PRAGUE, Czech Republic: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Monday pledged emphatic backing for Ukraine and other hopefuls to join the European Union, underlining however that enlarging the bloc to “30 or 36” would require reforms. In a speech laying out his vision for the EU during a visit to the Czech Republic, Scholz said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine requires a “European answer to this watershed”. The bloc needs to reduce its “one-sided dependencies”, be it on the economic, energy or defence fronts, he urged, calling for a “geopolitical, sovereign and enlarged EU”.
The German leader also underlined that he was “committed to” having the six nations of the western Balkans, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine accede to the bloc. “Their EU accession is in our interest,” said Scholz. But as the bloc widened, each member’s veto right would have to go, he said, with a transition to a “majority voting” system so as not to slow EU decision-making down.
The Ukraine war is already putting the system of unanimity to the test, at a time when swift action is all the more necessary, Scholz said. “Let’s seek compromises together,” he added, suggesting that majority voting could be applied to sanctions policy for a start. Member states are also not faced with only two options of voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but can adopt “constructive abstention”, he said.
The EU agreed candidacy status for Ukraine and Moldova in June, while Albania and North Macedonia in July joined Balkan neighbours Serbia and Montenegro in formal negotiations for membership with Brussels. But the road to accession was expected to be long, and in the meantime, Scholz said the European hopefuls should be included in a new political forum, as suggested by French President Emmanuel Macron “to discuss key issues that affect our continent as a whole”.
The grouping would not however take the place of EU accession, said Scholz, stressing that promises to candidates “must be followed by deeds”. The German leader also cracked open the door of Europe’s borderless Schengen group to Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria, saying he will “work to see them become full members”-something welcomed immediately by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.
Scholz noted that the Ukraine war had also exposed the “uncoordinated shrinkage of European armed forces and defence budgets” over the last years, which had to be rectified with “coordinated growth”. This meant greater cooperation between European businesses on armaments projects, joint manufacturing and procurement, he said.
Germany, he said, will be ramping up “very significantly” on its air defence system, and will design it in a way that it could also be a shield for European neighbours from the Baltics to Scandinavia. Scholz did not give details about the system but in March revealed plans to purchase an Israeli anti-missile shield system that could also offer protective cover for neighbouring EU states.
Berlin is meanwhile already coordinating with the Netherlands on a “division of labour” on arming Ukraine, said the German chancellor, as he urged other allies to join in the coordination. “I can, for example, imagine that Germany will assume special responsibility in terms of building up Ukraine’s artillery and air defence capacities,” he said, vowing support for Kyiv for “as long as it takes”.
Beyond defence, Scholz also eyed shedding “one-sided” reliance on energy imports but also that of other vital supplies like lithium or cobalt, for which demand from high-tech industries has boomed. While the EU should not seek to shut others out, it should work towards greater internal coordination, be it on energy supplies or simply vehicle charging points.
It should also hold fast to its founding principles for human rights and rule of law, he said. In reference to ongoing legal rows between the EU and Poland or Hungary over a slew of issues, Scholz said that in these countries, too, most people “want the EU to do more to stand up for freedom and democracy”.
For Scholz, the EU commission could be given a “new way to launch infringement proceedings” on issues that breach core values of freedom, democracy or human rights. “Especially at this time, with autocracy challenging our democracies, it is more important than ever,” he said. – AFP