Fri, 01 Dec 2023

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.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two big meetings taking place in Granada this week: the European Political Community (EPC) Summit, which brings together most of the continent's leaders, and an EU leaders' meeting at which migration and "absorption capacity" will dominate debate.

Brief #1: The Lowdown On The European Political Community Summit

What You Need To Know: Eyes turn to southern Spain this week and the city of Granada as it hosts two big meetings in the space of two days. The first day, October 5, is dedicated to the European Political Community (EPC) -- a gathering of European leaders that first met in Prague in the fall of 2022 after French President Emmanuel Macron pushed for a looser political forum to discuss the continent's future after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

While critics might dismiss the EPC as a talking shop of little value, diplomats I've spoken to are surprisingly complimentary. They say that leaders appreciate the less-rigid format with more informality (for example, in the order of speakers). The whole idea is rather to spend as much time as possible in smaller groups or bilateral discussions with fewer people peering over their shoulders.

So the EPC seems very much here to stay following two apparently successful summits, in the Czech Republic last October and then in Moldova in June. The idea is very much to have two gatherings each year, with hosting duties rotating between EU member states and nonmember states.

The United Kingdom looks set to take the baton from Spain with an EPC summit in the first half of 2024. So far, participation is impressive. In Granada, heads of state or government are expected from all 27 EU member states and 20 European nonmembers, including almost all of Europe's microstates. In fact, the only noticeable absentees on any level are Belarus, Russia, and the Vatican.

Deep Background: The choreography for this meeting is the same as before: a 30-minute plenary followed by roundtables at which leaders are divided into four groups -- each on a different topic -- lasting about two hours. The topics for this year are "digital," "skills," "energy and environment," and "multilateralism." Don't expect anything too concrete here.

It will be interesting to see whether one idea in particular concerning the future of European integration as four distinct tiers is aired in one way or another.

As thoroughly spelled out in a discussion paper by 12 Franco-German think tankers last month, those four tiers comprise an "inner circle" of EU member states that are part of the eurozone and the Schengen area; the rest of the EU; a third tier of "associate members" among Western European states like Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, which have comprehensive free-trade deals with the EU but no desire to join the bloc; and then a final tier, dubbed simply "the EPC."

The Franco-German paper notes that "the recently established EPC's institutional underpinning could be upgraded to provide more structured cooperation. The EPC would have to evolve from its current loose form into an arrangement with stronger institutional ties that could enable the [European] Commission to play a greater coordinating role and the EU budget to mobilize some funding."

The paper later makes clear that this type of political division of the continent is entirely different from the EU accession process that most EU hopefuls in the Western Balkans plus Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are in. ut don't rule out Macron once again feeling the need to underscore to concerned EU candidate countries that the EPC is no substitute for membership and that it was French and German experts -- not government officials -- who authored the paper.

Drilling Down

Before the leaders head to the impressive Alhambra palace and fortress complex for a family photo and an official dinner with spouses, they will spend a large chunk of the afternoon in bilateral meetings -- the part of the EPC summit that normally creates some news. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy won't be there, with Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal in his place, reducing some of the expected limelight on Granada. There are also question marks over Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's attendance. There had been talk of some sort of "positive agenda" between him and his Greek and Cypriot counterparts getting launched after months trading barbs, but with nothing materializing at the UN General Assembly in New York in September, few are expecting anything from Granada in that respect. The EPC has previously also been an unofficial venue for Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson to inquire about when Turkey's and Hungary's respective parliaments will ratify Sweden's NATO accession treaty. Erdogan recently remarked that Ankara can give a green light in October if the United States gives the go-ahead for F-16 jet sales to Turkey. Matters appear murkier with Hungary at the moment, as Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said Budapest is in "no rush" to sign off on Swedish NATO entry and other Hungarian officials have suggested it might not be placed on the Hungarian parliamentary agenda at all this fall. Hungary's foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, also recently criticized Stockholm for spreading "false information" about his country after a clip resurfaced that first aired four years ago on Swedish state TV and described developments in Hungary as having taken an undemocratic turn. The one big meeting that was set to happen is a get-together between European Council President Charles Michel, Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Their respective national-security advisers met in Brussels last week to prepare the meeting, which comes just two weeks after Azerbaijan's military carried out an offensive that overwhelmed breakaway ethnic Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, asserting control of territory that has been under ethnic Armenian control for decades. Tens of thousands of ethnic Armenians fled the region for Armenia. EU officials hope the meeting achieves progress on humanitarian issues, border delimitation, and potentially even a broader peace treaty. Another big question is what Yerevan will do regarding its future relations with the European Union. Applying for EU membership would be premature, according to people in Brussels I've spoken to on condition of anonymity, as Yerevan likely would first need to leave the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military grouping. But some EU diplomats think Armenia's leadership might, as a first step, ask to upgrade the political relationship with the EU via an association agreement. Armenia was set to sign such a deal back in 2013 but backed down following pressure from Moscow and instead signed a watered-down arrangement called Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement (CEPA) four years later. Former Soviet republics like Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine -- who now have perspectives for one day joining the EU -- all enjoy association agreements with Brussels that, apart from a free-trade deal, also include closer political cooperation with the bloc in multiple policy fields and paved the way for visa-free travel to the EU.

Brief #2: An EU Leaders' Meeting To Be Dominated By Migration And 'Absorption Capacity'

What You Need To Know: The second day in Granada, October 6, will be devoted solely to the European Union with the bloc's 27 heads of state and government gathering to discuss several issues.

Since it's an informal meeting as opposed to one of the regular summits that take place in Brussels, expect more strategic talk on the bloc's future and on the urgent issue of the day rather than any specific decisions.

