[Translate to English:] Daniela Schwarzer, Vorständin der Bertelsmann Stiftung

Daniela Schwarzer on the future of the European Union: Enlargement, reform, and challenges ahead

In an interview with the Athens News Agency, our Executive Board member, Daniela Schwarzer, talks about the geopolitical necessity of EU enlargement, the need for institutional reform and the rise of far-right parties across Europe. She describes the pressing challenges facing the European Union and outlines possible perspectives for its future direction.

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Foto Jochen Arntz
Jochen Arntz
Vice President Media Relations


The EU’s enlargement process has been the constant talk of the town since the European Commission delivered its annual Enlargement Package. What’s your take on the next steps of the process?

The Commission's 2023 Enlargement Package laid the groundwork for the European Council's historic decision in December, which provided for the opening of accession talks with Ukraine, Moldova and Bosnia-Herzegovina and granted Georgia candidate status. In light of Russia’s war on Ukraine, enlargement has been rediscovered as the foremost instrument for stabilizing the EU's neighbourhood.

However, the EU is presently not ready to welcome new members. Its institutional infrastructure and decision-making mechanisms were not originally crafted to accommodate such a large number of Member States. What is more, some EU members are openly challenging fundamental principles such as the rule of law, the supremacy of EU law, and the common values enshrined in the Treaties.

Therefore, as a next step, the EU needs to work on itself to improve its functioning, while bolstering its legitimacy and vigorously defending its core principles, most notably the rule of law.

Simultaneously, the EU needs to restore trust in the accession process itself, which has been characterized by a lack of commitment and progress in recent years. As an important signal to applicants, especially those who have been waiting for progress for a decade, the new EU political leadership after the June 2024 European elections should set the goal to be ready for enlargement by 2030, allowing accession candidates to focus on meeting the criteria by this earliest possible entry date. Finally, to be able to welcome new members, some of the EU’s main policies as well as its budget need to be fundamentally revised.

Can a much bigger European Union function effectively? How should European institutions and budgets adapt to such a prospect?

A larger EU can function effectively, but it requires reforms of the EU's institutions, decision-making processes, and budget before the EU grows significantly. The current institutional framework already faces considerable challenges in accommodating the current 27 Member States, so adding up to nine more members can only happen if the EU's capacity to act is improved. Enlargement is currently driven by geopolitical challenges.

The EU’s neighbourhood is getting more conflictual and competitive – and this drives Member States’ support for enlargement. But if the EU’s surroundings are more volatile, and nearby countries seek to win stability, wealth and protection by joining the EU, then it follows that enlargement only makes sense if it makes the EU stronger. So, a situation where the EU becomes more dysfunctional because it has grown too big without adapting its workings should by all means be avoided. This is why enhancing the capacity to act and enlarging the EU must go hand in hand.

It is thus crucial to prepare the EU institutions for enlargement, especially the European Parliament and the Commission. Maintaining the current number of 751 MEPs and redistributing seats, rather than growing the Parliament by adding more seats for MEPs from candidate countries, would be beneficial. Similarly, the European Commission should be reorganised. A hierarchical structure within the Commission could be introduced, with "Lead Commissioners" alongside regular "Commissioners" who could switch roles midway through the institutional cycle.

Secondly, to maintain the EU’s capacity to act with up to 36 Member States, all areas still requiring unanimity should shift to qualified majority voting before the next enlargement. With each new enlargement, unanimity becomes harder to achieve, risking paralysis. Only constitutional decisions, like Treaty amendments or admitting new members, should need unanimity. To avoid a dominance of larger Member States, which can more easily organize blocking minorities, the distribution of voting rights should also be revised. The current system of 55 percent of Member States representing 65 percent of the population could be changed to 60 percent of Member States representing 60 percent of the population.

Finally, the EU budget needs substantial growth both in absolute terms and relative to GDP. Enlargement prospects, Ukraine’s reconstruction, and the 600 billion euros annually for emission reduction all highlight the urgent need for expanding the budget, not to mention the fact that debt repayment from the NextGenerationEU program starts in 2027. Additionally, the budget should be tied to the 5-year institutional cycle. Currently fixed for seven years, this change allows for better alignment with the political agenda and greater spending flexibility.

Will key national interests be overridden for the benefit of collective decision-making?

It is crucial to strike a balance between increasing the EU’s capacity to act and safeguarding certain legitimate national interests. Policy areas still decided unanimously today often touch upon critical aspects of national sovereignty, including foreign policy, defence or the EU budget. So, in order to make the generalisation of qualified majority voting more acceptable to Member States, a "sovereignty safety net" should be introduced. In this way, an EU Member State could ensure that a decision taken by qualified majority that jeopardizes its vital national interests is referred to the European Council in order to reach a consensus at the highest political level.

Furthermore, EU members should have the choice to abstain from participating in policy domains newly transferred to qualified majority voting. To prevent fragmentation, these exceptions should apply to entire policy areas and not individual measures.

