Enlargement is often called the EU’s most effective foreign policy. However, since its biggest wave of new members that joined in 2004 (Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia), the process has stalled to a great degree. In the months that followed the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the EU made Ukraine, Moldova and Bosnia Herzegovina official candidate countries and opened accession negotiations with Albania. Furthermore, engagement with the four official candidates – Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Turkey – has increased. But what are the prospects and implications of a possible EU enlargement in the close future?
The Copenhagen criteria
Any European state, if it respects the democratic values of the EU and shows commitment to promoting them, may apply for EU membership. The criteria for accession, also known as the Copenhagen criteria (named after the 1993 European Council meeting in Copenhagen which defined them), are essential conditions that must be fulfilled by all candidate countries in order to become a member state. They can be divided into political criteria (stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect and protection of minorities), economic criteria (a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and marked forces) and the administrative and institutional capacity to effectively implement the EU body of common rights and the ability to take on the obligations that membership brings along.
The formal EU accession process
Once a state has applied for EU membership, all EU member states need to agree for the formal accession process to start. When negotiations on all policy areas are completed, and the EU itself is ready for enlargement regarding its absorption capacity, the terms and conditions for accession are integrated in an accession treaty. This treaty requires the consent of the European Parliament, as well as the Council’s unanimous approval, before it then can be signed by all EU member states, as well as by the candidate country.
The European Commission recommends formal talks on accession of Ukraine and Moldova
Both Ukraine and Moldova were granted official EU candidate status in June 2022. Mid-December 2023, the next European Council summit will be held. Upon the most recent recommendations of the European Commission, EU leaders should allow formal talks on the accession of Ukraine and Moldova. “In the light of the results achieved by Ukraine and Moldova, and of the ongoing reform efforts, the Commission has recommended that the Council opens accession negotiations with both countries”, announced the EU executive on Wednesday November 8th. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the decision a “historic step that paves the way to a stronger EU with Ukraine as its member”. The President of Moldova, Maia Sandu, was also pleased about the Commission’s recommendations and promised to “work relentlessly” towards EU membership. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, however, noted that the process continues to be merit-based and that therefore, no specific date for full membership can be given.
Furthermore, the Commission has recommended upgrading Georgia, which was already named a potential candidate seventeen months ago, to the status of an official EU candidate country.
“Enlargement is a vital policy for the European Union”
Never before has the European Commission approved formal accession talks before a nation has fully met all pre-conditions. However, the ongoing war has brought a sense of utmost urgency into the usually rather sluggish process of approving new member states.
In the early days of the EU, enlargement was mainly motivated by the necessity of fortifying Western Europe during the Cold War, and later by the need to stabilize the parts of the former Soviet Union that had become independent. The current Russian threat has revived the interest of accessing Eastern European and Western Balkan countries. Michael Gahler, a German member of the European Parliament, stated that “we need to make it very clear that Ukraine belongs in Europe”. “It is not in the Russian orbit, it is firmly anchored in the West. And for that to happen, we need to start accession negotiations”, he added.
German diplomat Annalena Baerbock warned last week, that if the EU does not enlarge, the whole European continent would become more “vulnerable”. Von der Leyen also stated that “enlargement is a vital policy for the European Union” and that “past enlargements have shown enormous benefits both for the accession countries and the EU”.
“With today’s adoption of the new 6 billion Euros Growth Plan for the Western Balkans, we are bringing the Western Balkans’ economies closer to the EU”
As many of the Balkan states are suffering from political instability, they have been very slow to meet the bloc’s rather tough demands, which include crackdowns on corruption, as well as judicial and constitutional reforms. Negotiations about the accession of the Western Balkans have therefore stalled to a great degree in recent years. Western Balkan leaders have warned their EU counterparts that their citizens are increasingly frustrated about the slow pace of the negotiations, saying that they are looking for assurance that Brussels is serious about expanding.