Migration looks like the most pressing of those issues, especially after a spike this year in the number of people reaching Italy, mainly from Tunisia, and a growing spat between Germany and some of its eastern neighbors, most notably Poland.

Deep Background: You can be certain that Italy's right-wing Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni will make migration one of the hottest topics in Granada. She was elected last year on a pledge to prevent as many new arrivals as possible from across the Mediterranean. But the number of migrants to have so far landed in her country has topped 127,000 -- more than double that of the same period last year.

EU member states reached a tentative agreement in June on revamping the bloc's migration policy, but in order to enter final negotiations with the other EU co-legislator, the European Parliament, all aspects of the new migration pact must be agreed among the 27 members.

The missing piece of the puzzle is "crisis regulation" -- which details measures that would alleviate pressure on EU border countries, notably in the southern parts of the bloc, when they face sudden increases in asylum seekers - along with when those measures could be triggered.

What is especially bothering northern EU countries is a crisis exemption that would allow southern members like Italy to pause strict migrant border checks during such "crisis times," effectively allowing countries behind the front lines to handle asylum claims.

But that's not the only migration issue. Germany last week announced temporary checks on its borders with Czechia and Poland in a bid to prevent an influx of asylum seekers that already looks much larger this year than in 2022.

The Polish government has reacted angrily to suggestions from Berlin that the rise is connected to recent accusations that workers at Polish consulates, notably in Africa and Asia, have handed out EU visas in exchange from money.

Expect tense exchanges in Granada between Scholz and his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki. There are just days left before crucial German state elections in Bavaria and Hesse on October 8 in which the opposition could fare well and Polish parliamentary elections seven days later that opinion polls suggest are on a knife-edge.

Drilling Down

Away from the migration spats, the discussion will focus on "absorption capacity," a slightly abstract term that essentially translates into how the EU needs to change in order to accept new members in the future. And while Council President Charles Michel has expressed rather confident hopes that both the European Union and candidate countries might be ready for enlargement by 2030, the tone is slightly more sober among EU member states that view preparations and eventual internal changes necessary to enlarge the club as huge. Spain, which currently holds the rotating EU Council Presidency and is hosting the summit, has prepared concept notes, seen by RFE/RL, on the topic. While spelling out that enlargement has numerous advantages for the bloc, they acknowledge that there are issues that still need to be resolved: "Beyond the benefits that enlargement will bring to the EU, notably in terms of reinforcing the EU's political weight and influence, as well as the significant importance of enlargement for prosperity, security and stability on the continent, enlargement will also entail important challenges for the EU." Aside from the potential for increased geopolitical influence, they point out that enlargement also exposes the bloc "directly to new foreign and security issues" and spells out that "the EU's new post-enlargement neighborhood is likely to require considerable attention and political capital, all the more if the existing frozen conflicts remain unsolved by the time of enlargement." This is a blunt message not only to Ukraine, but also to Georgia and Moldova. Or consider the EU's environment and climate framework, one of the bloc's signature policies: One of the documents spells out that enlargement will "increase the total number of greenhouse gas emissions within the EU, requiring more efforts to reduce emissions across the EU," something that will need "substantial investments." So expect most of the qualms to be about money. And here, the future EU budget is an obvious area of concern. In the current EU budget, just nine of the 27 EU countries are net contributors, and all of them belong to the "older" and "Western" camp of member states. With potential EU enlargement in the Balkans and further eastward, more of the current net recipients in Central and Eastern Europe might have to chip in considerably -- and be prepared to pay in more than they receive. Two of the big budget chapters are currently Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and cohesion policy, the latter of which is constructed to reduce economic disparities between richer and poorer regions in the bloc. On the CAP, it is enough to look at recent tensions between Ukraine and some of its western EU neighbors like Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland when it comes to the influx of Ukrainian grain. The EU trio, wary of a political backlash from its farmers, is still not allowing several Ukrainian agriproducts into its markets. Imagine, then, what would happen if Ukraine were actually part of the EU's internal market and its farmers got considerable financial support from Brussels. The Spanish concept papers simply note, rather matter-of-factly: "the size of the agricultural sector of some candidate countries, notably Ukraine, will bring the EU agricultural market to a new dimension." With cohesion policy, it's a similar story. The document notes that the per capita gross national income (GNI) measured in the per capita purchasing power (PPS) of the current EU candidate countries is around 50-70 percent of that of the poorest EU member states today. That would mean that most EU money would flow to the newest members. But the quandaries don't stop there. The EU population would go from today's 450 million to well over 500 million, which one of the concept notes describes as "increasing market opportunities for economic operators, bringing in new consumers and reducing barriers to labour mobility and investments." But the notes also caution that this "free movement of persons is likely to raise challenges that will need to be addressed in advance." Considering how twitchy many EU countries are about any type of migration, including internal EU labor migration, this could be a huge societal hot-button issue that shapes many future elections inside the club.

Looking Ahead

Today (October 2) will see EU's foreign ministers going to Kyiv together in a show of solidarity with that war-torn country. Expect the ministers to talk about the prospects of opening accession talks with Ukraine later this year, the potential for a new sanctions package against Russia later this fall, the need to agree on more military assistance coming from the bloc, and perhaps also more specific security guarantees that the EU or individual member states can offer in the near future.

The European Parliament will descend on Strasbourg this week for a four-day plenary session. Perhaps the most interesting day will be October 3, as the chamber will discuss the situations in Nagorno-Karabakh and Moldova. On the former, one can expect quite a show of solidarity with Armenia and perhaps even calls for Yerevan to apply for EU membership. On Moldova, the parliament will also pass a nonbinding resolution in which it will call on a swift opening of EU accession talks with Chisinau.

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

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036

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