The European Union doesn’t like to enlarge itself. Even in the best of circumstances, enlargement leads to a dilution of power for the existing members. If enlargement also means an economic cost, as was the case with the southern and eastern enlargements (although not the northern one), resistance grows. If, on top of this, there is no compelling security reason to enlarge and candidates drag their feet on reforms, enlargement freezes. This is the story of the Western Balkans and Turkey. Below EU-average economies, weak governance, imperfect democracies, unsolved conflicts, and the politicization of enlargement, alongside the security guarantee that was already provided by NATO, with Turkey, Albania, North Macedonia, and Montenegro in the alliance and NATO present in Kosovo, all hollowed out the drive for EU enlargement.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the opening up of the accession prospects of the so-called “eastern trio” (Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia) have brought enlargement back onto the European agenda. In these cases, we are also talking about relatively poor countries, fragile democracies, and unsolved conflicts. Here too, the EU would avoid enlarging if it could. But the strategic context is such that the EU simply cannot turn away.
The eastern trio don’t have the luxury of being NATO members for now, and although Kyiv is pushing strongly in this direction, membership of the alliance will only happen after the war is over. This means though that in light of the threat of Russia (that will presumably continue even after the end of the war), there is an existential security drive behind EU enlargement.
What Does Enlargement Actually Mean?
Given that enlargement must happen, EU member states are asking themselves what this actually means. There are who, how, and what questions to be answered in the months and years ahead.
First, who to enlarge to? It’s the eastern trio, especially Ukraine, with Moldova latching on, that has the wind in its sails. As long as the war rages and reconstruction is an EU priority, Ukraine’s accession will represent a major policy focus. This raises the question of its decoupling from the Balkans, where the security imperative for enlargement is weaker, reforms are dragging, and conflict resolution is backsliding. Yet EU member states with an interest in the region, such as Austria and Italy, will push against this, and get their way. It’s no coincidence that last year, when Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia were recognized as candidates or potential candidates, Bosnia and Herzegovina were also given candidacy status, while Albania and North Macedonia finally opened accession talks. As Kyiv and Chisinau move toward being green-lighted for accession negotiations in December, forms of coupling with the Western Balkans will continue to be sought.
This does not mean though that the EU will see another big bang enlargement from the current 27 to 35 or 36 member states in the next decade. A mega package approach could lead to enlargement stalling once again (and could be pushed aside for precisely this reason by enlargement skeptics). Alternatively, it could lead to a complete side-lining of reform priorities and a rules-based process: If it’s everyone or no one, why bother with reforms? Although enlargement is now driven by a strategic security logic, this doesn’t mean that its transformative rationale will be, let alone should be, trashed. Furthermore, a big bang enlargement would presumably take place in a decade or more, probably well after the war has ended, with the risk of running out of political steam.
Seizing the Momentum
Believers in enlargement, like myself, are asking themselves how the enlargement momentum can be seized now. A decoupling within each region together with the coupling between them could be the way to go. In fact, provided reforms pick up and are sustained, the enlargement to small countries like Moldova in the eastern trio and Montenegro in the Balkans could happen well before a decade has passed, puncturing the enlargement paralysis that has gripped the EU since the big bang eastern enlargement (with the exception of Croatia’s entry in 2013, after which the EU stopped growing and indeed shrunk, with the United Kingdom leaving in 2020).
This is linked to a crucial “how” question. The enlargement drive is essentially about Ukraine. Yet Ukraine is also the largest and most complex country to take in. Even with the best of will in Kyiv, Brussels, and across European capitals, it is hard to see how Ukraine could enter the EU in less than a decade. But the war is now and the quest for security, reconstruction, and democratic consolidation will precede Ukraine’s full membership. How to square the circle? This is where ideas for gradual integration come in, featuring both traditional ones about entry into the single market and greater access to EU funds, and more innovative ideas concerning the inclusion of candidates in the European green deal, the digital market, industrial policy, and foreign and security policy.
So long as these sectoral agreements don’t become alternatives to membership but rather stepping stones toward it, the gradual integration of Ukraine should be pursued. Perhaps another big country—the United Kingdom—may end up taking a similar “gradual” route back to the EU, with sectoral agreements reached in the next decade under a possible Labour government in the near future. If by 2034 the EU enlarges to a couple of (small) new members while reaching substantive sectoral agreements on their way to full membership with Ukraine (and perhaps the UK), it would have accomplished a stunning strategic feat.
The Catalyst to Reform
This raises the final question of what kind of EU the new members would be joining. Unlike the past two decades, when the lack of deepening was presented as a reason/excuse for the stalling of widening, there is greater honesty now in recognizing that deepening happens because widening is necessary, the imperative of enlargement provides the catalyst to reform. So what reforms are actually needed?
The most obvious, urgent but also easiest regard representation: Would each member state continue to designate a commissioner and how should seats in the European Parliament and voting rights in the European Council be redistributed? Actually, the Lisbon Treaty itself indicates the path to follow: The rules are set and simply need to be implemented when the need arises. In principle, even the next European Commission could avoid having members from each member state with full portfolios.
The question of decision-making, particularly the adoption of qualified majority voting in areas like foreign policy, sanctions, and taxation, has attracted most attention and has been actively pushed by member states like Germany and France. These are hugely important questions in their own right, but they are not strictly speaking conditions for enlargement. Unanimity slows things down, but it’s not a show-stopper: It is simply a good idea for a European Union poised to continue facing crises to be equipped to respond to them swiftly and effectively. While there is no appetite for opening up the EU Treaty to achieve this, there is growing convergence around the idea presented by a group of nine member states of increasingly using constructive abstention and the Passerelle clause, as allowed in the Lisbon Treaty.
A Radical Overhaul
The hardest set of questions, especially as far as Ukraine is concerned, regards policies with large budget implications. In preparation for Ukraine’s entry, the EU would need to radically revise the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the cohesion policy and figure out how to include Kyiv in the next Multiannual Financial Framework beginning in 2028. Under current rules, Ukraine, as a large member state and also the poorest one, would receive the lion’s share of the EU budget and most EU net recipients would become net contributors overnight. Given the political unfeasibility of this proposition, it is clear that current policies, rules, and overall sums will require a radical overhaul.
The discussions on the next MFF are expected to begin next year and the EU could already be too late to fully accommodate Ukraine in the next EU budgetary cycle. However, with the EU committing €50 billion to Ukraine’s reconstruction over the next four years through a NextGenerationEU-like mechanism, and with that figure likely to increase further over time, a grand bargain with Ukraine could see it enter the EU without being fully integrated in the 2028-2034 budget, given the EU’s role in financing—off-budget—Ukraine’s reconstruction. It could then become fully integrated into the EU budget with the following cycle starting in 2035.
When Jean-Claude Juncker was appointed president of the European Commission in 2014 he created an unnecessary stir when he stated what everyone already knew: that enlargement would not take place during his mandate. The next European Commission president, coming into office in 2024, should turn the Juncker statement on its head, creating a positive stir by committing to what no one has had the courage to say yet: that enlargement will take place under her (or his) watch.
Nathalie Tocci is Director of the Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI) in Rome.