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Athens Summit Hints At Future EU Expansion Challenges

  • EU ministers will consider an eighth tranche of military aid for Ukraine worth 500 million euros, pending Hungary's veto related to a blacklist dispute.
  • The European External Action Service proposes long-term financial assistance to Ukraine of 5 billion euros per year for four years.
  • Aside from Ukraine, EU officials are also concerned about the recent military coup in Niger and the potential for a new wave of refugees into Europe.
EU Expansion

On August 29-31, first the EU's defense ministers and then the bloc's foreign ministers will meet in the Spanish city of Toledo for informal talks.

These types of gatherings -- referred to in EU parlance as "Gymnich" after a German castle where the first such meeting took place -- happen twice a year, typically in January and after the summer break at the end of August.

They aren't formal council meetings, like the monthly EU foreign affairs councils in Brussels where policy decisions are taken. Rather, they are supposed to be more like fireside chats among ministers, who often rock up without their customary suits and ties so they can kick back to discuss the more long-term goals and strategies of the European Union. These informal meetings are often considered the start of the fall political season and a warm-up ahead of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in early September.

Two items will dominate the agenda in Toledo: how to further help Ukraine militarily and the Niger coup and its consequences on the bloc.

Deep Background: Regarding Ukraine, much of the discussion will center on increasing EU arms deliveries to sustain Kyiv's war effort. There have already been seven tranches of EU military aid through the European Peace Facility (EPF), an off-EU budget funding mechanism where member states contribute according to their gross national income. So far, those contributions have amounted to 5.6 billion euros ($6.1 billion). An eighth tranche -- another 500 million euros ($540 million) -- is waiting to be approved, and it's possible it could get a sign-off in Toledo.

For that to happen, though, Hungary would need to lift its veto that has been in place since early summer. The Hungarian red light stems from an unrelated dispute around a blacklist produced by Ukraine's National Agency on Corruption Prevention. On that list, the Hungarian bank, OTP, is labeled an "international sponsor of war" as it continues to do business in Russia, a designation that has angered both the bank and the Hungarian government. Typically, Budapest has made its support for the next chunk of EU cash conditional on Ukraine delisting the bank.

There will also be more talks in Toledo on the possibility of a longer-term EU fund for military assistance to Ukraine. The EU's diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service (EEAS), circulated a discussion paper to EU capitals before the August summer break about the need to provide Kyiv with 5 billion euros a year for the next four years. That plan could face some hurdles, though. Hungary has already questioned the wisdom of spending more on military aid to Ukraine. And Germany -- the bloc's single largest financial contributor -- has raised issues, such as the need to discuss the military funding within broader negotiations over the EU's budget.

Drilling Down

  • The EEAS discussion paper, seen by RFE/RL, and titled A Proposal For A Dedicated Ukraine Envelope Under The European Peace Facility (Ukraine Defense Fund) notes that European Union leaders have already confirmed "the EU's readiness to provide sustainable military support to Ukraine for as long as it takes."
  • It also states that "having a dedicated envelope for Ukraine under the EPF would allow for continued political unity and financial solidarity," adding that it "would ensure the necessary predictability required in financial planning by member states at [a] national level."
  • The EEAS text also explains the need for supporting Kyiv militarily to the tune of 5 billion euros annually, noting that while the EU will provide an estimated 4 billion euros in 2023, more is needed. According to the paper, that is because there will be "a shift in focus from destocking to procurement, the delivery of more sophisticated military equipment, as well as evolving needs by the EU military training mission for Ukraine, EUMAM."
  • EUMAM, which was set up in the fall of 2022 and largely operates from Poland, has a budget of approximately 100 million euros a year. It has so far trained 25,000 troops, with plans to increase that number, double its budget, and possibly even allow for some training inside Ukraine if conditions allow.
  • Separately but very much related to the issue of military aid, the EEAS also issued another discussion paper on what other security guarantees the bloc can offer. This comes as Ukraine is currently negotiating bilateral security arrangements with the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrialized nations and other Western allies.
  • This paper, also seen by RFE/RL, states that "Ukraine will continue to need [the] EU's long-term commitment and support to secure its free and democratic European future, notably in a scenario where Russia is unlikely to abandon its goal to subjugate Ukraine and Ukraine cannot stop defending itself. Ukraine's EU membership would be in itself a security commitment."
  • It also outlines 11 other suggestions of security support for Ukraine, such as the maintenance and repair of donated equipment, enhanced cooperation between the European and Ukrainian defense industries, continuous sharing of intelligence, more demining support, and assistance in bolstering Ukraine's cybersecurity and tools to fight against disinformation.
  • Not all the focus in Toledo will be on Ukraine. The recent military coup in Niger is likely to take up a significant amount of the ministers' conversation. The issue is complicated as the Economic Community of West African States, which is a partner of the EU, has indicated that it is pondering a military intervention in Niger, something it has never done before. There are, however, divisions among the various West African states. What is clear from conversations with EU officials is that they fear a widening of the conflict and, as a result, a new wave of refugees coming to Europe.
  • The issue of the Russian mercenary group Wagner's presence in Niger will also be debated by EU foreign ministers. It's not clear how the death of its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin in an August 23 plane crash will affect the group; the current EU line is that there is no conclusive evidence that Wagner fighters are active in Niger. One European diplomat who wasn't authorized to speak on the record told me that images of the local population waving Russian flags indicated that "Moscow, one way or another, is very present there."

