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The European Union should help countries stand up to Vladimir Putin by sending a clear message about their prospects for joining the EU, French Europe Minister Laurence Boone told POLITICO.
The EU is preparing for a potential wave of expansion that could bring as many as eight new members, including Ukraine and six Balkan countries, into the fold in the years to come.
Several of these countries are prime targets for Russian influence campaigns that aim to weaken support for the EU and keep them out of the bloc — which is why the EU needs to be “clear and balanced” about what’s required for them to join, Boone said.
“There is a lot of disinformation and interference in these [candidate] countries. It’s an issue,” she told POLITICO on the phone from Paris. “Vladimir Putin, in addition to his territorial ambitions, also aims to weaken the European Union. That’s a factor we need to take into account and fight against.”
She added that the EU needs to “help these countries to fight against the [Russian] influence strategy as much as possible, while respecting their sovereignty.”
Boone’s comments come a week before European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gives her annual State of the European Union speech, in which she is expected to provide details on pace and method for the EU’s planned expansion.
But candidate countries along with new EU joiners warn that leaving countries in the EU’s “waiting room” without a clear path to accession will indeed sow division and provide an entry path for Putin.
A senior EU diplomat who asked not to be named in order to freely discuss enlargement said that ever since the pro-EU Maidan protests in Ukraine, Putin has seen EU candidate status as a “flashing red” target for his attempts to undermine Brussels and the West. Moldova, a tiny country sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania, has faced particularly determined efforts by Moscow to subvert its bid to join the EU.
Any excessive delay or second-tier status along the way to full EU accession would embolden Putin to try to influence such countries, said the diplomat, who also criticized French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for multi-speed EU accession in which countries would be granted partial benefits before gaining full membership.
“By opening a second tier, we are inviting Putin to pressure these countries,” the diplomat said.
Asked about such critiques, Boone said that Macron wanted to allow candidate countries a chance to define their relationship with the EU — as some have done by not accepting the euro, or not joining the Schengen free travel zone — rather than restricting their choices.
“If three countries wanted to formulate a common foreign policy, do you think the 24 others would feel excluded? It’s less about the idea of having second-tier citizens and more about satisfying different needs without limiting the ambition to do more and converge further,” said Boone.
With von der Leyen preparing her September 13 speech and the Commission readying reports on candidate countries’ progress later in the year, lobbying around EU accession is in full swing. EU permanent representatives had lunch with von der Leyen last Friday, with enlargement and internal reform both being discussed, a diplomat said.
“The most important thing is to send a steady message on these countries’ place in the EU,” said Boone. “We need to focus on the substance.”
“We are looking at a progressive dynamic where there is not the usual fatigue and we can still do reforms,” she added, referring to keeping momentum in the process.