On the rise of the far-right in Europe

In 2024, the right-wing surge in the polls seems bigger, with one predicting the nationalist right and far right could pick up nearly a quarter of seats in the European Parliament in June. Do you share these estimates? And If yes what would this mean for the European Union as a whole?

Indeed, current polls show that the two far-right groups, "Identity and Democracy" (ID) and "European Conservatives and Reformists" (ECR), could collectively secure a quarter of the 751 seats in parliament. The far-right ID might potentially surpass the liberal "Renew" group as the third-largest force in parliament.

This would significantly change the dynamics in the European Parliament, with far-reaching consequences for key EU domains such as climate policy and sustainability or migration and asylum policies. The European Green Deal, the flagship initiative of the von der Leyen Commission aimed at achieving climate neutrality in the EU by 2050, is likely to face substantial setbacks in this scenario.

More generally, the projected rise of anti-European parties will also impact the defence of democracy and the rule of law within the EU: mobilizing the requisite majorities among Member States, as well as within Parliament, to penalize breaches of fundamental European values will become considerably more challenging. The political will to use the existing instruments to uphold the rule of law against adversaries within the EU is likely to dwindle as right-wing nationalist forces gain strength in Parliament and the European Council.

On European elections

What would you say to a European young voter that will go to the polls for the first time? Why should he/she go cast a ballot?

I would say: Your vote is crucial. The EP elections offer you a direct say in shaping the political direction of the EU. Your voice, combined with millions of others, can shape policies on critical issues affecting your future, including climate change, education, employment or social justice.

In recent years, we saw that the youth vote has made a noticeable difference in election outcomes globally. During the 2019 European election, there was a significant increase in voter turnout, exceeding 50 percent, primarily due to increased engagement from young people. Poland also witnessed an exceptional surge in young voter participation in the fall of 2023, with nearly 22 percent more young people casting ballots compared to four years prior. Their votes proved decisive to oust an authoritarian-leaning, far right government and bring in a coalition ready to re-establish rule of law and liberal democracy.

Also in the United States, youth voter turnout surged, hitting its highest levels in three decades during the 2018 and 2022 midterm elections. Moreover, over 50 percent of American youth participated in the 2020 elections.

It is important that young people vote for their own future and help put those issues on the agenda, that will have a long-term impact during their lifetime. Youth protests led by “Friday for Future” and the young vote in the 2019 European elections significantly helped to make the EU and its Member States more ambitious with regards to climate goals and green transition.

On Ukraine

We are over 740 days of war in Ukraine and for the moment there doesn’t seem to be an end anytime soon. Are we heading towards a frozen conflict and what would be the consequences in such a case?

After initial successes in pushing back the Russian army in 2022, Ukraine has lately suffered setbacks on the battlefield. With the loss of Avdiivka in February, and due to critical shortages of ammunition and infantry, and uncertainty about US military aid, the idea that the conflict could be, if not resolved, then perhaps be frozen, gains traction.

However, the experience in the Donbass region shows that a frozen conflict with Russia is only a prelude to further attacks, justifying the genuine concerns of Moldova and front-line NATO allies, especially the Baltics, about their vulnerability should Russia succeed in Ukraine. The Donbass lesson is clear: the advantage of freezing conflicts always lies with the side that prefers prolonged instability, unclear borders and is prepared to violently disrupt the provisional order if it serves its interests.

A ceasefire and genuine peace negotiations are unfortunately only to be expected after a hard and long war of attrition. The extremely brutal actions of Putin, and also the fact that Russia itself has recorded such high losses in its troops and military material, suggest that Putin is not interested in peace and a ceasefire. While we rightly continue to ask how this brutal war can be ended, at the same time, it seems the Russian president, keen on solidifying Russia's position of power on the global stage, is sticking more and more doggedly to his fight.

On Israel-Hamas

The hopes for a ceasefire seems to fade away. Meanwhile the voices suggesting that Israel risks losing additional international support as its offensive in Gaza drags on are on the rise (US President Biden was among those suggesting that in a TV show last week). What’s your take on the situation in the field?

Given the dramatic humanitarian crisis in Gaza, such a ceasefire is urgently needed. The proposed truce would facilitate the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid and may involve the release of some of the estimated 130 Israeli hostages kidnapped during the brutal Hamas attack on Israel more than four months ago.

Currently, Qatar, Egypt and the United States seem to have the greatest influence on Hamas and the Israeli government respectively. On the part of the US, the last weeks showed the Biden administration getting more vocal about the critical humanitarian situation affecting the civilian population in Gaza. Vice President Harris recently called for an “immediate ceasefire” and President Biden himself publicly cautioned that Israeli leaders' planned offensive into the densely populated area surrounding the city of Rafah, the last stronghold of Hamas, would breach a "red line."

While less publicly visible, it is likely that Qatari and Egyptian mediators are similarly increasing pressure on Hamas. Despite the passing of the Ramadan deadline, an opportunity remains for reaching a deal as communication channels seem to remain open and mediators continue their work.