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Wider Europe Briefing: What Von Der Leyen's Big Speech Means For Ukraine And Other EU Hopefuls


While European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addressed issues connected to the war in Ukraine toward the end of her speech, there was little fighting talk.
While European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen addressed issues connected to the war in Ukraine toward the end of her speech, there was little fighting talk.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods. To subscribe, click here.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two issues: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's big autumn speech, and all the EU enlargement decisions that are likely to come by the end of the year.

Brief #1: What Von Der Leyen's 'State Of The EU' Address Tells Us About The Future Of The Bloc

What You Need To Know: On September 13, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivered her State Of The European Union address to the European Parliament plenary in Strasbourg. As always, this speech sets out what the bloc's executive arm is planning for the future, but this year it had a special significance, as it was the last such address before the elections to the European Parliament in June 2024.

The outcome of those elections will have a significant impact on who will be selected as the new European Commission president by the EU's 27 heads of state and government who meet in Brussels some days after the vote. As an unwritten rule, the next commission president should come from the political party that secures the most votes. Normally, that is the center-right European People's Party (EPP), to which Von der Leyen belongs. Given that her address sounded very much like a pitch for another five-year term, it's possible she will run again.

For nearly three-quarters of the hour-long address, Von der Leyen appealed to European voters, talking about "domestic" EU concerns such as inflation, job security, and the forest fires and floods that have blighted parts of the continent this summer.

She talked up the European Green Deal, which is Brussels' attempt to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, saying that the bloc would make it easier to get permits for wind turbines. She enthused about the growth of "clean steel" plants in the EU and how Europe is attracting more "clean hydrogen" investments than China and the United States combined. She then thanked European farmers "for providing us with food day after day" and proposed "a strategic dialogue on the future of agriculture in the EU."

Finally, she vowed to invest more in small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and protect European industry from being undercut by third-country, state-sponsored companies.

Deep Background: So, what about foreign policy, especially events in Eastern Europe? While Von der Leyen addressed issues connected to the war in Ukraine toward the end of her speech, there was little fighting talk. Rather, it seemed as if she had just taken note of news reports about growing local tensions with Ukrainian refugees in some parts of the EU.

"We will be at Ukraine's side every step of the way. For as long as it takes," she proclaimed, and added that the 4 million Ukrainians taking refuge in the EU "are as welcome now as they were in those fateful first weeks."

She also announced that the European Commission will propose the extension of the so-called temporary protection measures for Ukrainians in the EU until 2025, allowing refugees to have access to housing, health care, and the job market.

What was lacking, however, were any new proposals on how to deal with Russia. There were no new ideas on EU sanctions. A 12th round of sanctions targeting Moscow doesn't appear to be in the pipeline. There were no new proposals on how, for example, to seize Russian assets that have been frozen by the bloc or how to ramp up weapons deliveries to Ukraine.

