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Macron’s idea is a broad recognition that the EU must cater to the states that share the same values and geography Image Credit: Gulf News

The very foundations of the European Union are based on the ashes and bricks of a broken continent, one that had been ruined by two world wars in less than 30 years.

For more than seven decades, the prospect of a Europe at war seemed remote, allowing 28 nations to come together and form the world’s third-largest economy in a marketplace of more than 500 million people, and where international borders became blurred.

The notion of free movement of people, however, was severely tested by the aftermath of events unfolding in Syria, across Iraq and elsewhere that led to the largest migration of refugees since the Partition of India.

The EU experiment was shaken, however, by the withdrawal of a United Kingdom government determined to chart its own course and “take back control” of its own affairs under Brexit. And no sooner had that occurred that coronavirus, with the necessity to shut down free movement and limit our contact with one another, returned the notion that porous borders were not necessarily in everyone’s interests.

Now, for the past 100 days, the most serious military conflict since the end of the Second World War is now underway on the very eastern borders of the EU. Once more there are the images of shelling and ruins, death and tanks, bombs and bullets on the continent.

So now, more than at any time since the formation of the EU — and certainly since the turn of the millennium or the end of the Cold War — is a time to fully consider Europe’s future. Or at least consider what lies ahead for the EU.

Vision for Europe

Emmanuel Macron, the newly re-elected President of France, has at least looked forward and surveyed what might be possible, laying out a vision for the continent

May 9 has long been considered Europe Day, traditionally a date that marks the end of the Second World War in Europe, an occasion too to remember the 50 million or so who perished in that conflicted

He is promoting an avant-garde but detail-light proposal to redraw the political map of the continent with a new organisation that would give Ukraine a closer relationship with the EU, short of membership — and could even include the UK.

Indeed, that he laid out his plan in the European Parliament in Strasbourg was highly symbolic. It is an institution that is built on the premise of a democratic continent, a body that makes laws fit for all who live there, where divisions are part and parcel of debate, and a place where all the 27 nations of the EU have a voice.

Macron is animated by a desire to find a solution for war-torn Ukraine, which has pleaded desperately for fast-track membership of the EU in the months since Russia’s military action. At the heart of the plan is greater cooperation between the 27-member bloc and non-EU countries.

Yes, there is a customs union that includes Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. But his notion of a two-tier Europe would also allow access to the Balkan states and Turkey — nations that have expressed a desire to belong to the full EU club but whose membership applications are pending.

Within Macron’s new political union, nations like Ukraine, and even a post-Brexit Britain, could forge deeper ties without officially joining the EU.

European political community

“The EU, given the level of its integration and ambition, cannot be in the short-term the only means of structuring the European continent,” Macron told MEPs. “It’s our historic obligation to respond to that today and to create what I would call a ‘European political community’.

This new European organisation would allow European democratic nations adhering to our core values to find a new space for cooperation on politics, security, energy, transport, infrastructure investments and the movement of people, especially the young.”

Turkey has been waiting for more than three decades for its EU membership. And yes, if any one knows in recent memory about the effects of war, then the Balkan states that came out of the ashes of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia are prime candidates indeed.

Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have all submitted applications to join the EU since Russian tanks moved on February 24. The European Commission said it aims to deliver a first opinion in June on Ukraine’s request to become a member.

Behind closed doors, many member states accept that fast-track membership for Ukraine is highly unlikely given that a proposal like this would require major changes to the EU treaties.

Apart from Turkey, with whom talks began in 2005 but which stalled and were then stopped in 2019 and the trio of recent applicants, all those waiting to join are based in the Western Balkans.

North Macedonia, which first applied in 2004, has met the criteria for beginning membership talks but its bid is being held up by a row with Bulgaria.

Albania’s bid is linked to North Macedonia’s, so Sofia’s veto is holding things up for Tirana, too.

Montenegro applied for EU membership in 2008. Accession talks, which began in 2012, are advanced and the country could be ready to join by 2025. Talks are also ongoing with Serbia, while Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are considered “potential candidates for EU membership”

Macron’s idea is, however, broad recognition that the EU must somehow cater to the states that share the same values and geography and allow them to grow and prosper. Think of it as strength in numbers, and not strength in the form offered by the umbrella or membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation either.

So far, Marcon’s idea is just that — an idea. But it does mark a major shift in the direction of European policy, particularly for France, which has shown a degree of intransigence towards further integration of new EU member states for years now.