The EU Starts the Countdown to Enlargement that Will Change the Bloc Forever

Bernardo de Miguel

7 mins - 3 de Septiembre de 2023, 21:11

The EU and Berlin have already placed themselves in an enlargement mindset as a way to respond to the geostrategic instability triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In just a few months, the debate over whether Ukraine and the Western Balkans should join the bloc has progressed to the debate over when to join and what internal changes are needed to accommodate them. The train of the next phase of enlargement, the first since Croatia’s accession in 2013, has departed the platform with such force that not even the usual opponents, such as France and the Netherlands, now dare to stand in the way. And this past 28 August, for the first time, a European leader even suggested a date for the start of enlargement: 2030.

But the 27 governments are keenly aware that they are facing a historic decision which will inevitably transform the club forever. And there are more than a few who fear that the EU will suffocate with the possible incorporation of up to eight new members, who will add an enormous political, economic, and social heterogeneity in addition to bringing a recent past full of war and friction between them.

“Without a change in its institutions and decision-making procedures, the European Union runs a double risk: importing additional problems that it will not be able to solve and being paralysed in its capacity to decide”, predicts Jean-Dominique Giuliani, president of the Robert Schuman Foundation, in a recent analysis of an enlargement that he describes as “ineluctable”.

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The second major eastward enlargement (the first began in 2004 and added up to 13 countries), in fact, had been stalled for years, precisely because of the lack of progress made by the candidates along with the EU’s doubts about its capacity to efficiently incorporate them. But it has begun to blaze through stages in leaps and bounds since 24 February 2022, when Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tanks began their deadly march towards the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. 

The first major attack by one European country on another since World War II shattered the Old Continent’s security structure, and European governments take it for granted that the old order will not return after the end of the war. In most capitals, starting with Berlin, the thesis is gaining ground that the new security framework must involve expanding the EU’s borders and reducing the number of loose links exposed to Moscow’s influence or even aggression. 

This change of mentality has given a sudden boost to rusty accession candidates such as Albania and Montenegro, and propelled newcomers such as Ukraine and Moldova into the waiting room. So much so that the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, has proposed setting 2030 as the starting point for admitting new members and cited the Russian invasion as the trigger for an increasingly inevitable enlargement. 

“This war is not only devastating Ukraine. It has a profound impact on the future of our security and global security,” Michel told a forum in Bled, Slovenia, on 28 August. “Enlargement is no longer a dream. The time has come to move forward,” added Mr Michel, who became the first European leader to propose a concrete date for the starting signal. “I believe that both sides should be ready for enlargement in 2030,” he said.

The deadline is very short in terms of EU timelines and in relation to the magnitude of the reforms and adjustments needed to accommodate partners with a population of some 55 million, in all cases with a GDP per capita below that of Bulgaria, the poorest country in the EU at the moment.

Even if Ukraine is out of the club, aid to Ukraine has already strained the EU’s accounts, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has proposed to the 27 EU members an outpouring of more than €100 billion, half of which will go to Volodimir Zelensky’s country, if the current partners do not want to suffer a cut in the aid planned until 2027.  

Ukraine, whose GDP per capita before the war was less than 30% of the EU average, would become the main destination of both structural funds (its poverty will be added to the needs caused by the conflict) and agricultural funds (which account for 11% of its GDP, according to the EC).  

The progressive incorporation of aspiring members (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia, Ukraine, and, perhaps, Kosovo) will also increase the complexity of the EU’s procedures, posing a logistical challenge (with the incorporation of new working languages), an institutional challenge (more seats in the European Parliament and more national representatives in the Commission, the Court of Justice, and the ECB) and, above all, a political challenge.

The experience of the previous enlargement has already shown that some countries, such as Poland and Hungary, can become authoritarian even once inside the bloc and pose almost insurmountable obstacles to further integration initiatives. France has already made it clear that it wants internal changes to prevent the bloc from stagnating, and some countries, including Spain, are pushing the idea of abolishing the right of veto in certain areas of foreign policy.

The European summit in Granada in October, organised by Spain’s EU presidency, is expected to mark the start of all these debates on the reforms needed to adapt the bloc. Shortly afterwards, in December, the European Council is expected to give the green light to the start of accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, only a year and a half after they applied for membership (Albania, for example, waited five years, and northern Macedonia, 16 years).

The speed of the process in the case of Ukraine demonstrates that the EU has decided to step on the accelerator in face of this unstable geopolitical situation, as caused by Russian aggression and China’s political and commercial expansion. But Brussels is planning a different enlargement from previous ones, in which countries became full members on an agreed day (1 January 1986, as was the case of Spain). Both Von der Leyen and Michel have suggested a gradual process of incorporation, so that candidates are integrated step-by-step into the bloc and its institutions, assuming benefits and obligations according to their compliance with EU standards. Sooner or later, however, the EU has assumed that it will have some 35 members and more than 500 million inhabitants in total, with borders that could stretch from the Atlantic to Crimea, with Putin’s Russia growing closer and increasingly hostile towards its Western neighbours.
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