The Sibiu Summit: The Re-launch of the European Project and the Impact on Enlargement

Iordan Bărbulescu
Miruna Butnaru-Troncotă

9th May –  SNSPA  (Bucharest, Romania)

The results of the referendum held in the United Kingdom in June 2016 had a domino effect with unpredictable consequences, both inside and outside the EU. The Sibiu Summit on 9 th of May 2019 was thus designed as a turning point for a post-Brexit EU, focused on re-launching the European project, an expectation which has lately become problematic. In the context of the European elections of 23-26 May 2019 and the change in the political leadership of the EU institutions that they will bring, it is time for the EU 27 to set new policy guidelines and new political priorities. But what is the impact of this ‘re-launch’ and of the new strategic agenda for 2019-2024 on the EU enlargement policy in the Western Balkans?

What shall be ‘re-launched’ on 9th of May in Sibiu?

It should be stressed that in the last two years the debate on the future of Europe launched by the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker has intensified, becoming a more inclusive process and engaging many actors, at all EU levels. It was reflected in a wide range of strategic documents and transnational public consultations: it started with the Declaration and the Roadmap announced in Bratislava on 16 September 2016, then it was mentioned in the European Parliament’s own resolutions on the future of Europe, already published on 16 February 2017, in the Commission’s White Paper from March 2017 already referred to as the central axis of this debate, followed by the Declaration of Rome, and the initiative of organizing the ‘Leaders’ Agenda’ adopted by the European Council in October 2017 and then by the various contributions of each Member State, as well as of the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions, as well as in plenary debates in the European Parliament on “The Future Europe” with the Heads of State or Government organized between 2018 and 2019, at meetings of inter-parliamentary committees and in the organization of dialogues and consultations with citizens by different institutions, bodies and Member States. Organizing such an institutional common effort of consultation was a possible response to the many criticisms against the ‘democratic deficit’ inside the EU and the lack of direct representation of citizens’ views in the EU’s strategic decision-making process.

It is worth pointing out that in the preparations for the Sibiu Summit, the European Commission has put much emphasis on stepping up dialogue with citizens, which took place  in 2018 and in early 2019, a process which has become popular on social networks under the name #RoadtoSibiu. After approximately 1,600 citizens’ dialogues, the European Commission published on 30th of April 2019 a report confirming that most citizens see Europe as essential to addressing global challenges, but that they want it to be more effective and more transparent. It is interesting to observe this transnational exercise focused on building more legitimacy inside EU institutions caused by the Brexit ‘shock’, that engaged such a large number of actors from all levels of EU’s governance system.

This year, on the 9th of May there will not be just  a simple Europe’s Day celebration, as the event coincides with the culmination of the reflection on the future of Europe. On this occasion, EU leaders will meet in Romania, with the results of the ‘Leaders’ Agenda’ being summed up in the form of a renewed commitment to an EU that holds promises on issues that are really important to citizens. The informal summit will be hosted by Klaus Werner Iohannis, the President of Romania, the state currently holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, while European Council President Donald Tusk will chair the meeting. Inside  the multiple ambiguities created by the Brexit subsequent delays, there are still many uncertainties with regard to the possible concrete outcomes of this high-level meeting. If in 2019 we celebrate 30 years since the fall of the communist regimes and the opening of a new chapter for Central and Eastern Europe, it remains to be seen whether the Sibiu Summit will open a new chapter in re-launching the European project. While preserving realism, we believe that we need to have more modest expectations, because the event seems to have the merit of rather providing a platform to stimulate public debate about EU and, implicitly, to combat absenteeism before the European elections, than to provide a firm and unitary strategic message for an EU-27 which is still undergoing a process of redefinition. Beyond mobilizing statements, calls for European unity and nice group pictures of the main leaders of EU member states to take place in Sibiu, we believe that the future of the EU will be more palpable at the end of November 2019, when we will already have a new functioning European Parliament, when negotiations over Brexit will be in a more advanced phase and when the College of the new European Commission will be fully operational. We believe that all these events in the autumn 2019  have a better chance of bringing clearer EU positions than this informal meeting in Sibiu. The way the EU will be redefined for the period 2019-2024 will evidently have an impact on the evolution of its enlargement policy and the relationship with its strategic neighborhood.