A Meeting In Athens Gives Some Clues About The Future Of EU Enlargement

What You Need To Know: Last week, on August 21-22, there was a rather unusual meeting in Athens, which brought together both the European Council President Charles Michel and the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, along with a number of leaders from countries from the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe who are hoping to join the EU.

Also invited to the Greek capital were leaders from countries in the region that are already members of the EU: Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania. The meeting provided some clues as to how the enlargement of the bloc might shape up in the coming years, as well as revealing the fissures that could scupper the whole thing.

This gathering has been a regular event for several years now, usually involving the six EU candidates and potential candidate countries from the Western Balkans: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.

The meeting is a chance for Greece to demonstrate leadership in its neighborhood, where it already plays a critical political and diplomatic role. This year's meeting also marked the 20th anniversary of the historic decision in Thessaloniki, Greece's second city, which for the first time proclaimed that all of the states of the Western Balkans would one day join the EU.

Deep Background: This year, there were also some new attendees: Moldova and Ukraine. That slightly shifted the focus from the usual regional cooperation to discussions about EU enlargement, as both Kyiv and Chisinau are newly minted EU candidate countries and hope to start accession talks by the end of the year. Yet the addition to the group also raised questions, most notably: Why weren't the other EU hopefuls, Turkey and Georgia, also in attendance?

EU diplomats I spoke to on the condition of anonymity as they weren't authorized to speak on the record were quick to point out that Greece extended the invitation to Moldova and Ukraine but also acknowledged that this arrangement was "debatable" and "ad hoc" and that this format wasn't intended to be permanent.

When asked why Turkey and Georgia weren't present, one diplomat explained: "The countries invited appear to be the most advanced on their path [toward EU membership]."

This assertion may seem accurate at first. Georgia is, after all, one step behind Moldova and Ukraine, as it isn't yet an EU candidate country. And Turkey's EU accession talks have been frozen for years due to disagreements between Ankara and the EU on a number of issues.

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Technically, however, Turkey remains further advanced along the path to joining the EU than most other prospective members, having started accession talks back in 2006, which at least nominally places it in the same front-runner category as Montenegro and Serbia.

It's also worth noting that Kosovo, invited for the Athens powwow, is not even recognized as an independent state by the EU.

Drilling Down

  • Something else could be at play here. One of the political themes likely to dominate EU discussions this fall will be "absorption capacity": how the EU could bear the burden and how it could function if it underwent further enlargement.
  • France and Germany have established a joint working group on this issue, which will present its initial thoughts to other member states in September. When the European Political Community, which brings together all European countries apart from Belarus and Russia, convenes in the Spanish city of Granada in early October, "absorption capacity" will certainly be discussed. If there are any political and institutional decisions to be made on this issue, that could happen at the EU summit in Brussels in December.
  • When EU officials discuss "absorption capacity," they often contemplate how an "EU of 35" would function -- adding eight new states to the existing 27. The issue here is that there are in fact 10 countries -- not just eight -- seeking to join the bloc: the six Western Balkan states, Georgia, Moldova, Turkey, and Ukraine. So, which two are not being considered? While diplomats I speak to insist that the term "EU of 35" isn't linked to specific countries, the absences from the Athens meeting might be an indication to the contrary.
  • According to diplomats involved that I spoke to on background, the meeting was deemed a success, as they said it brought Western Balkan countries closer to their Ukrainian and Moldovan counterparts. EU officials I've spoken to previously have said there are lingering fears among the six Western Balkan nations that Kyiv and Chisinau might "jump the queue" and join the EU ahead of them.
  • The summit also resulted in a joint declaration, with all participants pledging to support Ukraine's territorial integrity. Serbian President Alexander Vucic did later boast that he had managed to remove references to Russia sanctions in the document, but several Brussels insiders I spoke to on the condition of anonymity said that the draft texts they had seen never contained any language about sanctions. Vucic was most likely just playing to his domestic audience, many of whom have positive political views of Russia.
  • More significantly, though, was the first face-to-face meeting between Vucic -- who has so far refused to align with EU sanctions on the Kremlin -- and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. While Belgrade won't be exporting arms to Ukraine any time soon, there were pledges of continued humanitarian and medical assistance to the war-torn country.
  • The main news story from the Athens meeting was that Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama wasn't invited. The reason for this was the arrest of Fredi Beleri, a man running for mayor in the southern Albanian town of Himare under the banner of a Greek minority party aligned with an opposition coalition. Beleri was arrested in mid-May on suspicion of vote-buying. Despite winning the mayoral election, he remains in custody, triggering loud protests from Greece and counteraccusations from Tirana of political meddling.
  • There's now a real possibility that Greece will block Albania from officially opening EU accession chapters later this year, showing once again how beholden the bloc's enlargement process is to the whims of national or even local politics.

By RFE/RL

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