For most of the next two and a half years — a critical period for the future direction of the EU — the bloc’s rotating presidency will be in the hands of countries from among the new, eastern member states. This is reviving the debate about a single speed vs a multi-speed Europe, and to what extent, if at all, the EU should be seen as divided into core vs periphery.
Estonia, which joined the EU in the first wave of eastwards accession in 2004, currently holds the presidency. It will be followed by Bulgaria (July-December 2018), Austria (January-June 2019), Romania (July-December 2019) and Finland (January-June 2020).
Holding the EU presidency can’t exactly be said to give a nation the chance to lead the EU, and following the adoption of the Lisbon treaty, rival presidencies such as those held by the European Council president and the president of the Eurogroup have responsibility for various areas previously the domain of the EU presidency. Yet it still gives scope to set the agenda and influence proceedings and negotiations at the EU level.
This means that three new member states, and two that are closely enmeshed with Eastern Europe for geographic and historic reasons, will hold the presidency thoughout the expected exit of the UK from the EU, the intense debate over how to handle fallout from the migration crisis and — more broadly — the ongoing challenge to the post-Cold War liberal world order.
And two of the Eastern European states set to take up the presidency are those that have long been seen as the black sheep of the union, Romania and Bulgaria. Neither state is yet a member of the Eurozone or the Schengen area, and their activities in the fight against corruption and organised crime are still monitored under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM). Indeed, after their entry to the bloc many questioned whether they should have been let in at all, and their experience of getting up to speed post-accession is seen as one of the reasons for the abrupt slowing of the enlargement process since 2007.
A full decade after they joined the EU, all this is a considerable source of chagrin to Romania and Bulgaria, and there is speculation that their combined year at the helm of the EU will see a push for a rethink of the current framing of core vs periphery.
Romania in particular stands out from the so-called “illiberal democracies” of the wider CEE region, notably Hungary and Poland. Enthusiasm for EU membership is among the highest rates seen in the 28-member bloc in Romania, and the governments of both Romania and Bulgaria are still keen to pursue entry to the Eurozone, even while they admit their economies aren’t ready yet.
At the Aspen Institute's annual Bucharest Forum on October 5, ministers from both countries stressed that they want to see a greater focus on unity, and less on core vs periphery going forward.
In his keynote address, Romanian Foreign Minister Teodor Melanescu argued that the EU should go beyond the core/periphery framing and other traditional dichotomies. “It is essential to use flexible and variable speed scenarios with prudence, keeping them as measures of last resort. The EU should aim for as much unity as possible and as much flexibility as strictly necessary,” he said.
This was echoed by the Minister for the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU Lilyana Pavlova,, who commented that: “We are not in favour of a multi-speed Europe, obviously. We have been working so far to have unity … minimising differences.
“Together with Romania, we say we shall not be divided into east and west, rich and poor but we shall be looking for unity. That’s why the message for our presidency is ‘United we stand strong’,” Pavlova added. Not only that, but Sofia plans to focus its presidency on further integration with the aspiring member states of the Western Balkans.
The comments by the ministers appeared to clash with the vision for the future of the EU recently outlined by French President Emmanuel Macron, who envisaged France and Germany leading the overhaul of the union. Macron has long been an advocate of a multi-speed Europe, and some of his proposals — such as that the European Commission be limited to 15 members rather than 28, or one commissioner per member state as at present — have unnerved some of the smaller and newer members.
Speaking at the Aspen Forum, Matti Maasikas, deputy minister for foreign affairs from the relatively long-established member state Estonia, acknowledged that while “no big decision can be taken in the EU without the active participation of France and Germany, in the union of 28 this is no longer enough. These two major players need to learn some new ways in keeping — and they are learning —others on board as well.”
On the other hand, Angela Cristea, head of the European Commission representation in Romania, sought to stress the positives from the recent State of the European Union address from Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
“Romanians are among the most vibrant supporters of EU integration. What’s new is that in Juncker’s recent speech this was recognised publicly at the highest level in the European Commission,” Cristea told delegates. “Juncker even pushed a little bit further, a friendly push towards Romania to be even closer to the core, if not in the core group.”
But this is going to be an uphill struggle. However keen Romania and Bulgaria may be to either enter the core EU (which inevitably includes eurozone membership) or to iron out the distinction between core and periphery, some of the ongoing crises besetting the bloc have the potential to grow such divisions.
The migrant crisis, for example, has increasingly pitted the old member states (in particular Germany) against the new. A September European Court of Justice ruling that Hungary and Slovakia, who challenged the measure, must abide by the refugee quotas set by the European Commission provoked Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto to claim the country was the victim of a "rape of European law and values”. A Gallup survey shows that anti-migrant attitudes are much harder in Eastern Europe than they are in Western Europe.
Meanwhile, in addition to its political implications, the departure of the UK from the EU, will leave a multi-billion euro hole in the union’s annual budget. The only places this kind of money can be subtracted from are agricultural funding and structural and cohesion funds — the latter in particular have been highly important in boosting the poorest regions of the EU and thereby supporting convergence.
The draft multi-annual financial framework for the next few years is due to be finalised under the Bulgarian presidency of the EU. “How we can do more with less funding — this is the big question,” Pavlova put it simply.
And the loss of funding is a worry, especially for the poorer member states in the southeastern corner of the EU. The latest Eurostat data show that despite convergence in recent years — and Romania’s GDP growth is currently the fastest in the bloc — GDP per capital is still hovering at around half the EU28 average in Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania.
At the Aspen Forum, there was a generally positive sense that the EU — which looked at the start of 2017 as if it might not make it through the year — is now starting to emerge from the migration and Brexit referendum crises. Yet big decisions are coming up, and much remains cloudy about the future of the union.
Estonia’s Maasikas made a good job of summarising the situation, talking of a renewed sense of unity. “The Brexit vote made us all think about what is the glue, the mood is much better now.” However, he added, “The big debates on the future of Europe are still only starting.”