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Interview | Koert Debeuf: The whole European thinking is changing dramatically

The initial excitement about the decision of the European summit has now subsided, leaving the space for reflection. Civil.ge, together with press representatives from the three candidate countries of the Black Sea region, had the opportunity to speak with Kurt Debeuf, former editor-in-chief of EUObserver, one of the most respected media covering EU events and policies, about the EU, the European Council’s decision of December 14 on enlargement and how the processes might unfold in the future.


Koert Debeuf is a former editor-in-chief of EU Observer. He is a Distinguished Adjunct Professor in Middle East Studies at the Brussels School of Governance, teaching War and Diplomacy in the Middle East. He is a Research Fellow at the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Harris Manchester College, Oxford University. He has a master’s in history and holds a doctorate in philosophy, having served as the Director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. Previously, he lived for five years in Cairo, where he followed the Arab Spring. From 2003 until 2008, he was advisor and speechwriter of the Prime Minister of Belgium. Koert Debeuf regularly appears in national and international media as an expert on international politics, focusing on Middle East-related matters.


After the tensions that preceded the Council meeting, we witnessed an interesting spectacle when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán left the meeting room, allowing the decision on enlargement to be taken. What does it tell us about the EU’s decision-making? Will it remain an exception?

I think this was an exception in EU decision-making. But it’s also clear that there have been moments in foreign policy in the past when Hungary was pushed aside to take a decision. But this major decision taken without one country is really unique. I think the fact that they’ve managed to take this massive decision on enlargement, actually without unanimity, is unprecedented, and I assume it will remain unprecedented in the future.

In general, most countries agree that this unanimous decision-making is a thing of the past. Certainly, if we’re going to have an enlargement process, it doesn’t work anymore, everybody agrees. If there’s going to be a change in procedures in the future – and I think there will be – the first thing that’s going to fall is, indeed, the veto. We are now seeing the process moving in that direction, but it is uncharted territory. Nobody knows how exactly the process will develop, but with any future treaty change, this veto system will be dropped.

If there’s going to be a change in procedures in the future – and I think there will be – the first thing that’s going to fall is, indeed, the veto.

The veto system is something that small countries are demanding. Because, in the EU, the big countries have a lot to say, and they are moving forward [with decisions]. And the small countries are afraid that their particular interests will not be listened to. The veto system is there to make sure that the small countries are listened to.

Having said that, a lot of decisions are made by a weighted majority, and this is going to be [more widely] installed. There will be some that are too important: for example, enlargement is so important that if one country says no, it is normally difficult to move forward.

So what they’ve done yesterday [by Hungary not voting], may actually be a signal that, OK, let’s move to a different decision-making system with weighted majorities, percentages, and so on, which is absolutely necessary. If not, everything will be blocked in the future.

Which country can you compare Georgia to in terms of the accession process? How much time will it take for membership, given those experiences?

Turkey is a candidate member, and it’s been twenty years that they’ve been trying to move forward and are stalled. People say Turkey will never become a member. Some countries in the Balkans have done everything right, but in the end, the political decision said – we will not allow you to become a member now. The problem with Georgia is twofold – firstly, geography, as no EU country borders Georgia, and secondly, the occupation of the two parts of the country – Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The problem with Georgia is twofold – firstly, geography, as no EU country borders Georgia, and secondly, the occupation of the two parts of the country.

So, how do you deal with that in an accession process? I think these are two difficulties that will probably make this process a long one for Georgia. Having said that, I have been in Georgia since 2005, and Georgians have been doing reforms. The willingness to do these reforms is absolutely there, which could make things move much faster than anyone might expect.

Ukraine and Moldova also have occupied territories. So they have the same challenges.

For the sake of clarity, I just wanted to answer the question about Georgia, not about the other countries, but they have the same problem. I mean, if indeed, parts of Ukraine will remain occupied. It is a problem because you [Ukraine] are in a war situation. Can you become part of the EU if your country is still at war? So it is really problematic. So, it is obviously more problematic for NATO than for the EU. But still, these are things that need to be resolved.

And you can say, for example, when you talk about Albania and Montenegro, why have these countries been denied membership or at least progress? When you make an agreement, and everything has been done in that agreement, then the next step must come. In Latin they say pacta sunt servanda. But it was still rejected [in the case of these two countries]. So, there’s is, let’s say, the legal process. And there is a political process.

Whenever [there is] the political process, it is actually unpredictable when the reasons would emerge to do something or not to do it.

And whenever [there is] the political process, it is actually unpredictable when the reasons would emerge to do something or not to do it. What I am saying about Georgia is, if they need some arguments why Georgia will not become a member, let’s say, at the current speed, then it could be this: occupation plus geography. The same goes for Turkey.

Why is Turkey still not a member? You could say they have deviated from the democratic path. But it is more complicated than that because Cyprus had blocked the opening of some [negotiating] chapters when Turkey was ready to go forward.

Politics plays a role, and I hope that the EU will stop using these arguments and follow the rulebook, the Acquis Communautaire. This is how the EU should work, and they should not make exceptions. So, they should move forward as they have promised to move forward.

