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Sep 28, 2023

EU Enlargement and Reform (I): A Trusted Partner and Exemplary Case. A View from Dublin

Ireland is regarded as having benefited enormously from its 50 years as an EU member state.  While Dublin is overwhelmingly supportive of enlargement, there could still be tensions ahead over issues related to the budget and changes to the EU institutions.

Liberty Hall, Customs House and the Spire are seen in a general view of Dublin, Ireland August 30, 2023.
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2023 saw the revival of the long moribund European Union enlargement process. The main reason for the renewed salience of the enlargement issue was, of course, the Russian war against Ukraine. But across Europe the realization that the presence on EU borders of a band of fragile neighboring states could pose significant problems for European integration in the future also helped to change the dial on thinking about further accessions. Thus, after years of “flat-lining,” the “widening” agenda returned to Brussels and to European chancelleries. 

Ireland represents a particularly interesting case when one examines member state attitudes to further enlargement. Where some states such as France and the Netherlands have been deeply reticent about adding new members to the club, Dublin has been uniformly supportive of the aspirations of the Western Balkan states, and latterly, Moldova and Ukraine. 

Part of this Irish support for enlargement lies in the country’s own history. On January 1, 2023 Ireland marked the 50th anniversary of its accession to the EU and throughout the year there was wide reflection on the significance of the EU as a transformative force in Ireland’s development and modernization.  

That transformation is most evident in the remarkable change in Ireland’s economic position. In 1973 it joined the European Economic Community (EEC) as the poorest and most peripheral member of the club, with a GDP per capita of less than 60 percent of the then Community average. By 2023, it was the second or third richest EU state, judged by Gross National Income. It was widely seen as one of the great success stories of the successive wave of enlargements the EU completed over five decades.  

An Example of “How to Succeed” in the EU

The six small states in the Western Balkans all view Ireland as the exemplary case of “successful adaptation” to EU membership and have sought advice from Irish officials about how to “succeed in Europe.” As a small state with little geopolitical interests to pursue in Eastern Europe, Ireland has little of the baggage that some larger EU member states shoulder within the enlargement framework. Thus, Ireland constitutes a trusted partner standing by candidate states and aspiring member states.  

Looking ahead, there are two issues in particular which enlargement presents for Ireland. These are, first: What kind of changes to EU institutions and decision-making processes might emerge to facilitate enlargement? And second: What kind of reforms of the EU budgetary model will be needed to help anchor the economic integration of new states? 

Institutional Change 

The renewed conversation about “widening” the EU has led to urgent calls for further “deepening” prior to any new EU accessions. This is referenced in the Copenhagen Criteria for membership as the “absorption capacity” of the EU. It is often presented as a protective measure against institutional dysfunction or fragmentation post-enlargement.  

Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, recently called for both the EU and the candidate states to be ready for accession by 2030. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also made clear that further enlargement can only take place if the EU reforms its decision-making processes and institutional responsibilities.  

Amongst the changes that are on the horizon are a comprehensive redesign of the membership and functions of the European Commission. There is already a sense in Brussels that there are not enough portfolios to justify a “one commissioner per member state” rule.  

This model has been in operation since the enactment of the Lisbon Treaty and it was largely due to the Irish rejection of the treaty in a referendum in 2008 that the EU put this model in place. Earlier there was an intention to reduce the number of commissioners to less than the number of member states. Each member state would have a representative on the commission for two out of three political cycles (10 out of 15 years).

The fear expressed in Ireland that losing a commissioner would result in less influence for the country in Brussels was cited in research as one of the principal reasons the Lisbon Treaty was rejected by the Irish electorate in 2008. In negotiations to facilitate the holding of a second referendum in 2009 the EU made some important concessions to try and help assuage Irish fears. These included a change to guarantee that every member state would have a commissioner at all times.   

It seems very likely that the new model European Commission to emerge in the next decade will be one of up to 35 members composed of senior and junior commissioners within “commission teams” working on specific cross-sectoral portfolios. This is akin to the model of senior and junior ministers in national jurisdictions, with a specific division of labor within each team. There is no indication Ireland might object to such a revised model of executive organization but Dublin will be acutely aware that this new model will come under sharp scrutiny in any future Irish referendum on treaty change.  

Ireland will also likely lose some seats in the European Parliament after further enlargement of the EU. The legal stipulation that the parliament can have a maximum membership of no more than 751 members will mean that there will have to be some redistribution of seats. The accession of Ukraine, in particular, will catalyze such a redistribution. There is no evidence that this will pose a problem for Ireland. It will likely mean the loss of only one or two Irish seats. 

Finally, enlargement will probably result in the removal or at least the further dilution of the veto in the Council of Ministers and the European Council. Already because of the challenges presented by the Ukraine war there is significant pressure to remove the veto in foreign policy. Ireland is likely to oppose such a move. Similarly, any attempt to change the unanimity requirement in the realm of taxation will be fiercely resisted by Dublin. Given that Ireland is compelled to hold referendums on EU treaty changes all of these issues related to decision-making and the relative balance of national and European competences will be very sensitive for Ireland.   

The EU Budget 

Ireland’s position within the EU budgetary space has changed markedly as a result of its economic “catch-up” in recent decades. During the 1990s, Ireland was one of the prime beneficiaries of EU subventions. In some years Ireland was in receipt of EU transfers of up to 6 percent of GDP. Indeed, the entire 50-year period of Irish membership demonstrates a positive net balance (receipts minus membership contributions) of almost €40 billion.  

Ireland became a net contributor to the budget in 2014 and has been contributing approximately €400-500 million net each year between 2018 and 2022. There seems little doubt that future accessions will require a significant overhaul of the EU budget. Each of the candidate states is poorer than Bulgaria, currently the poorest EU member state.  

Ukraine’s entry into the EU would change the budgetary dial so much that the vast majority of member states in Central and Eastern Europe would become net contributors to the budget. Thus, the EU is going to have to find new sources of revenue and/or comprehensively recalibrate the current budgetary landscape if future accessions are to take place.  

Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar has stated that Ireland is prepared to pay more into the budget to facilitate further enlargement. Domestically, Ireland is currently in a very advantageous fiscal position, with projections of massive budget surpluses for the remainder of the decade. But there are likely to be very difficult negotiations on the post-2027 EU budget, particularly on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is already proving difficult for Dublin to manage, given farmers’ opposition to measures like the EU Nature Restoration law and the nitrates directive. Ireland is likely, however, to be among the EU states making the case for the EU budget to increase to support further accessions.  

Present at the “Big Bang”

In May 2004 Ireland held the presidency of the EU Council of Ministers. Thus, Dublin was the city that hosted the official signing ceremony for the EU’s “big bang” eastern enlargement. Many of the new member states thought this was perfectly appropriate as Ireland had been in the first wave of accessions in 1973 and had used its EU membership smartly and decisively to effect the wholescale transformation of its economy and society.  

Almost two decades on, the EU is finally getting serious about expanding. Ireland is both formally and informally supportive of the membership ambitions of the Western Balkan states, along with Moldova and Ukraine. But the entwinement of the “widening” and “deepening” agendas within the European Union mean that there will be protracted and difficult negotiations ahead on institutional authority, decision-making processes, and money. 

John O’Brennan is the Director of the Maynooth Centre for European and Eurasian Studies and Jean Monnet Chair of European Integration at Maynooth University, Ireland.