30 April 2024

The European Union’s newest enlargement: reform or rush?

By Cordelia Buchanan Ponczek
Flags of the EU member states in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg
Twenty years after the “big-bang enlargement”, the EU faces the prospect of new members. To navigate expansion, it must find a balance between geopolitical interests and inner stability.

The discussion around the European Union’s approach to its eastern enlargement has been greatly reinvigorated following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. After Croatia joined the EU in 2013, the enlargement process ground down to a halt. Despite integration projects like the Eastern Partnership, any near-term enlargement of the Union seemed unlikely. Before 2022, the countries in the Western Balkans, especially Montenegro and Serbia, were considered to be furthest down the path to membership.

Now, Russia’s war in Ukraine has mobilized the Union in support of Kyiv and redirected the enlargement push from Southeast to East as Ukraine, Moldova and most recently Georgia have been granted candidate status. Especially in the case of Ukraine, the question of enlargement has acquired an unprecedented sense of urgency as it is taking place during a time of war. By contrast, Montenegro and Serbia opened their membership negotiations over ten years ago with the goal of membership still out of reach; Ukraine may not – or should not – have as long, many of its supporters argue.

Still, accession comes with significant commitments and locks countries onto a certain regulatory and governance path, and as such it is not to be undertaken lightly. Thus, from the perspective of the European Union, the dialogue around enlargement is ultimately linked to the EU’s ability to navigate geopolitical interests and maintain its inner political stability. From the perspective of the candidate countries, enlargement is linked to short-term ability to effect reform and long-term ability to maintain the development trajectory. From a global perspective, EU enlargement puts into focus the credibility of the EU to act on its word while maintaining its strict underlying principles, which are necessary for its cohesion.

Reforms vs. enlargement

To balance cohesion with credibility, a central dilemma that has emerged in the discussion on EU enlargement revolves around the timing and prioritization of reforms versus the enlargement process itself. The EU Commission itself recognizes the importance of reforming the Union as part of enlargement processes. Still, it has proven challenging to strike the appropriate balance between internal reforms, which can be sluggish, and a desire for expeditious enlargement, which is being advocated by those within the EU as well as the candidate countries themselves. This discussion is particularly pertinent in relation to Ukraine’s potential membership.

Within the EU, there are two lines of argument on what needs to be done before enlargement: to implement reforms of the EU’s own functioning and to ensure the proper attention is paid to reforms within the candidate countries. These are two different lines of argumentation, and they are not necessarily argued by the same groups of actors, but the two separate requirements can interact. Internal changes to the EU can ultimately influence the ongoing internal reforms in candidate countries.

The case for prioritizing reforms

Advocates for prioritizing internal reforms before enlargement argue that the EU’s existing structures and policies require significant overhaul to enhance efficiency, accountability, and the ability to reach consensus among a growing number of member states. This perspective is predicated on the belief that enlargement prior to these reforms would exacerbate existing challenges, making future reforms nearly impossible.

Moreover, this reform-focused camp posits that it is fair for prospective members to have a transparent understanding of the institutional landscape they aspire to join. This group emphasizes a merit-based and comprehensive accession process. There are also fears that the numbers game of expansion would forestall any reforms down the road: there would simply be too many participants to guarantee the necessary consensus to pass certain reforms.

Beyond the debate about prioritizing EU-internal reform, there is a corresponding discussion on the need for candidate countries to unequivocally fulfil their internal reforms before accession. Part of this is trying to learn from the mistakes of the 2004 EU enlargement. The warning of this group is to look at the effects of rushed candidate and slipshod reforms to meet the acquis in name only. The political changes, stymied policies, gridlock, and obstructionism by certain 2004 enlargement EU members has caused frustration. Many have looked back to the integration process at that time and seen real errors with the policies and procedures that were implemented (or not), and there is a determination for the EU to learn from its mistakes.

At the same time, as in 2004, political pressure to admit new member states is high, and it is very hard to not try to ignore the needs for reform when the rhetoric has begun to feel like to delay Ukraine’s admission is to be unsupportive or even anti-Ukraine.

The case for prioritizing expeditious enlargement

On the other side of the reform-minded groups, a considerable faction argues in favor of expedited or even immediate admission for countries like Ukraine. This side underscores the geopolitical imperatives and the intrinsic value of EU expansion. The EU’s new enlargement framework, adopted in 2020, gives more flexibility in tailoring the accession process on a country-by-country basis. The proponents of this view highlight the strategic significance of enlargement as a tool for enhancing regional stability and counteracting the influence of powers such as Russia and China. They argue that postponement of accession could undermine the EU’s credibility and leave candidate countries susceptible to influences antithetical to EU norms, particularly with respect to governance, environmental standards, and democratic values.