Charles Michel, President of the European Council, described yesterday’s decision as historic. The extraordinary situation and the speed with which this decision was taken indicate that geopolitics is an important factor. Do you think the European Union will have enough stamina and political or other muscle to defend this decision against Russia, which is the big elephant in the room and obviously cannot be very happy about it? What is your prognosis, given all the circumstances, the war in Ukraine, internal EU politics, and so on?

Well, I think there are two elements. A Russian ambassador told me, you know, the enlargement of the EU is not a problem because the EU is a peace project, but NATO is something completely different because NATO was founded against Russia, against Moscow, and, of course, against the Soviet Union. So NATO is seen as an enemy, whereas the EU is seen as a peace project. So, in a way…

But in Ukraine, the events of Maidan and Russia’s aggression were only triggered because Yanukovych rejected the Association Agreement.

True, but NATO was also in the game. But still, I mean, I think it is a project that is easier to defend than when it comes to NATO, first of all.

And secondly, from the EU side, what the EU has seen in the last few years, actually in the last two years, is that its support around the world has massively eroded. So, the EU is losing support; it is losing geopolitical weight in many different ways. EU has free trade agreements, but for example, Indonesia has said we don’t need them, and Australia has said we don’t need them. So, what’s the last tool that the European Union has? It is enlargement. Enlargement has been its most powerful instrument in geopolitics since it started. I think it is the most important card that’s still on the table, and it is the card that they decided to play yesterday with, I would say at historic speed.

Enlargement has been EU’s most powerful instrument in geopolitics since it started. I think it is the most important card that’s still on the table, and it is the card that they decided to play yesterday with, I would say, historic speed.

Prime Minister Orban vetoed the allocation of 50 billion Euros to Ukraine. Now it looks like it will be postponed to January, maybe to the end of March, and it looks like Mr. Orban is waiting for the European Parliament elections to block it. What scenarios can we envisage?

It is a real shame that Hungary has blocked this decision again. It was prepared to walk out of the decision-making room on enlargement, but then it actually blocked the 50 billion. It is hard to predict how this [situation] will develop. As with previous decisions, Hungary always blocks to get something out of the European Union. It has now managed to get 10 billion Euros from the cohesion fund to allow the enlargement process to continue.

So the EU will probably have to give [Orban] something else in January. It is a shameful process, but, unfortunately, it is probably the only one where really important decisions are made.

So, you see the link here: he received 10 billion and let Ukraine start negotiations?

Everybody denies it, but of course, they have to deny it. We cannot pay you to give us a decision. But it is obvious that this is the case. It is no coincidence that just this week, the European Commission decided to release 10 billion that had been blocked. And then, a few days later, Orbán agrees to go for a coffee during a massively important discussion. But he blocks another [decision]. So, again, it is a shameful way of doing business, but probably the only way that another one will be made. Because everyone agrees that Ukraine needs this money more than ever. We can’t lose this war, and I say we, because it is about the entire Europe. So, I think this money will go to Ukraine in January. What Hungary will need [in exchange] for it, I don’t know.

How can you assess the Ukrainian’s progress toward membership over the past year, taking into account that there is a war going on in Ukraine?

Normally, I mean, countries have to reform in order to become a candidate country. So, in the case of Ukraine, that obviously didn’t happen.

Ukraine is actually a frontier of a war against Russia. So the rules are different this time.

But the situation is completely different. Ukraine is actually a frontier of a war against Russia. So the rules are different this time. There cannot be an assessment like there has been for every enlargement we have seen in the past. This is a different situation; there are different rules, and I think the different rules will also apply to Ukraine in the coming months and perhaps years.

But when it comes to real membership, then the Acquis Communautaire, the rulebook that has to be followed, will have to be followed. I do not think there will be any exceptions. So we are talking about years, not months [for membership].

What do you envisage as the main challenges ahead for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia?

I think the challenges are quite massive. For example, I’ve been following Turkey’s accession talks very closely, and for a country like Turkey, it has been a very difficult process.

I think the war situation is probably the first thing that needs to be resolved. And then, of course, the democratic process and the independent judiciary is, I think, one of the most difficult problems to solve.

It is a problem that has not been solved in some European countries. I’m thinking of Bulgaria. But these are crucial steps that have to be taken, and let’s hope that these countries will take them, not only for the EU but also for their people.

Do you think that this decision marks a change in the way the EU looks at the Black Sea region? Does the EU now have a vision that reflects what this region means to the Union?

Well, the decision taken yesterday would have been impossible two years ago. Completely impossible. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia has changed everything. So, the whole European thinking is changing dramatically. It is changing fundamentally.

The whole European thinking is changing dramatically. It is changing fundamentally.

The strategic importance of regions seen as completely OUTSIDE our scope has now become completely IN European scope. We are talking primarily about the Black Sea region, but I think it is going to extend perhaps to parts of North Africa, perhaps to Central Asia, so things are changing completely.

And the longer this war goes on, the more unpredictable, I would say, EU foreign policy and even EU domestic policy will become in the coming years. The strategy is completely changing because the world is completely changing. And so I think it is good that the EU is finally changing its way of looking at the world, changing its arrogant way of saying “we are the best.” No, we must do something about these countries and regions that we think are important for us and the world.

The interview has been edited for brevity

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