What Europe Thinks ...

Sep 28, 2023

What Europe Thinks … About EU Enlargement

Overall, Europeans are in favor of a bigger European Union. However, there are huge differences when it comes to individual countries and whether or not it requires reforms.

A graph showing attitudes of selected EU member states to enlargement
Attribution CC BY

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 brought new urgency to the question of enlarging the European Union. Four days later, as Russian tanks surrounded Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy requested immediate admission to the bloc. The Ukrainian army fought back, depriving Russia of its hoped-for swift victory, and on June 23, 2022, the European Commission granted Ukraine candidate status for accession to the EU. However, the initial sense of urgency has somewhat dissipated, and Ukraine now finds itself one of eight countries that are candidates for membership, some of which have been waiting since 1999.

Enlargement is central to the history of the European Union. The bloc began with the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 by France, West Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries. Since then, it has expanded from the original six to 28 (now 27) countries; the most recent of which to join was Croatia in 2013. However, since the last accession, it has lost a member: the United Kingdom in 2020 with Brexit. Why has enlargement stalled? There are two main hurdles: The EU is becoming very large and democratic backsliding by EU member states Hungary and Poland has made other member states wary of further enlargement.

Mixed Feelings

European publics also have mixed feelings about enlargement. According to the most recent Eurobarometer survey conducted in June, 53 percent overall favor adding more countries. Generally, older European Union members and newer ones—especially where the benefits of EU membership on economic growth are most evident—are split. For example, in France and Germany, 35 and 42 percent of respondents respectively favor enlargement, whereas in Poland, 67 percent favor enlargement. Austria has the least favorable rating at 29 percent, whereas 77 percent of Lithuanians, 74 percent of Spainiards, and 72 percent of Croatians favor enlargement. (While Austria is a newer member as it joined in 1995 after the end of the Cold War, the economic benefits of joining the EU were far less dramatic than in the countries where public opinion is more favorable.)

These recent poll numbers are more positive than in 2019, when a survey commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations found widespread skepticism about a possible enlargement toward the Western Balkans. (The survey did not include Ukraine, which was not then a candidate country.) Most of the 14 countries surveyed were against letting in all of the six Western Balkans countries, with mostly older member states like Germany, Austria, and France among the most opposed and newer entrants Poland and Romania most in favor.

Interestingly, public sentiments are opposite to government policy: French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz both have put forward proposals to enlarge the EU, while reforming the member states’ veto. On the other hand, Poland has lately cooled to new members. While the Polish government in 2022 initially came out in favor of Ukraine joining, in recent weeks officials in Warsaw have spoken of Ukrainian “ingratitude” and demanded that Kyiv apologize for nationalist massacres of Poles during World War II before joining.

Macron and Scholz are both unpopular domestically, and public opposition could be closely tied to their promotion of a larger EU. However, a deeper issue is that while the European Union has found its raison d’être as a guarantor of external security, it has yet to translate this into reform. Enlargement could be the keystone of a new, emboldened EU.

A Series of Crises

“Europe will be forged in crisis,” goes the famous phrase of Jean Monnet, one of the EU’s founding fathers. While the European debt crisis of the 2010s almost broke the monetary union, the EU handled Brexit negotiations in 2017-18, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 in a relatively unified fashion. These shocks brought EU member states closer together, and the bloc emerged as a guarantor of security from external threats.

With this political capital in the bank, the EU could move to enlargement. With the possible exceptions of the small Balkan republics of Montenegro and Albania, none of the candidate countries could likely join without the European Union reforming as a whole. Chancellor Olaf Scholz's proposal to do away with unanimity on foreign and security policy as well as fiscal policy—an implicit concession as it would weaken Germany’s ability to enforce its anti-debt orthodoxy on newer members—seems sensible. However, Warsaw and Budapest have objected to any watering down of unanimity in foreign policy decisions.

These political dynamics could change. Poland holds parliamentary elections on October 15, and polls show that its incumbent Euroskeptic governing coalition, led by the Law and Justice party, has the lead. However, if the pro-EU party, Civic Platform, is able to win a majority coalition with smaller left-leaning parties, the picture would be much changed; and Hungary would be further isolated.

Many EU candidate countries still have to undertake painful reforms. Serbia would have to further democratize and recognize Kosovo; North Macedonia would have to settle its conflicts with Bulgaria. Meanwhile, accession by Ukraine while at war would be complicated; it would also become one of the bloc's most populous and poorest countries. Its joining would also require a rebalancing of bloc-wide agricultural funds; Warsaw, Budapest, and Bratislava are already angry at Kyiv over the importation of Ukrainian grain, which they claim undercuts their farmers.

An Opportunity for Reinvention

That said, enlarging the European Union has always seemed unthinkable because the candidate states often have been impoverished. In 1981, when Greece joined the European Economic Community (the EU predecessor), it was also viewed as poor and corrupt. In 1990, Poland was poor and only slightly wealthier than neighboring Ukraine. Thanks largely to EU membership, it has skyrocketed in growth and, if current growth trends continue, could be wealthier than the United Kingdom by 2030.

The EU has always reformulated its goals. The coal and steel union began as a way to make the prospect of Germany waging another war on France materially impossible. Obviously, that goal is long gone. Amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, enlargement could give the EU another opportunity to reinvent itself and be geopolitically relevant in the 21st century.

Luke Johnson is a freelance reporter living in Berlin, frequently writing about Eastern Europe.

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