As a reaction, the Commission has presented a new Growth Plan for the Western Balkans worth 6 billion Euros, consting of 2 billion Euros in grants and 4 billion Euros in concessional loans, with payment conditioned on the fulfilment of agreed reforms. The Growth Plan aims at bringing some of the benefits of membership to the Western Balkans in advance of accession, stimulate economic growth and precipitate much needed socio-economic convergence. On Wednesday November 8th, Von der Leyen said: “With today’s adoption of the new 6 billion Euros Growth Plan for the Western Balkans, we are bringing the Western Balkans’ economies closer to the EU.”
Key reforms pending in Ukraine
The new assessment of candidate countries’ progress towards becoming EU members showed that Ukraine still has some work to do on anti-corruption, de-oligarchization and the rights of minorities. According to the Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International, which ranks countries from least to most corrupt, Ukraine comes in at 116 out of 180 countries. Progress in terms of reducing corruption is essential to ensure the backing of EU member states. The Prime Minister of Slovakia, Robert Fico, recently showed reluctance to the EU’s plans of increasing financial support to Ukraine, calling Ukraine in a post on Facebook “one of the most corrupt countries in the world”. Furthermore, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that the rights of the Hungarian minority in the West of Ukraine is not guaranteed, and he therefore previously threatened to veto the country’s EU membership.
Here, however, it is important to mention that the governments of both Slovakia and Hungary are often qualified as “pro-Russian” with regard to their foreign policy. Therefore, what is certainly going to pose a problem for Ukraine’s integration, beyond anti-corruption reforms and the protection of ethnic minorities, are Slovakia and Hungary excercising their vetos, which are clearly of political nature.
The report of the Commission also called on Kyiv to integrate minority languages, such as Hungarian and Romanian, into its secondary education system and media landscape. However, according to a senior EU official, “the use of the Russian language is not something the Commission will look at”, even though Russian is spoken by around 30% of Ukrainian population.
As part of the reforms, Ukraine must also suppress the influence of oligarchs on public administration, tightening its government lobbying rules.
Key reforms pending in Moldova
Also, Moldova needs to finalize judicial reforms and introduce further anti-graft measures.
Furthermore, the government and economy of Transnistria, a de facto independent territory, but which is internationally recognized as a part of Moldova, are heavily dependent on subsidies from Russia, which maintains a military presence in Transnistria. The ruling political group is aligned with powerful local business interests, political competition is restricted, authorities closely control civil activity and pluralism of opinion in the media is very limited. The Freedom House, which rates people’s access to political rights and civil liberties in 210 countries and territories worldwide, categorized Transnistria as “not free”.
Key reforms pending in Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina was granted official candidate status in December 2022, however, in comparison to Ukraine and Moldova, formal accession negotiations have not started yet. Deeply rooted ethnic divisions and delays in electoral, judicial and constitutional reforms have made the country fall behind on the path to EU membership, compared to its neighbors. In its report, the EU Commission said that elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina were “marked by mistrust in public institutions and ethnically diverese rhetoric” and in an August ruling, the European Court of Human Rights called the country an “ethnocracy”, in which elections are undemocratic and entrench the advantageous position of dominant ethnic groups. Von der Leyen noted that negotiations can only open “once certain criteria are met”.
Another concern of the EU is the Republika Srpska, a territorial entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina where ethnic Serbs form the majority and which has favored a neutral posture on the war in Ukraine, whilst the rest of the country aligned with the EU’s stance against Russia’s war of aggression.
Key reforms pending in Serbia
Serbia, one of the four official candidates for EU membership, also still has some key reforms pending on the way to becoming an EU member state. Aligning on security and foreign policy is amongst the EU’s demands for Serbia, where Russia still has a huge influence. However, it does not look like Serbia is willing to cooperate in this area. Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vučić, blamed the EU for “pressuring” him and his country to join sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine. He called this a “brutal” interference of Serbia’s sovereignty. Also, Serbia’s Minister of Econonmy, Rade Basta, who had called on his government to sanction Russia, was dismissed immediately after making his proposition.
Furthermore, the EU executive criticized the escalating tensions between Serbia and Kosovo and said that the “pace of negotiations” depended on whether the two countries were able to normalize their relations.
