A host of obstacles to realising the enlargement perspective of the summit in December can be surmounted with political will.
The European Union moved forward decisively on enlargement at last month’s summit. The European Council agreed to open accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova and made Georgia and Bosnia-Herzegovina candidate countries, albeit with more restrictions on Bosnia. But will the momentum be sustained?
There are challenges ahead: a diverse set of prospective and potential member states inevitably raises a range of questions about their effective preparation and the union’s capacity for readjustment. The political drive to move forward has, rightly, come from Russia’s war on Ukraine, but negotiating with a country that for an uncertain period will remain at war, then face a steep reconstruction path, will not be simple. And the EU stalled for two decades on progress to absorb the western-Balkan countries, except Slovenia and Croatia.
The wider environment is not auspicious either. Compared with the ‘big bang’ enlargement of 2004, prepared in the 1990s, the geopolitical situation is deeply troubling, from Russia to the middle east to China. The presidential election looms in the United States. There are fears the far right will increase its representation in the European Parliament elections in June. And the climate challenge requires more urgent and effective action, with 2023 declared the world’s hottest year ever.
Reasons for optimism
Yet it may be possible to be more positive than some about the prospects for enlargement. While 2004 may look, in hindsight, straightforward, strategic and dynamic, it took 15 years from the fall of the Berlin wall. It involved a lot of muddling through—plus a series of new EU treaties (including the Lisbon treaty in 2007). Some did call at the time for more rapid enlargement or for some type of ‘political’ membership ahead of candidates fulfilling all of the EU’s acquis—or consideration of further eastern expansion, including to Ukraine—but no such bold steps eventuated. It was both a political and technical process, moving in fits and starts, that in the end could not but go with the momentum from the collapse of the Soviet bloc.
Given the challenges that may arise from bringing in up to nine more member states, many today express concerns about the EU budget, decision-making, agricultural policy, rule-of-law backsliding and the state of democracy in many of the candidates. These are all serious issues which will need tackling. But a broader view suggests the EU has done well with its series of enlargements. And once again today this looks like its most effective foreign-policy tool—as the union otherwise stumbles over Israel’s bombardment of Gaza.
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Since the first enlargement in 1973, the original six member states have become 27 (following the United Kingdom’s departure), an almost five-fold expansion. If all the actual and potential candidates joined, except for Türkiye, the EU would enlarge by a further third. Over time, the union has then repeatedly demonstrated its absorption capacity—and its democratic, political and economic attraction.
Hungary’s less than democratic government, and the truculent behaviour of its prime minister, Viktor Orbán—including threats of vetoes on enlargement—are not acceptable. But they should not colour the whole process. EU accession underpinned the then-new democracies in Greece, Spain and Portugal and, later, did the same for most of the new member states from central and eastern Europe. The union adjusted its policies and decision-making, including by broadening qualified-majority voting. And it carried on taking decisions, from the euro to climate change to artificial intelligence.
The overarching lesson from the various enlargements since 1989—the successes of 1995 and 2004 and the relative stagnation of accession, except for Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia, in the two decades since—is that political commitment is central. That does not mean avoiding debates—there were plenty in the 90s. But the EU’s leaders need to stick to the enlargement goal with clear direction and dynamism.
Although the European Commission continued with the accession process across the candidate countries, over the last two decades, and the European Parliament contributed both politically and technically, enlargement stagnated. Since the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the European Council has found renewed political determination—both in the accession process and in supporting Ukraine militarily. The European Parliament can and must play a key role here in demanding that enlargement move forward, ensuring political dynamism is sustained while continuing to unpick the technical challenges for the candidates and for the union.
Bumps in the road
There are many political and technical challenges ahead and so there will be bumps in the road. While Orbán did not go through with his threat to veto the summit decision to open accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova (leaving the room instead), he did block further EU funding for Ukraine. That issue will return to the agenda of the European Council on February 1st, where the expectation is that Orbán will back down again or the EU26 will move ahead without him.
In March, the EU will need to agree the negotiating frameworks for Ukraine and Moldova, by unanimity. After the December summit Orbán threatened, in a show of playground bravado, that Hungary could veto up to 75 decisions needed during the negotiations. But EU politics works through compromise and consensus, finding a way through. The other member states will not simply sit there if Orbán repeatedly upends the process, not least given Hungary’s rule-of-law deficiencies. As Politico reported, Orbán’s behaviour last month ‘has gone in 26 black books and will come back to haunt him … He will be made to pay eventually.’
The politics of enlargement is never, anyway, about only one member state. All member states will keep a weather eye on how more members and changes in decision-making and policies affect their standing, budget contributions and receipts, and their relative power in the union. None of this is easy but not everything has to be done at once.
Whether on free movement or the Common Agricultural Policy or other areas, there is scope to use extended transition periods if needed. In the face of climate change, major reform of agricultural policy is in any event necessary and in part under way. The EU has already absorbed over four million Ukrainian refugees. And the union has its own demographic and labour-supply challenges that enlargement could help with, as long as a level social playing-field is maintained.
The renewed EU enlargement methodology since 2020 toughens up how the union can deal with backsliding, especially on the rule of law, among candidates. And it needs to deal more firmly with such challenges on the part of existing member states too.
Should Russia still occupy some areas of Ukraine at the time of accession, then northern Cyprus—in the EU but with the acquis suspended—shows a possible way ahead. Meanwhile, some of the budget challenges raised by bringing in new, poorer member states may be alleviated in the case of Ukraine, given it will need much funding for reconstruction.
Inevitably, as reflected in the recent Franco-German independent experts’ report, more qualified-majority voting and a ‘multi-speed’ Europe have returned to the enlargement debate. To ease the ability of any one member state, such as Hungary, to gum up the works, some form of increased QMV looks to be one important way forward.
Ideas of partial integration by policy area for candidates during the accession process may yet prove useful for maintaining dynamism, as long as this does not become a ploy to go slow. Inside the EU, a multi-speed Europe has been proposed in various forms for over three decades. Yet, when it comes to it, member states do not want to be left out—the UK being the notable exception, in an outer tier of Europe pretty much on its own.
Despite the challenges, the new EU enlargement strategy and associated political energy is very much to be welcomed. Done successfully, moving the process forward in the years to come will help strengthen and dynamise the union—not the opposite.
The European Parliament has an important progressive role to play here to ensure the current, major enlargement moves forward without stalling, maintaining clear political support, and that the various policy and technical reforms that will be vital for the candidates and the EU itself are fully scrutinised and appropriate.
The parliament only has a formal vote at the end of the process, voting on each accession treaty. But it has played a major role in earlier enlargements through creating a political dynamic and backing for enlargement, in scrutinising accession negotiations and the politics and policies of each candidate country, and not least in putting forward detailed proposals for necessary internal reforms of the union. That role is vital and without the parliament’s support the enlargement process would be in trouble.
Kirsty Hughes is a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. She was the founding director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations and has been European director at Chatham House and a senior fellow at Friends of Europe and the Centre for European Policy Studies.