Speech by Séamus Boland at the Connecting EU seminar 2022

Connecting EU seminar 2022

'Geopolitical turmoil at Europe's door: the perspective of civil society'

Zagreb, 24-25 November 2022

Speech by Séamus Boland, President of the EESC Civil Society Organisations' Group

Panel I - In the shadow of war: Europe's new geopolitical context and the consequences for the future of the EU

Ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,

With this year coming to an end, one has to reflect upon how much the geopolitical context has changed since Russia's invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. This war has impacted the EU's relations with Russia, China and the US. It has squeezed global access to food and energy and fuelled inflation. It will also inevitably shape future EU reforms and possibly future enlargements. As is stated in the European Commission's work programme for next year: …we must prepare for an age of systemic rivalry in a multipolar world.

In this time of crisis, the EU needs leadership and unity, in both its values and actions. But I am an optimist at heart. And I strongly believe that this war is also an opportunity for the EU to analyse its strategic vulnerabilities and to render the EU more autonomous and resilient. Particularly with regard to our energy dependence.

I recently came across an article of the Economist, dating from September 2020. The author wrote The move to a new energy order is vital, but it will be messy. With the benefit of hindsight, one can ask: how could we have been so naïve in the past? Beyond our gas dependence on Russia, we were naïve in our dependence on China, which produces 72% of the world's solar panels, 69% of lithium-ion batteries and 45% of wind turbines. Some European countries are still structurally dependent on China, resulting in tensions among Member States.

The reality is that throughout human history, access to resources has played a pivotal role in geo-political decisions. And one does not have to be a genius to understand that decarbonisation will entirely redesign the EU's resource market, industrial model and external relations. I sincerely hope that this war will act as a wakeup call to the EU, pushing it become a global leader in transiting towards renewables.

Allow me now to say a few words on the topic of enlargement, which I understand is of particular interest to this panel. There is no doubt that the invasion of Ukraine opened up a pandora's box of internal questioning in the EU. Including whether the EU should enlarge or deepen its European integration? Of course, the question also arose as to whether, as a result of the war, Ukraine should undergo an accelerated procedure towards EU accession?

In June, the EESC adopted its second resolution on Ukraine, where it stated that Ukraine should be granted EU Membership candidate status. However, the resolution also stated that this candidate status must be granted without detriment to the ongoing accession process of the Western Balkans. Similarly, the Committee expressed its favour for a system of gradual integration, based on the fulfilment of the acquis communitaire.

On this point, we have to be consistent. All candidate countries must fulfil the formal accession conditions. The EU is a social market economy with democracy and fundamental rights entrenched at its core. It is imperative to continue with upward economic, social, environmental and political convergence from countries aspiring to join the EU. And in my opinion, the rules for this upward convergence must apply equally to all. Allow me to also refer to what the European Commission Vice-President, Mr Sreckovic said last month at our plenary in Brussels: To maintain the EU's social market economy, we must be within the three top global economies

It is true that recently there have been ideas circulating in Brussels on new forms of partnership, as alternatives to accession in one step. In May, Mr Michel, the President of the European Council, proposed the idea of a more gradual phased-in integration of candidate countries, by sectors. This proposal raises the question of whether a progressive integration of sectors in candidate countries, would help to accelerate reforms towards full accession?

Secondly, we have seen the creation of the 'European geo-political community', which is a direct result of the war in Ukraine. In my opinion, the 'European geo-political community is separate to the enlargement process. It is not about enlargement processes and conditionalities. It is about creating novel structures to deal with a new security reality. It is about political coordination among like-minded democratic countries in the EU vicinity, to discuss topical issues such as defence, energy, infrastructure, food security and the free movement of people. Of course, the EU hopes that in being at the helm of this new structure, it will help the EU to become more assertive and more influential on the wider geopolitical arena.

Ladies and gentlemen, this morning I have expressed my views on the impact of the war in Ukraine on the new European geo-political context and the implications for the EU. I have focussed on the topics of energy, enlargement and the new 'European geo-political community'. But before bringing my presentation to a close, I would like to state that politics and policies must be firmly rooted in society. They must reflect our societal values and be designed, implemented and monitored by civil society organisations working hand-in-hand with communities. 'Democracy' without the 'demos' has no place in the Europe! Thank you for your attention and I wish you a successful conference.


Speech by Séamus Boland, Connecting EU seminar 2022