EU enlargement would have profound economic implications
Even though the war might have altered the political situation, it has not changed the challenges around the EU’s capacity for expansion. The question is not only if the candidate countries can carry out the long list of required reforms, but also whether the EU itself can reform itself enough to be able to absorb the new members.
With a GDP per capita of 4,451 Euros in 2021 – more than ten times less than advanced European economies like Germany, France, or the UK – Ukraine was already among the poorest countries in Europe before the war started. According to Jolyon Howorth, Professor of European politics at the University of Bath, integrating such an economically crumbling country would cost a “horrendous amount”.
Also, the Western Balkans, where the average income per capita ranges from just 27% to 50% of the bloc’s average, have comparably weak economies, which makes integrating them into the EU an economic challenge for the bloc.
However, Von der Leyen said that the Growth Plan for the Western Balkans mentioned before “could double the economy of the Western Balkans in the next 10 years”.
Admitting Ukraine would weigh most heavily on the EU’s finances. The two biggest areas of the EU budget are the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and cohesion, or regional spending. Therefore, granting accession to Ukraine, whose agricultural sector employs around 14% of its population and whose farmland surpasses the size of Italy, would be a fundamental game-changer. Ukraine would become the biggest recipient of CAP funding, which would either mean that other EU countries would have to accept much lower payments or that the EU would need to augment its agricultural budget immensely.
Recently, there has already been a diplomatic dispute over the topic, as Hungary, Poland and Slovakia extended a temporary ban unilaterally placed on Ukrainian grain imports in order to protect their national economies – a move likely to anger EU leaders.
“The bigger the EU gets, the more difficult it becomes to make decisions and engage in collective action”
Enlargement could further be a strain for the unity, cohesion and functioning of the EU.
Already now, different EU member states do not always agree over the nature of the bloc and its objectives. Persisting with unanimous decision-making on foreign or taxation policy would become even more difficult in an expanded EU, as a single country can veto and block any proposal it does not agree with. On votes on issues where the EU permits so-called qualified majority decision-making, it would be more challenging to assemble coalitions of like-minded member states that are large enough. “The bigger the European Union gets, the more difficult it becomes to make decisions and engage in collective action”, stated Michael Keating, Professor of Politics at Aberdeen University in Scotland.
The center of gravity would shift towards the East
Furthermore, accession of Ukraine would shift the center of gravity towards the East.
With some 40 million inhabitants, Ukraine would be the EU’s fifth largest member and the largest in terms of land mass. Poland is currently on its way to become the biggest army of the EU.
According to Keating, this would significantly change the geopolitical situation, as it would open the way for a new Warsaw-Kyiv axis that could rival the traditional Paris-Berlin one.
Even though Ukraine itself would not be “very powerful”, with the “old Franco-German motor not what it used to be…we could certainly see a large shift in the balance of power within the EU”, he stated.
EU enlargement as a security risk for the EU
Finally, EU enlargement would have security implications for the EU.
The Balkan region remains a breeding ground for ethnic tensions.
Furthermore, Russia still has a big influence in the Western Balkans, especially in Serbia and in the Republika Srpska. Regarding the ongoing war in Ukraine, this could eventually pose a security threat to the EU.
Ukraine is currently in the midst of a major interstate war and lacks NATO’s security guarantees. The Article 42.7 of the EU treaty says that the union offers member states a mutual defense guarantee comparable to the one of NATO. However, the EU can’t defend its external borders without NATO.
Some EU member states argue that defending Ukraine will be less of an impossible task in the future than it seems now. There are three scenarios that explain this optimism. First, many EU member states hope that Ukraine, like the Central and Eastern European countries did in 2004, will join NATO before joining the EU. Secondly, many Europeans believe that a Russian attack on the EU would cause a US intervention, as a large part of EU member states are also in NATO. Thirdly, some hope that by the time Ukraine is apt to join the union, it will already have signed a durable peace agreement with Russia.
However, the reality looks different. At present, NATO members are unwilling to access Ukraine until the war is over. Especially the US does not want to be obliged to enter into a direct conflict with nuclear-armed Russia.
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