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The EU should significantly expand but must first undergo fundamental reforms to ensure an enlarged bloc can still function, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Monday.
During an hour-long speech at Charles University in Prague, Scholz outlined his vision for an EU of the future — one that has absorbed up to nine new members on its eastern edge, extended its visa-free travel zone and overhauled the way it makes basic decisions on everything from foreign policy to taxation.
Scholz’s pitch, which mostly included ideas he has previously promoted, comes at a pivotal moment for the EU. Russia’s war in Ukraine has just dragged past the six-month mark and an energy and inflation crisis looms, leaving many worried about EU fissures.
Specifically, Scholz supported EU membership for Western Balkan countries, as well as war-torn Ukraine, neighboring Moldova and nearby Georgia. He also argued that EU members Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria have met the criteria for admission to Europe’s Schengen area, which allows for easy, visa-free travel between countries.
“But a Union with 30 or even 36 member states will look different from our current Union — Europe’s center moves eastward,” the chancellor conceded. “Ukraine isn’t Luxembourg.”
Such an expansion would potentially add tens of millions of people — and fraught political dynamics — to the already byzantine and consensus-based EU decision-making process.
That means, Scholz said, that a reform discussion “cannot be ignored.” For starters, he insisted, the EU must ditch its unanimity requirement to make many key decisions, not only on foreign policy and taxes but on how countries like Hungary and Poland are held accountable for potential democratic backsliding.
Scholz argued the European Parliament must also not grow beyond its current size of 751 members — a number established in the EU’s treaties. He dismissed the notion of “bloating” the body’s size by just adding MEPs if a new country joins.
The EU must similarly be wary of how the bloc’s executive branch, the European Commission, would respond to expansion. Currently, the Commission has 27 commissioners — equal to the number of EU countries — with each overseeing one policy portfolio. Scholz said it would be “kafkaesque” to keep adding new policy portfolios each time a new country joins. Instead, he argued, the EU could move toward having two commissioners overseeing one area — agriculture or fisheries, for instance.
Separately, Scholz also endorsed an idea from French President Emmanuel Macron to form a “European Political Community,” which would exist separately from the EU and be open to both EU aspirants and the post-Brexit U.K.
The chancellor argued the forum could facilitate a “regular exchange at the political level … where we as EU leaders and our European partners can discuss once or twice a year the central issues that affect our continent as a whole.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Scholz’s government has faced repeated criticism for dragging its feet on delivering aid to Ukraine — despite the country making a historic decision to send Kyiv weapons. The war has also put a spotlight on Germany’s long-running reliance on Russian gas, which has prompted soaring energy prices in the country.
During his speech, Scholz touched on these issues.
On aid to Ukraine, the chancellor said he could “imagine, for example, Germany taking special responsibility for building up Ukrainian artillery and air defenses,” adding that Germany had just signed off on another €600 million weapons delivery for Ukraine.
And he reiterated that diversifying away from fossil fuels offered Europe a chance to become a world leader in the technologies needed to achieve climate neutrality.
He called for a “true internal energy market that supplies Europe with hydro-power from the north, wind from the coasts and solar energy from the south.” And Scholz outlined a vision of a “European hydrogen grid connecting producers and consumers.”
Immigration, rule of law
The EU must also update its immigration laws, the German leader said, making a pitch to expand legal immigration amid a shortage of skilled workers.
“We need immigration — we are currently experiencing at our airports, in our hospitals and in many companies that we are lacking qualified workers in all the nooks and crannies,” he said.
Immigration has long bedeviled EU countries, however, with the bloc rarely able to reach consensus on any part of the topic.
Another issue that has similarly flummoxed the EU is how to police members backsliding on democratic norms, including an independent judiciary, fiscal transparency, a free press and LGBTQ+ rights.
Toward the end of his speech, Scholz said he’s worried that “in the middle of Europe there is talk of illiberal democracy as though that was not an oxymoron,” a thinly veiled reference to alleged rule-of-law deficiencies in Hungary and Poland.
Scholz said a majority wants the EU to stand up for democratic values, but that the bloc’s rules are preventing it from doing so. He cited the EU’s Article 7 clause, a procedure meant to potentially strip EU voting rights from wayward countries but which has stalled with Hungary and Poland.
“Among the possibilities is the rule of law procedure under Article 7 — here, too, we must move away from blockade possibilities,” the chancellor said, adding that financial pressure could be another tool.
“It makes sense to me to tie payments consistently to compliance with rule-of-law standards,” he said.