Sebastian Schäffer: The EU reform is a collective necessity

An Austrian expert perspective on Schengen accession for Bulgaria and Romania, the EU future of Western Balkans and Ukraine, the importance of the Three Seas Initiative and mini lateral diplomatic formats, the EU reform, the expected rise of sovereignism at the EU elections and the changes it would bring to the EU

Sebastian Schäffer is Director of the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe (IDM) in Vienna and Secretary General of the Danube Rectors’ Conference (DRC). He is a member of the Academic Council of the Munich European Forum and a member of the Advisory Board of Discussing World Politics.

Sebastian Schäffer holds an honours master’s degree in Eastern European Studies (major: law, minor: history) from the University of Regensburg and an M.A. from LMU Munich, where he studied political science, European law and Slavic studies.

His areas of expertise include EU-Russia relations, the European Neighbourhood Policy, the successor states of the former Yugoslavia and EU integration, as well as the EU Strategy for the Danube Region.

Sebastian Schäffer gave Vladimir Mitev a wide-ranging interview on EU affairs, international politics in Southeastern and Eastern Europe and reform. Schäffer spoke in favour of EU integration and further enlargement. He presented his proposals for the reform of the EU institutions. He also discussed the geopolitical dynamics of Ukraine and its path to EU accession, the future of the Western Balkans in the EU, support for the weakening of borders within the EU, etc. Schäffer had critical comments, but also discussed the positive sides of the new EU migrant pact. He didn’t rule out the possibility of the European People’s Party forming a coalition with some of the growing conservative and populist forces in the EU in the future. And he shared his views on what the rise of the so-called sovereignists could mean for Europe. Schäffer was also critical of the understanding that border controls within the EU should be tightened, when asked specifically about the agreement between Austria, Romania and Bulgaria that allowed the two south-eastern European countries to join the Schengen area.

Mr Schaffer, we are speaking in Ruse on the Bulgarian-Romanian border. You’re an Austrian expert from the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe. Austria signed an important agreement with Bulgaria and Romania at the end of 2023, which allowed the countries to join the Schengen area. But it also had some other clauses – not only that they wouldn’t join via the land borders, which is where most of their trade with the Schengen area is, but also that border controls on the Bulgarian-Romanian border would be strengthened. How long will this agreement last? Isn’t it something of an anomaly to strengthen European borders, given that the EU’s philosophy is generally to weaken borders?

Well, first of all, thank you very much for meeting me. It’s a pleasure to be here with you in Ruse and to talk to you. You ask a very good question. 

I think my position on Schengen is well known. The way the joining to Schengen took place is something that I think is a dangerous development. If we think about other European achievements like free movement of goods, free movement of people and so on, and we apply the logic that was applied to Romania and Bulgaria when it comes to Schengen, we could assume that in the future, for example, we might also limit travel for certain people. We will limit access to the market for certain professions. There are discussions about farmers. Perhaps in the future, with future exceptions, we would limit access to the single market, for farmers, because we have a precedent here with Schengen, that we have a situation where both countries, Romania and Bulgaria, meet the criteria that have been set for over a decade. And then, for some reason, they are denied full access. That can set a very dangerous precedent for the future. 

Apart from that, I believe, as you said, that the overall goal of European integration is to remove borders. At the moment we are only moving them. But this is not just for Bulgaria and Romania. It’s something that applies to the whole continent. So as long as we have a situation where more or less every country that joins the European Union has an agreement that includes them in Schengen, we are ultimately just moving the borders, and in that case, yes, what is happening now is counterintuitive to the ultimate goal of European integration.

We have seen that there is this proposal to abolish border controls between Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, which in a way contradicts what Bulgaria and Romania have agreed with Austria. So I would like to ask you about this issue. Are there conflicting visions for the future of our region? And how would you describe the content of these visions?

Well, I think there are definitely different visions. And that is not necessarily a bad thing, because the essence of democracy is to find compromises, to discuss different ideas and then to find a solution. So, first of all, it’s a good thing to have different ideas about a challenge, I would say. You’re referring to the mini-Schengen ideas. They have also been put forward for the Western Balkans, for example. And again, this idea of a mini-Schengen is not a bad thing, because it contributes as a step that will hopefully lead to the next step, which would be full integration into Schengen.

