The European Enlargement: context and prospects

Introduction

Ever since the Russian aggression on Ukraine, a pervasive sense of insecurity has spread across the European institutions and public opinion. To cope with the mutated geopolitical context, national and European leaders have started calling vigorously for new accessions in the EU, reviving the almost paralysed process for European enlargement. This article aims at introducing the main current and future issues regarding this process. 

Timing and criteria

Starting from a core of 6 founding members, the EU underwent substantial transformations that raised the number of members to 28 (currently 27, because of Brexit). The acquisition of new member states is the result of the enlargement policy of the European Union, which regulates the accession of new countries. Since the European Union is defined by its own laws, before talking about the current issues of EU enlargement, we should first understand the rules that govern it. 

Indeed, there is an extensive set of norms that specify the accession criteria and the steps to be followed in order to become a member of the Union. New members must satisfy a series of requirements, known as the “Copenhagen criteria”. In short, these criteria request (1):

  • stable institutions that can guarantee democracy, the rule of law, human rights and the protection of minorities; 
  • a functioning market economy and the ability to cope with the competitive pressure of the EU market;
  • the ability to take on the obligations of EU membership, including the capacity to implement all EU laws and adhere to the aims of the Union.

Additionally, the admission protocol is structured as follows. Firstly, the country aspiring to enter in the EU must submit an application to the Council of the EU, which will ask the Commission to evaluate the country’s compatibility with the accession criteria and to express its recommendations. The Council will then have to decide unanimously whether to give the candidate status to the applying country. Once they are officially candidates, applying countries enter the period of negotiations with the European Commission, during which they implement reforms to align themselves to the European acquis (i.e., the set of laws and standards of the EU). The Commission regularly informs the European Parliament and the Council of the progress made by the candidate, until the conclusion of negotiations, when it provides an opinion on whether the country is ready to join. If this is the case, an accession treaty detailing the terms and conditions of the country’s EU membership must be approved by the Commission, the Council and the Parliament before being signed and ratified by all EU Member States and the candidate itself.

Current situation

Currently, the countries with candidate status negotiating their membership are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo (the so-called Western Balkan 6, WB6), Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Moreover, Turkey (whose application was filed in 1987) is in an ambiguous situation in which its negotiations with the Commission are frozen because of its recent autocratic turn but still not withdrawn.

Figure 1 EU member states (in blue) and candidate countries (in light blue and orange) (8)

Why is the EU interested in expanding its boundaries?

The war in Ukraine brought back enlargement policy among the priorities of the EU agenda. Indeed, European leaders realised that formalising relationships with some other countries in the continent may strengthen the EU’s position on the international stage and, by giving the new partners a concrete alternative, remove them from the Russian sphere of influence. However, there is not unanimous consensus among member States yet and the issues related to this topic are multi-faceted and controversial. The discussions stretch mainly along three dimensions: security, economy, and values (2).

Security

As already said, the invasion of Ukraine from Russia represented the materialising of an actual military and security threat for Europe, giving national borders a new meaning – or, more precisely, an old one. Two were the main consequences: European institutions (and leaders) had to reconsider their “aversion to hard power” and to find ways to become strategically independent from Russia (and, possibly, also from other unreliable global players). 

Economy

This leads us to the second dimension. It is unlikely that the EU will ever be able to gain complete “strategic autonomy”. Nevertheless, it can seek the diversification of inputs suppliers, which requires to engage in multiple relationships with diversified partners. Stronger economic relationships with other European countries would provide the alternative resources the union needs, and a shrewd enlargement policy would build the political and formal framework necessary to facilitate cooperation.

However, the economic perspective brings forward also worries for member states. The entry of new countries in the Common Market could endanger European agricultural producers, as the candidate countries (Ukraine in primis) produce vast quantities of commodities at lower prices with respect to those of current EU member states. Additionally, 1/3 of the European budget is spent on agricultural subsidies and if Ukraine (producing on average 27 million tonnes of wheat a year, about 20% of the EU’s output (4)) entered the Eu, the current distribution of these subsidies would radically change. Similarly, as most candidates “have a lower GDP per capita than the bloc’s current poorest member Bulgaria” (3), European funds’ allocation would have to be necessarily revisited. This implies that some current members (like Poland) might turn into net contributors to the EU budget – a dreadful contingency. 

Values

The third dimension regards values. In the last years the EU has witnessed the emergence of a fracture among its members, namely the one between liberal countries and illiberal nationalist ones. The illiberal field is swelling as forces with strong bonds with the traditional members of this bloc like Hungary and Poland are growing (or even ruling) in more and more countries. This split has been the cause of serious concerns for the leaders of the European institutions. According to Mark Leonard (2), the entry of new countries may represent a solution to this divide for both sides. While for the liberal countries the enlargement is an opportunity to reform the EU decision-making iter, illiberal members may take advantage of the entry in the Union of Serbia (led by the autocratic president Aleksandar Vučić) to challenge the power of France and Germany.

Institutional reform

It is widely shared that the many conflicting organs of the EU as well as veto power make the European decision-making process sluggish and sometimes inefficient (7). The accession of new members would make it even more ill-suited as, for instance, some new members with relatively small populations would enjoy the same veto power of all the others. This is why the ongoing debate on enlargement focuses also on how to reform European institutions to preserve – or, even, reinvigorate – their “capacity to act”. Anyway, changes like the abandoning of veto power to move towards qualified majority require treaty modifications that seem, for the moment, unlikely to be realised.

Conclusion

The lately revitalised enlargement of the EU is likely to bring new countries into the Union. However, some obstacles stand in the way towards a smooth and shared integration, and the EU needs to tackle them as soon as possible. Still, the conclusion of this process is not to be expected anytime soon, as a complicated agreement among all member states must be reached first.

Cover Image Source:

https://www.ecovicentino.it/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/zelensky-marcel-von-der-layen-1.jpg

Sources:

1) EU enlargement – European Union (europa.eu)

2) The Geopolitics of EU Enlargement (diplomaticourier.com)

3) EU enlargement: Is the bloc ready for new members? – DW – 10/02/2023

4) The forgotten economics of EU enlargement | World Economic Forum (weforum.org)

5) EU Enlargement: Geopolitics Meets Integration Policy – Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (swp-berlin.org)

6) Il Gruppo di Visegrad e l’UE: conflitto d’interessi o diverse visioni del futuro? (italianieuropei.it)

7) EPRS_BRI(2022)729315_EN.pdf (europa.eu)

8) https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:European_Union_member_states_and_candidates_v2.svg

Vittorio Schivazappa

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