The expeditious enlargement group also points to the risk of moving goalposts: if the EU were to take time to reform, the candidate countries, which have already embarked on the path of meeting specific EU criteria, might have those criteria shift under them. Policies and practices that are aligned today would risk non-alignment after reform, and this could result in a truly exhausting and frustrating process for the candidate countries. Some claim that the transparency advocated for by the reform now contingent is an illusion: the reform process itself would be opaque, and non-EU members (i.e., candidate countries) would lack a seat at the table to discuss policy issues that would have a critical impact on their future as a potential EU member and as a sovereign state.

The politics of expansion

The discussion on EU enlargement is further complicated by the “politics of expansion” – a logic that is hard to ignore, and some would say is creeping further into the enlargement dynamics than it should. The politics of expansion describes, to a large degree, the pressure that candidate countries should be admitted not for merit-based reasons, but for some other purpose – normative alignment, security, to send a message (to that candidate country or another country outside the European Union).

These arguments are hard to tussle with. The European Union now, as during previous expansions, is not divorced from political meaning. What has significantly changed in the political interpretation of the EU is not its longstanding market power. While the European Union has long been using its economic and normative power and the attractiveness of its market in order to politically influence new member states, it has developed a new relationship to its position on the global stage in recent years, especially in relation to countries like Russia and China.

The EU is in part motivated to move more quickly on accession for candidate countries precisely in an effort to cement its influence in those candidate countries and push back against the influence of countries that could compete with the EU for dominance in a country. This is especially so in cases in which the normative values of a country – like Russia – are so incompatible with those of the European Union. The EU must rise to the occasion while keeping itself intact and cohesive.

Challenges of the enlargement process

The challenges faced during and after this enlargement phase, including policy paralysis and integration difficulties, underscore the need for a balanced approach that learns from past experiences while remaining open to the needs and aspirations of new member states. Reflecting on the enlargement process in 2004, when the EU welcomed several Central and Eastern European nations, offers valuable lessons on the pitfalls of rushed enlargement and the importance of thorough preparation and integration.

A potential compromise between these divergent views involves allowing candidate countries to participate in the EU-internal reform discussions to a certain extent (e.g., giving candidate countries a voice in a treaty convention).In this way, candidate countries would help shape recommendations that they would be implementing. Including candidate countries could also account for reforms and changes that are already underway inside of the candidate countries and account for ways in which EU-internal reforms might impact those in-process changes.

Opportunities and risks of staged accession

Another suggestion is to explore phased integration strategies, such as the so-called “staged accession”. This phasing would serve as a bridge to cross between the policy changes that candidate countries have made so far and the potential further adjustments that could be required as a result of the reform process. The idea has been raised that some level of membership would be assured, or there might be some initial level of integration (e.g., labor or market access).

However, this proposition is met with skepticism from critics who are concerned that it may lead to a state of indefinite candidacy, wherein countries are trapped in a limbo of partial integration, neither fully within the EU nor outside it. This scenario could potentially allow candidate countries to engage in projects not aligned with EU regulations and requirements, and could inhibit closer integration, which would drag out the integration processes even long. (E.g., Serbia and several other Balkan candidate countries have received large Chinese investments for projects that are incompatible with the European Union’s regulations on public procurement and transparency or environmental requirements.) Some countries might use this semi-integration to try to have their cake and eat it too.

In search of balance

The EU’s enlargement policy is inevitably influenced by broader geopolitical dynamics, including the pursuit of security, normative alignment, and the projection of EU power. Nonetheless, the foundational principle of enlargement should remain focused on the readiness and ability of candidate countries to adhere to EU standards and regulations.

Looking ahead, the EU must be able to navigate geopolitical interests alongside assuring internal political stability. To do this, the EU’s strategy towards enlargement must address several key imperatives:

  1. Foster an inclusive dialogue that bridges current member states and candidate countries, ensuring a participatory approach to EU-internal reform, candidate-country reform, and the impact of both on accession.
  2. As the discussion on EU internal reforms continues forward, the Council should commit to enhancing the transparency and clarity of the enlargement process and candidate country reforms vis-à-vis upcoming EU-internal reforms, with a view to providing prospective members with a clear roadmap of expectations and benchmarks.
  3. Identify and implement preliminary areas of integration that can serve as intermediary steps towards full membership, thereby alleviating the uncertainties of prolonged candidacy without compromising the rigorous standards of accession.

The new enlargement stands as a pivotal challenge for the European Union, requiring a delicate balance between the strategic imperatives of enlargement and the need for internal cohesion and reform. The choices made in the near term will not only shape the future trajectory of candidate countries like Ukraine but will also determine the EU’s role as a leading example of regional integration and a formidable actor on the global stage.

Pictures: Flags: normxn [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr; portrait Cordelia Buchanan Ponczek: Finnish Institute of International Affairs [all rights reserved].

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