But again, there is a danger that I see when we have partial solutions. There will be potential developments in European integration where it’s not even a Europe of different speeds, but a Europe of different circles, different clubs. So we could potentially develop in a direction that drives us further apart rather than uniting us. And Schengen is about uniting, connecting people, removing border controls, allowing trade, exchange and so on.

Austria has taken a particularly hard line on migration. Recently, the EU adopted a pact on migration. You may not be an expert on migration, but I’m sure you have some position on the philosophy or principles of this pact, which has been criticised for putting the emphasis on economic migration and limiting the grounds for human rights protection of migrants or asylum. And it also introduces a kind of trade, if I may say, with migrants, since countries that don’t want migrants can pay to others that accept them. What’s your position on the migrant pact and the general tendencies in the EU’s policy towards migrants?

Yes. Well, as you rightly said, I’m not an expert on migration, but, yes, I have a certain opinion. Again, we have at least made some progress. So in principle this is a good thing, I would say, because we have been arguing for so long about how to deal with this challenge at European level.  I am very happy that we have achieved something. 

But of course I also see, on the one hand, the potential undermining of the principles of humanitarian aid and the right to asylum and so on. On the other hand, what you said almost sounds like permission to pay to make your sins go away. It is a kind of Ablaßhande, as we call it in German. When you commit a sin and then you donate to the church, you are absolved of your sins. You could look at it that way. 

But ultimately I would put it in a more positive light, because if countries are not willing or able to take in migrants, at least there is a kind of burden sharing. And I think that is an important factor. This is something that we should emphasise much more at the European level, because the whole idea is to share the burden in order to support weaker partners. And if someone is overburdened with something, the others will contribute to alleviate the situation. Therefore, if you pay to be less receptive to migrants, others can use that money and will use that money to make integration and integration possible. Why shouldn’t it be done?

As an expert, you are very interested in EU reform. What specific changes do you advocate or analyse? 

Well, I’ve talked a lot about the need to introduce qualified majority voting in basically every area, especially now in the Common Foreign and Security Policy, but even more so in the area of enlargement. If we look at the current enlargement process, there are almost 80 possible vetoes in this process, from declaring a country a candidate, to opening negotiations, to opening chapters, to provisionally closing chapters, to closing negotiations, and so on. 

I should also mention that Bulgaria, for example, has used this veto with regard to North Macedonia. But other member states did it before Greece, again with regard to North Macedonia, but there was also a French reluctance to the enlargement process. In the past, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Denmark – many countries – have used the veto. And when it comes to sanctions, for example, we have seen how this is basically even used as a mechanism to blackmail or extort something, on the part of Hungary, when it comes to sanctions against Russia. 

With all due respect to national sovereignty, if you use your national sovereignty to stop progress at the European level, that has to be abolished. So one of the key things would be to introduce more qualified majority voting. You don’t necessarily need a treaty reform for that. You could do it, but you need unanimity at least once. 

The second is that we need wider institutional reform. The European Parliament is the only democratically elected parliament where its members cannot initiate legislation. We need a reform so that the Parliament can initiate legislation. And I’m also in favour of having the Council of the European Union not as a second chamber, but as a Council of the European Regions. I think we need a reflection of the European regions that are represented in the legislative process and not just as a consultative body, which is what the Council of the Regions is at the moment. 

The third point is something we’ve been working on recently with my colleague from the University of Osnabrück, Ulrich Schnekener. This is what we call the Greater European Council. This would be a kind of upgrade of the proposed European political community. It would be aimed precisely at the countries that want to become members, the countries that have been members and the countries that do not want to join. It would bring them together, get them around the table in a pre-European Council format and discuss the common challenges – security, climate change, transport, science and knowledge transfer, technological opportunities and other challenges. When you are approaching membership of the European Union, at a certain point you just stay at the table when the actual European Council meets. 

So on the one hand you would bring more countries together, discuss in a broader format through that format. You would also perhaps show the possibilities of further integration, and you would also smooth the process from being a candidate country to becoming an actual member. And so to speak, bridge the time gap between now and when you will join the European Union, while at the same time giving countries that do not want to join because they want to stay out. That’s legitimate. You don’t have to join. Nobody forces you to join the European Union. You can stay out but still meet in, in a format, discuss and work together.