Drilling Down

  • On future EU enlargement, a topic that has become increasingly pertinent in recent months and is likely to dominate political discussions this fall, Von der Leyen was more prudent than the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, who in late August stated that the EU should be ready to accept new members by 2030.
  • She didn't offer any timelines. Instead, she played it safe and stuck to the time-honored Brussels line on when new members can join: "Accession is merit-based -- and the [European Commission] will always defend this principle."
  • She also didn't talk of a future EU of 33 or 35 or 37 members but rather mentioned 30-plus throughout her speech. So, who might those countries be? She noted that "the future of Ukraine is in our union; the future of the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia) is in our union; the future of Moldova is in our union."
  • So far, so clear. But it was what she added later that was most intriguing: "I know just how important the EU perspective is for so many people in Georgia." Quite what that means for Georgia's chances of getting EU candidate status later this year is anyone's guess, but it's interesting that it was the people, rather than the government in Tbilisi, that she name-checked.
  • It could be worse. Turkey, an official EU candidate country that wants to get closer to the EU after many years of frosty relations, wasn't even mentioned at all.
  • The big question in the coming months will be how an enlarged EU will function. Several ideas on this will be floated, starting with a group of French and German think-tankers, who on September 19 will present their findings on what needs to be changed for the bloc to accommodate more members. EU leaders will debate those findings when they convene in the Spanish city of Granada on October 6.
  • Some suggestions of what might have to change in a bigger EU are already well-known. To name a few: not all EU member states should get their own European commissioner; the bloc should move away from the unanimity-voting rule in some fields, such as foreign or economic policy; and the increased use of "constructive abstention," which means that EU member states don't agree with but, at the same time, don't block a decision.
  • Von der Leyen's first input into this debate was both measured and radical. The measured proposal was that the European Commission will start a series of pre-enlargement policy reviews to see how each policy area may need to be adapted for a larger union. This involves how the European Parliament and the commission -- both already overstuffed, according to most observers -- will function at 30-plus members, but also how the EU budget should be financed and where the money will go.
  • That all might seem like a fun bureaucratic exercise for EU wonks but policy reviews rarely solve anything. And that is where Von der Leyen's radical proposal comes in: "treaty change if and where it is needed."
  • Even just the words "treaty change" can send shudders through even the steeliest of Brussels bureaucrats. Changing the EU's fundamental treaties -- which set out rules and objectives for EU institutions and govern how decisions are made among its member countries -- is seen as a Pandora's box, which, when opened, could lead to all sorts of demands and potential roadblocks. Anything from "a federal EU" to allusions about the bloc's "Christian foundations" can be floated, leading to endless fights, time-consuming compromises, and potentially even national referendums in some countries to approve the final text.

Brief #2: Get Ready For The Ultimate Christmas Compromise

What You Need To Know: If there is one thing that seems almost certain every year in the European Union, it's that the most difficult decisions are taken in December -- more specifically, the last working week before the final summit of the bloc's leaders, which tends to happen a few days before the customary Christmas break.

The "legislative desk" needs to be cleared before all the festivities begin and even more so in the latter half of 2023, as 2024 will essentially be one long campaign for elections to the European Parliament in June, followed by jockeying for the various key political positions in EU institutions. And when it comes to the bloc's Eastern Neighborhood and the Western Balkans, there are more things than ever that need to be sorted out. And sorted out they probably will be -- but most likely not until that final December week.

Deep Background: What are some of the things that need to be signed off on before the ringing in of the new year?

Firstly, there is a 20 billion euro ($21.3 billion) fund to pay for weapons and other military aid for Ukraine over the next four years, with the bill being footed directly by EU members states, their financial contributions based on their population size.

Then there is another larger chunk of money (50 billion euros) for Ukraine's reconstruction efforts, which is supposed to be made available for Kyiv between 2024 and 2027. That money comes directly from the current EU budget (known in Brussels as the "multi-financial framework," or "MFF" for short), a top-up fund that EU member states must chip in to.

Money matters aside, the EU enlargement process will almost certainly cause all manner of headaches. The European Commission should come up with its annual enlargement report by the end of October, containing thorough assessments of all six Western Balkan EU hopefuls, as well as Georgia, Moldova, Turkey, and Ukraine.

The report will also give recommendations on the next steps EU candidates need to take. But that may be pushed back to November, according to sources familiar with the drafting of the report but not authorized to speak on the record, as there is still too much to nail down, and the European Commission wants to avoid EU leaders getting bogged down with the report when they meet for their fall summit in Brussels on October 26. That could well mean any movement on enlargement doesn't happen until December.

Then, of course, there is all the EU cash, amounting to several billion euros, that Hungary wants to get its hands on but which has been frozen by the European Commission due to concerns about backsliding on the rule of law in that country. Few EU member states want Brussels to release even a part of that money for Budapest. However, it's the worst-kept secret in EU circles that Hungary can threaten to wield its veto on any or all of the abovementioned issues in order to leverage its case for the release of the frozen funds.

