The geopolitical impetus behind further EU enlargement meets formidable forces of inertia.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought enlargement back on to the European Union agenda—this time as a geopolitical imperative. It pushed the European Council in June last year to grant Ukraine and Moldova candidate status while acknowledging Georgia’s eligibility for membership and supporting accelerated accession in the western Balkans.
Ever since 2004 and the ‘big bang’ opening to the east, enlargement has been losing credibility, with Croatia the last recipient of full membership a decade ago. Its shortcomings have included a simultaneously technical focus yet rather political management. Few anticipate enlargement as a realistic prospect for the foreseeable future even for the candidate countries.
The French Europe minister, Laurence Boone, suggested last month that a ‘differentiated’ accession process could ‘anchor’ aspirant countries quickly to the EU, in line with the project advanced by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, for a European Political Community. And on the eve of the second EPC summit, held in Moldova last week and attended by the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Macron said the inclusion of the two countries should take place ‘as quickly as possible’. Yet his approach cuts both ways.
In his Sorbonne speech in 2017 on the future of Europe, Macron said of the union’s internal differentiation: ‘No state must be excluded from the process, but no country must be able to block those wanting to make faster progress or forge further ahead.’ Within his vision of a Europe of concentric circles, he could thus put a brake on membership negotiations with peripheral North Macedonia and Albania in 2019, unilaterally reconceptualising the enlargement instrument.
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The legacies of war and the attempted co-ordination of EU foreign and neighbourhood policy have left their marks on the western Balkans. Recurrent impediments, as recently Bulgaria’s spat over history with North Macedonia and the tensions between Belgrade and Pristina in north Kosovo, blur the EU’s vision for the region. These challenges are yet to work themselves out in the case of Ukraine, taking into account all the historical, religious and cultural factors in the background, as well as the implicated neighbouring countries.
The ability to reach common decisions on foreign and defence policy especially is still a key concern in the EU, despite the straddling of the old cold-war faultline with the 2004 accessions. The waves of hope which swelled post-1989 in central and eastern Europe have broken into currents of Euroscepticism and nationalism. This is another challenge for setting the Ukrainian and western-Balkan enlargements as a vital long-term strategic interest of the EU.
The expectations of former Warsaw Pact countries, for whom (western) ‘Europe’ was a harbinger of freedom, democracy and liberalisation, were linked to the association-and-stabilisation agreements between the EU and aspirant member states in the western Balkans and the partnerships agreements under the European Neighbourhood Policy also introduced in 2004. The ENP aimed to foster stability, security and prosperity in the EU’s neighbouring regions to the south and east, along with co-operation in economic development, security, migration and mobility. Yet almost two decades on, the EU is still struggling to offer a coherent policy on migration or a comprehensive economic model to its neighbours, beyond the technocratic management of expectations.
As a tool to safeguard the geopolitical interests of European democracies and the security of their citizens, enlargement would be best improved by sharing knowledge and practices accrued from its former iterations. The central- and eastern-European member states can offer important lessons about navigating the complexities of the acquis communautaire and meeting the Copenhagen criteria for membership.
One of the key challenges will however be overcoming the ‘fear of diversity’ and the ‘deep longing for homogeneity’, as the historian Patrick Pasture has put it. An important element, as he has noted, was and remains how Europe interacts with ‘the others’ and how ‘the others’ view Europe as result. Ideas of ‘Fortress Europe’ and of ‘European civilisation’, associated with a specific way of history-telling, disregard that interconnection with others.
After 1989 a complacent EU did push aside critical reflection on the collective building of that ‘ever closer union’, mainly due to the elite-driven process of integration and the focus on completing the single market. With citizens removed from active political representation through the political parties, and passive voices channelled mainly through elections and opinion surveys, there has been little scope for imagination of what sort of societies citizens would like to build in the future. Exercising power in small circles, beyond public scrutiny, driven purportedly by ‘efficiency’, is creating a constant governance mode of crisis management and ad hoc adaptation.
The aspirant member states must share their responsibilities. The struggles to prove their democratic capacities and address the many shortcomings concerning judiciaries and autocratic regimes, Euroscepticism and populism, connect to unaccountable use of power. The members of political elites who enjoyed accelerating their careers as negotiators with the European Commission created a style of exceptionalism, beyond the reach of regular citizens or public debates. The small teams of officials and experts, backed up by extensive administrative support, preferred the technocratic way of doing politics to voicing the historical and cultural legacies of their states—except when it came to lustration to purge the Communist past.
Learning from the past can certainly offer a perspective on the contemporary challenges of enlargement. The candidate status of Ukraine and Moldova does place a burden on the future of the EU peace project. The fanfare for accession, very powerful in times of war and empathetic emotion, can lose its volume over time. Behind the union’s guarded borders, if past lessons are not learned EU strategies will remain locked in the mismatch between diplomatic rhetoric and concrete actions in the years to come.
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Emilija Tudzarovska is a lecturer in contemporary European politics at Charles University in Prague and a researcher at the Czech Academy of Sciences, SOU. Her current research is part of NPO 'Systemic Risk Institute', funded by the EU.