You mentioned that countries that perhaps see themselves as weaker or less influential in the European Union are opposed to losing their veto. How do you address their concerns? And how would this policy of reform convince them to give up their veto, which they might see as a sign of their subjectivity?

Yes. Well, I would say that there is always a possibility to find some kind of minority regulation, if you find a certain number of smaller countries, for example, that are opposed to a decision because they are afraid that within the qualified majority or the double majority, they will not be able to make a decision. You have to have a majority of member states, but also a majority of the population, which in itself is a certain guarantee that they will not be outvoted. But you could introduce even stronger minority clauses, which would help to allay these fears. The point will be to convince countries that they would not be able to scrutinise on their own.

I don’t have a good approach to this, because I see that national sovereignty is unfortunately still a very delicate and important issue for countries, which is not necessarily linked to a political spectrum in itself. But I think that in situations where we have to take decisions and make progress in the face of the great challenges of our time, at some point countries should understand that we are better off together. And if you look at the decisions taken in the Council of the European Union, the vast majority are taken unanimously anyway, even when a qualified majority would suffice. So I think that should be the persuasive approach, although I’m sure there will be others who will still oppose it because it takes away their leverage.

We are speaking in the week that Macedonians voted in the first round of their presidential election. And there is a general feeling that perhaps North Macedonia, or perhaps other countries, are relying too much on sovereignist tendencies in their political spectrum. How does Austria view this difficulty of integrating the Western Balkans, the high level of conflict between different countries there and the tendency among them perhaps not to synchronise but to go their own way?

I think there is a broad understanding within the Austrian government that the future of the Western Balkans should be in the European Union. That is why the Foreign Ministry is advocating this gradual approach to accession, which would mean that if you make a certain amount of progress, you would get additional benefits – you would get access to the overall EU budget, you would get access to the cohesion funds, you would have the possibility, maybe not to vote immediately, but to participate in the negotiations of the Council and things like that. I think that’s a good sign – that there’s progress in that regard, because if you look at it, we promised in 2003 at the Thessaloniki Summit that the future of the Western Balkans would be in the EU if they met the criteria. It’s a promise that you can now legally drink alcohol in the United States because you’re 21. In this case, I think we really have to deliver on what I see as a challenge here: that we have new candidate countries – Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. And if the situation arises that they are moving faster than the Western Balkans, that could further alienate that region. 

There is a broad understanding, I think also among the majority of Austrian politicians, that the Western Balkans are extremely important for Austria, also from an economic point of view. But there’s also an understanding that we are surrounding the Western Balkans. We treat the region as our backyard, but it’s actually our inner courtyard, because it’s in the centre. And Austria is a direct neighbour. I think we have to come back to the point where we understand that not every round of enlargement has been economically beneficial to the same extent, but there is not a single case of EU enlargement where the old EU member states have not benefited economically.

We must also remember that the majority of enlargement rounds have not been for economic reasons, but for democratic stability. 1981 – Greece. 1986 – Spain and Portugal. 1990 – German reunification. 2004 – the big Central and Eastern European enlargement. 2007 – Bulgaria and Romania. And the latest – in 2013 – Croatia. We should return to this understanding and emphasise not the challenges but the potential of enlargement.

When you talk about enlargement, you are very close to what is happening in Ukraine. There is general agreement that Ukraine should be helped to move closer to the European Union. But there are also concerns, perhaps about Donald Trump returning to the White House. How do you see the future of Ukraine’s European accession in this dynamic international context, where attitudes towards the war in Ukraine could potentially change?

Well, this is of course a huge issue. 

I have just come back from Uzhgorod and Lviv. I was there last week, and unlike a year ago when I was in Kyiv, I feel that the whole situation is taking a much greater toll on the Ukrainian population now as the war drags on. It is wearing these people down. It’s unbelievable the conditions in which they have to live under the constant threat of being bombed with rockets, with drones and so on. It creates an environment that is very precarious for these people. It also takes a mental toll, I see.