Drilling Down

  • So, can there really be blockages on everything? Most people I speak to in Brussels think that the 50 billion euros for Kyiv will be green-lighted rather easily, as member states are mostly united over the need to support Ukraine in difficult times. The main issue is that there are other "MFF top-ups" that the European Commission wants member states to contribute to and those obligations could well hold up the Ukraine money.
  • For example, there is an extra 15 billion euros slated for neighborhood policy, which will mostly go to countries surrounding the bloc, notably in North Africa in an attempt to keep migration to the EU in check. Then there is 10 billion euros earmarked for investments in key strategic sectors, such as microchips, set up to prevent EU companies from being undercut by U.S. and Chinese competitors.
  • The problem is that some of the EU member states that contribute a lot to the common EU budget -- for example, Germany and the Netherlands -- are in the process of trimming their own national budgets and might have a hard time explaining to their citizens why the Brussels budget must expand. Other member states, notably in the south, are keen to receive more money to manage migration flows. So, something must give. The question is what.
  • There is also the 20 billion euros to pay for Ukrainian armaments and other aid. Here, Budapest will be particularly hard to convince. For three months already, Hungary has blocked a tranche worth a comparatively measly 500 million euros from the current pot of money earmarked for Ukrainian military aid. The hope in Brussels is that Hungary will bend, as the country is facing an economic downturn and is in great need of the frozen EU funds.
  • But that will not prevent Hungary from also playing hardball on allowing Ukraine to start EU accession talks, which most other EU member states would like to see before the end of the year. In 2022, one of the seven conditions the European Commission gave to Ukraine for the country to move forward on its EU bid was to improve rights for national minorities. That's an issue that Budapest is pushing hard on given the presence of an ethnic Hungarian minority in Ukraine.
  • To get a green light from Hungary on Ukraine, Brussels might have to accept Budapest's push for more help to be given to other EU hopefuls. That could mean Georgia might get candidate status -- something that not everyone, notably the three Baltic states, is keen on -- and Serbia's EU accession might start again with the opening of new accession chapters. That hasn't happened for over two years, largely due to Belgrade's reluctance to align with EU sanctions on Russia.
  • But it is not only Hungary that will engage in political horse-trading on enlargement this winter. Croatia and Slovenia have both indicated that it would be wise not to let Bosnia-Herzegovina stand still as other candidate countries move forward. That could mean a push to start EU accession talks with Sarajevo, even though most other EU capitals don't think the country is ready for this.
  • And then there is the delicate issue of Albania and North Macedonia, who both officially opened accession talks in July 2022. What followed then was a screening procedure of all policy fields where the two countries need to adopt EU legislation. In November, that screening process should be complete and, in December, proper negotiations with Brussels, with the opening and closing of accession chapters, should commence.
  • The problem is that North Macedonia hasn't yet found the necessary votes in its parliament to change its constitution -- a key demand from EU member Bulgaria. Few think that Skopje will be capable of this during the fall, presenting EU member states with a choice of whether or not to decouple Albania's and North Macedonia's applications and just moving ahead with Tirana.
  • And then, of course, there is Turkey, which, according to EU officials I have spoken to on background, wants to "reengage" with the bloc. This means resuscitating its EU accession process, which has been stalled for years after spats with Cyprus and Greece. However, while Turkey's strategic importance in terms of security and migration isn't lost on anyone, the appetite for opening new enlargement chapters with Ankara isn't great inside the bloc. And it is worth noting that Turkey still hasn't ratified Sweden's NATO accession act. So, expect to see some horse-trading from Turkey on that, in order to advance its EU path.


Looking Ahead

On September 19, there is another meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at the Ramstein air base in Germany. The forum, which brings together defense ministers from nearly 50 nations, has become the most important venue for providing Kyiv with new arms.

It remains to be seen if the United States will be ready to green-light the delivery of long-range ATACMS ballistic missiles and if Germany will follow suit with their equivalent, the Taurus. It will also be the first "Ramstein meeting" for newly appointed Ukrainian Defense Minister Rustem Umerov, who is expected to give a comprehensive update on how the Ukrainian offensive is proceeding.

The International Court of Justice will start hearings on September 18 in The Hague on a case Ukraine filed shortly after Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022. In the case, Ukraine accuses Moscow of falsely applying genocide law, by claiming to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine, to justify the attack on the country.

Russia will argue its side on the first day of the hearings, and Ukraine will reply on September 19, with the proceedings expected to last through the month.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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    Rikard Jozwiak

    Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.

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About The Newsletter

Wider Europe

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

To subscribe, click here.

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