The EU needs to prepare to become significantly larger in the future. EU enlargement has jumped to the top of the agenda recently and will likely result in fundamental changes to the Union. “Debate about how the EU needs to be reshaped for the future is well underway,” says Anna Stellinger, Deputy Director General and Head of International and EU affairs at Swedish Enterprise.
Discussions on EU enlargement gained fresh momentum following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the prospect of a larger EU came even closer after the EU summit in Granada, Spain at the beginning of October, when several countries expressed support for an enlarged EU in the future. The issue was also recently raised by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in her latest State of the Union address in September, in which she said that the EU must take in countries that are knocking at the door. Furthermore, in the wake of Russia’s war, several big countries have moved in a more expansionist direction. So, everything points to the fact that the EU will grow.
“There’s a central discussion about the future of the EU right now.”
That is the message from Anna Stellinger, Deputy Director General and Head of International and EU affairs.
“It’s quite clear that the EU will grow in the coming years and therefore needs to fundamentally change. The question is not if, but when and how,” Stellinger tells Swedish business news service Tidningen Näringslivet.
In the past, several big-hitting EU countries have expressed doubts about allowing more countries into the bloc, but due to the war in Ukraine, the issue has taken on new urgency. Several countries, including France led by President Macron, have now adjusted their stance on enlargement, paving the way for change.
Countries that may be in line for admission include Ukraine and several countries in the Balkans. However, in order for the EU to grow, candidate countries need to implement reforms and the EU needs to reform itself.
“There’s a central discussion about the future of the EU right now,” says Stellinger, and continues:
“We’re talking about several years into the future, but the war in Ukraine has brought things to a head. The world has changed so much that letting Ukraine and other countries in has become so much more important. The geopolitical outlook is extremely uncertain, and we need to build a strong EU and wider region. In the long term, there will be somewhere between 30 and 35 countries in the EU.”
EU enlargement will entail major changes for the Union in, for example, decision making to ensure that the bloc functions properly. This is part of the far-reaching future debate that has now gained momentum. Today, unanimity among all member states is required on certain issues, while majority decisions are sufficient on others, and it is likely that majority decision making will become more common.
“The more members we have, the more difficult it will be to reach unanimity, so member states are actively discussing in which areas they would be willing to relinquish unanimity.”
For Sweden, there are several areas – taxation, for example – on which it may be more difficult to agree that a majority decision will suffice. On other issues, such as in foreign affairs, it could be relatively uncomplicated for us, Stellinger believes.
“For example, it hasn’t been entirely straightforward for the EU to agree on sanctions against Russia. Progress has been possible – we’ve agreed a total of 11 sanctions packages – but there have been difficulties when individual countries have tried to block sanctions packages for more or less legitimate reasons.
“Changes to how the institutions function, decision making, and the EU budget will be necessary. And it’s precisely these kinds of questions that EU countries are starting to seriously discuss now.”
Different membership levels
According to Stellinger, as the number of members increases it is likely that there will be renewed discussion about different levels of EU membership. One potential option is having an inner core of member states and different outer rings of membership, in which different countries are involved and decide on different issues.
“In a sense, this already exists. Not all member states are in Schengen, and neither are all states in the euro, so we already have a multi-speed Europe. But now we can expect this issue to come into sharper focus. Because if there are to be 30 to 35 countries in the EU, not all states will be able to participate in everything – some will have to move forward faster or deepen co-operation. Co-operation on the single currency is a good example of this, but there are others.”
For Sweden, the current discussions mean that it is more important than ever to actively participate and influence the EU’s development in the direction we want. Stellinger cites the single market, competitiveness, and that the EU invests in a budget for growth as key issues for Sweden to pursue.
“We must understand that we need to fully engage in shaping the future European Union. It’s our single most important market, our immediate neighbourhood, and our most important political context. So, we can’t wait for proposals to be put on the table and to which we then react to, we have to actively engage in the discussions that are taking place now.’’
“It’s also in this context that we have to discuss European policy at home in Sweden. In the nascent Euro-debate that we’ve seen emerge recently, we need to understand that the EU is likely to look different - if or when we decide to adopt the euro. This is several years ahead, and a multi-speed Europe may already be well developed.”
The future of the EU needs to be discussed before the European Parliament elections next spring, especially in a country like Sweden, says Stellinger.
“What role Sweden wants to have in the EU is an excellent topic for a European debate in Sweden in the run-up to the EU elections. What do the various candidates and parties think about how the EU should develop and what should our role be? In other words, the debate about the future of the EU is not only a question for Brussels, Berlin and Paris – it’s also a vital issue in Sweden.”EU