbouring countries hoping to join the union, such as Ukraine.
The European Union has expressed interest in creating a broader EU community – a structure that would help the bloc and its neighbours coordinate closely on common issues.
The ‘European Geopolitical Community’ would include the Eastern Partnership and the Western Balkans and act as a “waiting room” of sorts with special rights and advantages for countries in the bloc vying for membership.
European Council chief Charles Michel presented the idea on Wednesday, explaining the aim of the community “is to forge convergence and deepen operational cooperation to address common challenges, peace, stability and security” in Europe.
Michel told the plenary session of the European Economic and Social Committee that he has started to consult with the bloc’s 27 leaders on the idea and will include it on the agenda of the European Council meeting in June.
With talks surrounding a reform of the EU membership process, Michel stressed the urgency of moving forward on the project in response to Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, urging the bloc to “think beyond enlargement.”
Ukraine applied for EU membership four days after Russia launched its attacks in late February and the bloc is yet to respond to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s appeal to fast-track the membership.
“I will propose holding a conference around the summer. It will bring together the leaders of the EU and those of the partner countries concerned, in order to discuss the concrete options of this new common project,” Michel said a day before his visit to the Western Balkans.
I call for the creation of a European Geopolitical Community.— Charles Michel (@eucopresident) May 18, 2022
The aim is to forge convergence and deepen operational cooperation to address common challenges, peace, stability and security on our continent.#EESCPlenary @EU_EESC pic.twitter.com/XKSucel4YK
Who would join the community?
Michel said “the Western Balkans, the associated countries of our Eastern Partnership and other European countries with which we have close relations come to mind first” when considering community membership.
“As the EU assumes greater geopolitical leadership, international expectations of our Union are also rising, especially from a number of EU’s neighbours who want a new relationship with it,” he said, reports the European Western Balkans.
“There is a geopolitical community, which extends from Reykjavik to Baku or Yerevan, from Oslo to Ankara… I am firmly convinced that we must give this geographical space a political reality. And we have to do it right away”, he added.
Michel stressed that the initiative will not replace the greater EU nor will it guarantee that those who participate will one day be an official EU member.
He suggested the Heads of State or governments of the participating countries would take the lead and meet at least twice a year. Their foreign ministers could also join the EU Foreign Affairs Council on a regular basis.
French President Emmanuel Macron had pitched the community idea to the European Parliament on May 9, saying he was in favour of a new type of "political European community" to allow countries outside of the bloc to join "European core values."
Speaking at the EU event in Strasbourg, Macron had made a case for a "parallel European community" instead of bringing down standards to allow countries to join the bloc swiftly.
"Joining it would not necessarily prejudge future EU membership," Macron said. "Nor would it be closed to those who left it,” in an apparent reference to Britain which had left the union.
Macron estimated that it will take several years, or even decades, for Ukraine to gain EU membership unless standards for accession are lowered, but said Kiev could join the parallel community until it officially gets accepted into the bloc.
French President Emmanuel Macron proposes a sweeping new vision for a "European political community" that could include countries outside the EU - including the UK and Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/3j49qAx7m9— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) May 9, 2022
However, while the proposal seems to serve the bloc, country leaders have their reservations about the plan which they fear may serve as consolation for not granting EU membership status.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba criticised the idea on Thursday, saying "we do not need surrogates for EU candidate status that show second-class treatment of Ukraine and hurt feelings of Ukrainians."
He said the "strategic ambiguity on Ukraine’s European perspective" from some EU member states "has failed and must end."
This concern echoes Lithuania's earlier criticism of fellow EU member France’s suggestions on establishing a “European political community.”
Lithuania’s president Gitanas Nauseda told media outlets on May 10 that the idea is “an attempt to cover up the obvious lack of political will towards granting candidacy status to Ukraine.”
While Lithuania favours the “establishment of political communities parallel to the EU,” Nauseda expressed concern that the idea “could lead to disappointments in Ukrainian sides on the issue.”
Stepping stone or parking lot?
Alongside countries, scholars and experts had also raised the alarm about Macron’s plans.
Jacek Kucharczyk, President of the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw echoed concerns, saying “the needs for internal reforms are valid and urgent, but they should not be used as an excuse to keep Eastern Europeans in the waiting room for decades to come.”
Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe Stefan Lehne said “Macron’s idea of a European political community reflects the French tendency of thinking of enlargement primarily in terms of finding alternatives to it.”
Lehne referenced France’s former president Francois Mitterrand who in 1989 first pitched the community plan as a European political space beyond the European Union that could be a first step towards joining or an alternative to it.
“Like with Francois Mitterrand’s similar concept of a Confederation, countries wishing to join the EU will fear it would relegate them to an outer circle, while states preferring a more distant relationship (like the UK) will find it too constraining,” said Lehne.
In contrast, fellow Carnegie Europe scholar Marc Pierin says Macron’s idea “would constitute a faster track toward political solidarity” with Ukraine and other aspiring candidate countries.
Politico's contributing editor Paul Taylor also says Macron’s idea “is worth exploring.”
“If it were accompanied by reducing some barriers to accession, such as the requirement for unanimity in opening and closing each of the enlargement ‘chapters,’ it could be attractive to aspirant states without robbing EU members of their veto power on the ultimate decision on membership,” said Taylor.
“Then Macron’s ‘community’ would be a stepping-stone, not a parking lot,” he added.