Scholz proposes major EU enlargement – with reform – POLITICO


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The EU is set to expand significantly but must first undergo fundamental reforms to ensure an enlarged bloc can still function, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Monday.

During an hour-long speech at Charles University in Prague, Scholz outlined his vision for an EU of the future – an EU that has absorbed up to nine new members to the east, expanded its area of visa-free travel and revamped the way it makes basic decisions on everything from foreign policy to taxation.

Scholz’s speech, which mostly included ideas he had previously promoted, comes at a pivotal time for the EU. Russia’s war in Ukraine has just passed the six-month mark and an energy and inflation crisis is looming, leaving many to worry about the cracks in the EU.

Specifically, Scholz supported EU membership for Western Balkan countries, as well as war-torn Ukraine, neighboring Moldova and neighboring Georgia. He also argued that EU members Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria meet the criteria for admission to the European Schengen area, which allows for easy, visa-free travel between countries.

“But a Union with 30 or even 36 Member States will be different from our current Union – the center of Europe is moving east,” conceded the Chancellor. “Ukraine is not Luxembourg.”

Such an expansion would potentially add tens of millions of people – and tense political dynamics – to the EU’s already byzantine and consensual decision-making process.

This means, Scholz said, that a discussion about reform “cannot be ignored.” For starters, he insisted, the EU must drop its unanimity requirement to make many key decisions, not just on foreign policy and taxes, but on how countries like Hungary and Poland are held responsible for any democratic backsliding.

Scholz argued that the European Parliament must also not exceed its current size of 751 members – a number established in the EU treaties. He rejected the idea of ​​”inflating” the body size by simply adding MPs if a new country joins.

The EU should also be wary of how the bloc’s executive arm, the European Commission, would react to the expansion. Currently, the Commission has 27 Commissioners, equivalent to the number of EU countries, each overseeing a policy portfolio. Scholz said it would be “Kafkaesque” to keep adding new political portfolios each time a new country joins. Instead, he argued, the EU could consider having two commissioners overseeing one area – agriculture or fisheries, for example.

Separately, Scholz also endorsed an idea by French President Emmanuel Macron to form a “European Political Community”, which would exist separately from the EU and be open to both EU and UK candidates post-Brexit.

The Chancellor argued that the forum could facilitate a “regular exchange at political level… where we, as EU leaders and our European partners, can discuss once or twice a year central issues that affect our continent as a whole”.

Ukraine, energy

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Scholz’s government has faced repeated criticism for dragging its feet on getting aid to Ukraine – despite the country taking the decision history of sending arms to Kyiv. The war also brought to light Germany’s long-standing reliance on Russian gas, which caused energy prices to spike in the country.

During his speech, Scholz touched on these issues.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he could ‘imagine, for example, Germany taking on special responsibility for the construction of Ukrainian artillery and air defences’ | Jesco Denzel/Bundesregierung via Getty Images

Regarding aid to Ukraine, the Chancellor said he could “imagine, for example, Germany taking on a special responsibility for the construction of Ukrainian artillery and air defences”, adding that Germany had just approved another arms delivery of 600 million euros to Ukraine.

And he reiterated that diversifying away from fossil fuels offers Europe a chance to become a world leader in the technologies needed to achieve climate neutrality.

He called for a “genuine internal energy market that supplies Europe with hydro from the north, wind from the coasts and solar from the south”. And Scholz described a vision of a “European hydrogen network connecting producers and consumers”.

Immigration, rule of law

The EU must also update its immigration laws, the German leader said, arguing for the expansion of legal immigration amid a shortage of skilled workers.

“We need immigration – we are currently living in our airports, in our hospitals and in many businesses that we lack skilled workers in every nook and cranny,” he said.

Immigration has long plagued EU countries, however, with the bloc rarely able to reach consensus on any part of the topic.

Another issue that has also upset the EU is how to police members who backtrack on democratic standards, including an independent judiciary, fiscal transparency, a free press and LGBTQ+ rights.

Towards the end of his speech, Scholz said he feared that “in the center of Europe, we talk about illiberal democracy as if it were not an oxymoron”, a thinly veiled reference to the alleged shortcomings of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland.

Scholz said a majority wanted the EU to stand up for democratic values, but bloc rules prevented it from doing so. He cited the EU’s Article 7 clause, a procedure intended 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 have to move away from the possibilities of blockades,” said the Chancellor, adding that the financial pressure could be a other tool.

“It makes sense to me to consistently link payments to meeting rule of law standards,” he said.




Politico

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