 

EU’s Ambiguities in the Enlargement Policy

The issue of enlargement remains deeply politicized in the European public sphere (deepening divisions between the new and old member states) and it is considered a possible trigger of Euroscepticism, especially now in the middle of the campaign for the European elections in May 2019. The Eurosceptic populist agenda  which tends to equate the enlargement debate only with regard to growing immigration, strictly defined as a “threat” to the EU, is likely to have an impact on Member States at the European Council in June 2019. The spring 2018 Eurobarometer showed a certain ambivalence towards the upcoming enlargement in the perception of EU citizens , with 44% in favor and 46% against (with majority support in 16 of the 27 EU Member States, and with negative views in the other 11). It is significant that despite internal tensions over this subject, citizen support for enlargement is predominant in 16 EU Member States (compared to only 14 in the autumn of 2017). We need to keep track of the fact that this support is the strongest in Spain (67%), and in other three countries, all of them new member states: Lithuania (66%), Poland and Romania (both 65%). 11 countries (compared with 13 in the autumn of 2017) have a predominant opposition to a future enlargement, especially in Austria (69% against), Germany (63%) and Finland (62%). It is also interesting to point out that in the UK support and opposition for enlargement are equally divided (both represent 42%).

Thus, we can see that there are real fears that, as a result of the Brexit impasse and the ambiguities provoked by the British Parliament decisions and a series of other urgent issues that need to be resolved, enlargement might no longer be a priority on the EU agenda, at least not in the short term, until a new European Parliament and a new commission take office in the fall of 2019. Already from its preparatory phase, Romania announced that it will put the Western Balkans as one of its Presidency’s priorities. Subsequently, Romania has repeatedly reiterated its support to the neighboring region, in connection with the Commission’s approach and stressing that the support will be “according to each state’s own merits in fulfilling the accession criteria.” Despite this encouraging rhetoric, however, concrete actions towards the Balkans were not very visible, especially not in the public sphere. Since the inauguration of its Presidency, Romania has not yet organized any high-level event dedicated to supporting the EU accession of Western Balkan states, although such an event (focusing mainly on youth from the region) is scheduled to take place between 28th-29th of May in Bucharest. The fact that it was the events scheduled after the European elections can be interpreted as consonant with the European Commission’s decision to postpone the publication of the its Annual Progress Reports on the candidate countries from its usual date in April, until the end of May. These synchronous “delays” are probably due to the reluctance to bring the issue of enlargement into the European public debate in order to avoid feeding into Euroscepticism, as it is well known that far right and populist parties are often instrumentalising the enlargement policy in their anti-EU and anti-immigration rhetoric.

 

Conclusion

The main expectation from this week’s informal European Summit in Sibiu is a renewed commitment towards an EU capable of providing solutions that really matter to people. The Sibiu Summit can be understood as part of a complex process of the EU’s internal reforms that is expected to culminate with in a Declaration aimed at enshrining the vision of national leaders for a reformed European Union that is more relevant and attractive to all European citizens. However, we argued that we cannot really expect a “new start for the EU” after Sibiu, but rather from November 2019, when the new Commissioners will take over their duties and mandates. We also wanted to point out that this ‘new start’ of the EU for the period 2019-2024 will directly influence political processes on the integration of the Western Balkans – in a positive or negative sense. Even though the Western Balkans have been united in their efforts to transform society from the common goal of EU membership for the last 16 years, they still face unresolved bilateral disputes (the most delicate being the normalization process between Serbia and Kosovo, currently blocked and far from its initial expectations), disputed borders, high unemployment rates, alarming levels of corruption and internal instability (most prominent in Bosnia Herzegovina, a profoundly dysfunctional state). All these unsolved issues became real obstacles over the years , slowing down the EU accession process.

The Future of Europe is a very complex equation, with many intermediary factors,  at all levels – supranational, sub-regional, national and local. Finally, we would like to emphasize that all these possible connections between the strategic decision to be taken at the Sibiu Summit and the further development of the European integration of the Western Balkans will also depend on many other factors:

– the possible exit of UK from the EU or the prolongation of the process from the EU by the end of this year;

– the potential flexibility of France’s position that sees an antithesis between EU’s dilemma of deepening and enlarging;

– the regression of democracy and the attacks against rule of law in of some Central and South-Eastern European countries such as Romania, Poland or Hungary, which does not encourage the enthusiasm of Western states for a new enlargement;

– the domestic political changes in Germany, one of the greatest supporters of the enlargement in the EU, that is undergoing a power shift and amid Angela Merkel’s withdrawal;

– the trend of certain EU members states, to focus mainly on the development of EU’s own defense capabilities, that have benefited in the last two years of particular attention by adopting a package of initiatives including the European Defense Fund (EDF), the Annual Defense Coordination Analysis (CARD) and the adoption of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).

–  stronger connections of certain Balkan countries with Russia.