European Council President Charles Michel said Monday that he wants Europe to be ready for enlargement by 2030, as the European Union gears up for a renewed debate about its future size.
“Enlargement is no longer a dream,” the Council chief said at the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia, where leaders from the Western Balkans have gathered. “It is time to move forward,” he added.
While eight countries formally hold candidate status, for many in the Western Balkans the accession process has stalled. And for some countries like Turkey, the process has been officially put on hold, although dynamics linked to the war in Ukraine have reenergized the debate.
In June last year, EU leaders granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova and pressure is building to open accession talks with these countries by the end of the year.
“There is still a lot of work to do. It will be difficult,” Michel said at the forum, adding: “I believe we must be ready — on both sides — by 2030 to enlarge.”
The Council president underscored that “enlargement is and will remain a merit-based process,” pointing to the need for respecting rule of law, implementing European economic standards and aligning with Brussels on foreign policy.
Just the same, Michel called for the next long-term EU budget to take enlargement goals into account and for the EU to consider adapting its institutional framework for a larger form.
On the thorny issue of whether enlargement should entail a move away from unanimous decision-making on sensitive matters, he took a middle-ground stance: “Completely scrapping unanimity could be throwing the baby out with the bath water.”
“This will be a hard nut to crack,” the Council leader continued, “but there is no way to avoid this debate now.”
The biggest challenge, according to Michel, could be simply convincing Europeans of the enlargement project.
“We need to make sure,” he said, that “we have the hearts of the people with us.”