Suddenly, enlargement of the EU is again an issue. And then it’s not just about candidate Ukraine.
With all the crises, hard-hitting conflicts and internal divisions that have plagued the EU over the past 15 years, one topic was hardly discussed: enlargement.
Even before the last accession, that of Croatia in 2013, the topic faded into the background. Certainly: it was still occasionally on the agenda, especially by member states in the East. Government leaders spend a round table discussion on it once a year, especially with a view to the Western Balkans. But never in recent years has the topic become really politically sensitive.
This was after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In addition to all the other fundamental questions facing the EU in the wake of the invasion, enlargement is suddenly back in the spotlight.
And that discussion goes beyond the question of whether Ukraine should or should not become a candidate and exactly what conditions must be met. On Friday, the European Commission gave an impetus to this in its opinion to indeed make Ukraine a candidate member. Before any negotiations can begin, the country must still meet a good number of conditions, according to Brussels. For Moldova, that list is even more substantial, while Georgia still has a lot to do before it can even become a candidate. The Commission report will be on the table next week when government leaders discuss whether they can unanimously support the new candidates.
Enlargement also confronts the EU with existential questions about itself. Supporters and opponents are asking themselves: is the EU really ready for a new round of enlargement? If all the new and old candidates (especially countries in the Western Balkans) were to join, it would mean a significant shift to the East. A wave of enlargement, similar to that of 2004 when ten new member states joined at once: Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Romania and Bulgaria followed three years later, followed by Croatia in 2013.
It is still these enlargements and the public sentiment about them in many Western European member states that make politicians wary of new entrants. The rapid growth of the EU and the resulting labour migration also played an important role in the Brexit debate in the United Kingdom. Jean-Claude Juncker, then President-in-office of the European Commission, spoke of “enlargement fatigue” in 2014 and announced that no one would join his term.
Christophe Hillion snorted, thinking of the remark. “As if the EU could afford such fatigue!” Hillion is a professor of European law at the University of Oslo and has published extensively on EU enlargement over the past twenty years. In the current discussion, he sees, with some hope, signs of a new EU commitment. After ignoring the theme for years, the EU is now being overtaken by the facts.
“If you want to be a geopolitical player and survive as an EU, you have to recognize that you have responsibilities,” he said. “So that the Western Balkans do not fall back into violence, or come into the sphere of influence of other great powers. And so that the war in Ukraine does not turn into something even more terrible. Enlargement is one of the EU’s geopolitical instruments.”
It also means that a crucial question will be on the table at next week’s summit. Hillion calls it a “potential new Copenhagen moment”, referring to the EU summit in 1993 where the then member states reached out to Eastern Europe and set out what new EU countries should comply with.
“This is not just about the candidacy for Ukraine: it is a test for the whole EU, and the political project that she wants to be. As a counterbalance to authoritarianism, with members who voluntarily and democratically decide to want to belong to something. If EU countries are unable to commit to it even in wartime, it would be extremely damaging.”
If the EU indeed accepts the geopolitical challenge and works on enlargement, then an “existential moment” will dawn for the Union, says Steven Blockmans, research director at think tank CEPS and professor of EU external relations in Amsterdam. “The EU needs to think about what kind of player it wants to be in relation to its nationals, the member states, the acceding countries and the international partners.”
Blockmans is in favour of expansion. An analysis to which he contributed already judged in recent weeks that Ukraine and Moldova should be eligible for candidate membership, but Georgia not yet. Blockmans acknowledges that expansion is a major intervention.
Ukraine would become the fifth country in the Union in terms of population. This has immediate consequences for the voting system in the European Council and for the composition of Parliament. In addition, the Union will change somewhat in character. “It means a greater weight for Eastern Europe. The war has already put those countries more in the spotlight, and that is affecting the policy of the Union as a whole.”
And then there’s the money. Blockmans: “it is, on average, a poorer country than most member states. There is still more structural funds to go in that direction and countries that are net contributors to the budget will want to think about the conditions for accession.”
If seven or eight other countries qualify for membership with Ukraine in the coming years, then the Union must first kick itself, says Blockmans. “Decisions about one’s own organization, the distribution of money, the borders of the EU, the relationship with the new neighbors, safeguarding the values of the EU: these are all questions that mark the existential moment.”
Treaty changes in the Union are a difficult matter. And even though the European Parliament and a number of important leaders such as Emmanuel Macron and Mario Draghi have called for treaty change, the overall momentum is low, Blockmans estimates.
There are enough ideas about reforms. You could veto it to ease decision-making. It is already possible to limit the Commission. Now each country has one commissioner. The question is whether you will be able to make decisions with 35 people at the table later. The European Parliament, which already has more than seven hundred members, should also be revised.
Hillion stresses that the procedure for enlargement in particular needs to change. In his view, the EU’s engagement with potential newcomers should be much stronger. “We are asking new member states to adopt the full EU rulebook, but we are not preparing them at all for what it means to ultimately be a member state and participate in decision-making.”
The Union is thus approaching an existential moment when it comes to efficiency, the distribution of power and money and the safeguarding of European values over democracy and the rule of law. However, hardly any mention is made of the extensive renovation.
Blockmans: “that’s right, but it plays into the minds of all sitting members. They may not want to touch it for political reasons. They can also say: actual accession is far away, so we are not talking about it yet.”