I’m mentioning this, because we would have the opportunity to protect them if we were to provide more anti-aircraft weapons, but also give them the opportunity to defend themselves on the front lines. That, of course, depends very much on the support of the United States. Now, we have this aid package signed by President Biden, I think a couple of days ago. And that’s going to come, but it could also be an opportunity, as you mentioned, if Trump comes back, maybe there won’t be another aid package. And what would that mean? 

Also, with regard to Ukraine’s European integration, simply put, there’s Article 42.7 in the Lisbon Treaty, which says that if an EU member country is attacked, other EU member countries will use all means at their disposal to defend that country. We cannot guarantee that as a European Union without NATO and without the United States. So if a Trump administration withdraws support for NATO, we will not be able to fulfil the enlargement for Ukraine because we will not be able to uphold Article 42.7. In my analysis, of course, the overall challenge itself will be that if we are not able to equip Ukraine to defend itself, there is a real danger that there will be no Ukraine. And then, of course, there can be no European integration of Ukraine if the mafia regime in Moscow completely occupies Ukraine.

To sum up, I think it’s in our vital interest that, on the one hand, we build up our defence capabilities, not to replace the US, because that’s impossible, but to be a bit more autonomous in this respect. And the second thing is that we also preserve the possibility for the Ukrainians to choose their own future and not to be subjected to a foreign aggressor who wants to wipe out a whole country. It’s not the 19th or 20th century anymore. I thought we had overcome these imperialist tendencies in Europe.

There have been discussions that even if the security of Ukraine can be guaranteed and it becomes a member of the European Union, it would also mean a huge change in the balance of the European Union, economically and politically, with the shift of political power to the east. And on the other hand, a lot of money that is now going to the countries in the eastern part of Europe could be redirected to Ukraine because of its size. How does Austria see these things? Because Austria has the capacity to be seen as Western, but it also has strong ties to the East. So what is the Austrian interest in this?

Well, I don’t think there is one Austrian view. I think there are many different views, but I can give you mine. If you remember, maybe back in 2004, before the big bang enlargement, there was this fear of the Polish plumber coming from France, that if they got access to the single market, all the Polish plumbers would come and then put the French out of business. I don’t know if you’ve needed a plumber recently, but in Austria and Germany it’s quite difficult to get an appointment. So I don’t think the Polish plumbers have put the local plumbers out of business. What I’m trying to say is that I have a bit of a feeling that with each round of enlargement there are fears that arise and we need to address those fears.

We have to talk about them, but the Ukrainian grain is perhaps the Polish plumber of 2024 and I think we have to put things into perspective if we were to give access to the nine candidate countries without Turkey. Turkey, for various reasons, is not a potential member of the European Union at the moment. But if we take these nine countries – six in the Western Balkans and Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia. The total population of these nine countries is 67 million. The United Kingdom also has a population of about 67 million. \What I’m saying is that we’ve already had a European Union with such a population. Of course, these are nine countries instead of one. That’s why I say we need a reform of the decision-making process so that we have more qualified majority voting, because that would ease the situation. Because if we have nine more potential vetoing countries, it makes it more or less impossible. 

And thirdly, you cannot compare the economies of these nine countries with the UK. But I’ve said it before – economically we’ve always benefited from enlargement, from access to new markets. And if you look at the figures, for example, Germany pays twice as much into the EU budget as France. But at the same time, according to a 2018 study by an Austrian economic research institute, Germany benefits twice as much from the integration of the single market than France. So when we do a calculation of net beneficiaries and net contributors, we see that it’s wrongly calculated because it’s not the net that we calculate. If the net were what we calculate, okay, we pay this much into the budget, but we also benefit from other things: single market integration, but also exchange, technology transfer, etc., etc. This calculation is wrong because we probably only look at the money we put in. But it’s clear that not everyone can get more out of something you’ve put money into together. So ultimately we should look at it much more not as something you pay into, but as something that is perhaps a membership fee. You get access to the single market, and you get that access by paying into the EU budget, into the common budget, because you get additional benefits from it. Of course we have to reform the common agricultural policy, for example. But, well, maybe we should even reform the Common Agricultural Policy, whether Ukraine joins or not, because this is a sector that has been heavily subsidised for seven decades. And maybe it’s time to rethink how we structure certain areas, for example. Why not do that to enable the European Union to enlarge?

To continue with the question of the Eastern part of Europe and its geopolitics. Recently, the Three Seas Initiative took place in Vilnius. The Three Seas Initiative is generally seen as an initiative that promotes a kind of self-determination for the eastern part of the European Union. What is Austria’s position on this desire of some countries in our region for more economic integration, but also perhaps more regional cooperation and perhaps self-determination?

Austria is part of the Three Seas Initiative. So I think overall it’s seen as a benefit. I also think that there is not much resistance to more regional integration because Austria traditionally sees itself as this bridge between East and West. I think they feel very comfortable in that, in that position. And if there is more integration in the eastern part, I think that will also be beneficial for Austria.

 I think it’s also necessary that we not only physically move more institutions towards the centre, because it’s very westerly at the moment anyway, but also in our minds move further towards the centre of the continent and see it more as Central Europe, rather than still talking about Western and Eastern Europe. With regard to the countries that are involved in the Three Seas Initiative, for example, I have to say that I am quite sceptical about the new mini-lateral formats that are emerging all the time. We’ve seen a proliferation in recent years. There have been these formats that started in the 1990s, the Weimar Triangle, the Visegrad Four and so on. But more recently we’ve seen Slavko, Central European Five, there’s the Three Seas Initiative, and there’s a lot of these mini-lateral formats coming out. And I don’t see the same increase in output. And so I would say that coordinating in a smaller format may be beneficial for decision making on a European level, but we should use the format that is already existing, which is the European Union and make more of its benefits there.

Let’s end this interview with a look at the upcoming European elections and again the question of the dynamic balance within the EU. We expect a significant rise of sovereignist forces in the European Parliament and in national politics. What would this rise of sovereignism change within the EU?

Well, there will certainly be an increase in, I would say, Eurosceptic and right-wing parties, which doesn’t look optimistic at the moment, if you look at the sheer numbers. These forces will probably not have a majority, but they will grow significantly, and we will have to wait and see how the parties in the different European groups will end up. At the moment I’m seeing a lot of movement between the ECR and the Identity and Democracy group in the European Parliament. It’ll be interesting to see who joins where and how much they can actually achieve. And that will of course change the balance of power if the third largest group comes from conservative eurosceptic to right-wing, post-fascist parties, which is a real possibility.

What we’ve already seen in the last European elections is that the majority between the European People’s Party and the Social Democrats is no longer there. There is a need for a third party to create a majority in the parliament. In this period it has been Renew, which will lose significant seats. And it’s going to be interesting to see how majorities are going to be found in the European Parliament, especially when it comes to procedural positions, up to the President of the European Parliament, for example, and how things like that will turn out. 

I’m afraid that there is a possibility that the agenda could be much more shaped by these Eurosceptic parties, which would of course not bring more European integration, but rather more Europe of the nations or more fatherland, and that’s why I still hope that there will be a strong signal for a more integrationist positive European development in the next parliament. But unfortunately the opinion polls don’t give me much hope for that.

To what extent is it realistic or likely that the European People’s Party will enter into some form of cooperation with this sovereignist tendency that you have described under different labels?

I think it really depends on what the final result will be and how the majorities will have to be formed. And of course there is also a kind of negotiated agreement. Then afterwards, who will be the President of the European Commission. Because there is no formal coalition agreement within the European Parliament. There will always be a situation where you have to find certain allies for certain policies that you want to implement. And that’s where I see that, of course, there will be much more cooperation, perhaps between the EPP and the ECR, because they share certain ideas, than there will be cooperation, for example, with the social democratic bloc, the S&D bloc.  

It’ll be interesting to see how Renew positions itself in this game, so to speak. And if there is a possibility of creating a parliamentary majority, because then certain areas would shift. For example, I could see a significant dilution of the European Green Deal, because I think there would be a sharing of policy areas between these three groups. But maybe they will also come from other areas, really depending on how many people, from certain parties, will achieve an electoral victory and become a member of the European Parliament.

Photo: Sebastian Schäffer (source: Facebook)

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