The European Union’s policy of expanding its membership has been labeled as a use of its soft power. By pushing new democracies to reform, assisting in their transition, and helping them align with EU law, EU enlargement has created a single, united Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union—one that has produced prosperity and embraced open, free-market economies and liberal values. The enlargement process has stalled since 2013, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is now reviving it.
The geopolitical threat posed by Russia to its neighbors and the whole European security order prompted the European Commission to propose in May that Ukraine and Moldova be granted candidate status for EU membership. In June the European Council (which comprises the heads of state or government of the 27 member states) confirmed this step. The European Parliament has supported such a move for a long time. After President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine applied for membership in the wake of Russia’s invasion, Moldova and Georgia followed suit, worried that they would be next in line to face Russian aggression.
Some history is worth reviewing. In 2004 the European Union added 10 new members. Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007 and Croatia joined in 2013. Britain’s exit in 2020 has left 27 members. But during the tenure of former Commission president Jean Claude Juncker (2014-19), the position of an enlargement commissioner was abolished. Instead, the focus shifted to neighborhood cooperation, signaling to the Balkans that the EU had other priorities. Now distant potential new members have suddenly become geopolitical hot stuff.
The European Council’s recent approval of Ukraine and Moldova for candidate status was meant as a clear sign to Russian President Vladimir Putin that countries are free to choose their own friends, allies, and paths. But their road to EU membership will be long. They will first have to be approved as ready to start negotiations after a thorough evaluation by the Commission. To get candidate status, Georgia will have to fulfill a number of conditions, including reducing political polarization, implementing reforms to ensure an independent judicial system, and strengthening anticorruption efforts.
Back to geopolitics?
Countries that want to join the EU need to comply with EU values, EU laws, and standards and show capacity to align with EU legislation. They need to be able to operate within the single market and comply with 35 chapters of the EU acquis, covering everything from phytosanitary standards, intellectual property law, energy, statistics, antidiscrimination laws to monetary policy, a process that can take several years. Serbia and Montenegro have started negotiations (so has Turkey but talks are frozen). But these two countries have barely moved forward, apart from some technical talks. This summer the European Council finally agreed to allow Albania and North Macedonia to begin the negotiation process after many years of delay because of disputes over the name of Macedonia (which Greece objected to) and the situation of the Bulgarian minority in the country. Bosnia has not yet been granted candidate status. Neither has Kosovo, a country that gained independence from Serbia in the 1990s and is recognized only by 22 out of the 27 member states.
This neglect of the Western Balkans has allowed some of these countries to backtrack on democratic reform while looking for alternative friends in Russia and China, which has extended its Belt and Road Initiative to Eastern Europe. Serbia has long historic ties with Russia and is the only country in Europe not aligned with European and Western sanctions against Russia.
The bad examples of Poland and Hungary
Another factor in the EU’s stalled outreach has been its conflict with Poland and Hungary. Europeans are uneasy about the dismantling of an independent judiciary in Hungary, as well as both countries’ discriminatory laws against LGBT people and other minorities. The two countries have also attacked academic independence and freedom of the media, leading to court cases and withholding of EU money. Some European Parliament members favor suspending membership for Hungary and Poland out of fear that Europe’s fundamental values are at risk. Last week the European Parliament issued a statement saying that Hungary is no longer a democracy. The European Commission has threatened to withhold 65 percent of budget commitments to Hungary out of fear of corruption involving EU funds.
The Commission has suggested that while membership negotiations are ongoing, candidate countries could cooperate on energy, the fight against organized crime, and other matters while attending EU summits, potentially creating more trust and political engagement. President Emmanuel Macron of France has proposed a European Political Community with cooperation in a large number of areas but not necessarily full membership. He wants leaders of candidate countries and the EU to meet on a regular basis to build trust. One such meeting will take place in Prague in October, where the leaders of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and the United Kingdom will be invited. But President Zelensky and others reject the idea of a political community, fearing that it would be an alternative to full membership.
Applying countries are not the only ones in need of reform, however. The EU itself must become more agile if it wants to add almost 10 new members. For example, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany has proposed that the union should move more towards majority voting in taxes, foreign policy, sanctions, and other issues that currently require unanimity. The European Parliament and the Commission would also not be allowed to grow with the addition of every new country under his proposal. Member states in Eastern Europe are among those that would fiercely oppose such changes, fearing too much power going to France and Germany.
The European prospects of Ukraine
Ukraine’s candidacy is a fraught issue for Russia. Its ties to the EU evolved in 2009 within the framework of a Polish-Swedish initiative called the Eastern Partnership, aiming to align Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan more tightly to Europe. A proposal for an association agreement—including an ambitious trade agreement—was prepared for Ukraine in 2013. Under pressure from Russia, however, then Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych abandoned the EU talks, choosing instead to join the customs union Russia already had with Belarus and Kazakhstan. His reversal unleashed the popular uprising on Maidan square in which Ukrainians, wrapped in EU flags, turned against their president, forcing him to flee to Russia. The revolt fed into Putin’s fears of a Ukraine turning to the West, prompting him to send forces into Crimea in March 2014. The government in Kyiv then adopted the association agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with the EU, which entered into force on January 1, 2016.
Europe’s sanctions against Russia after Putin’s first invasion failed to deter his ambitions in Ukraine. But Russia’s brutal invasion in February 2022 has united Europe against Moscow, despite some individual voices who claim that the sanctions hurt Europe more than Russia. Those arguments may grow as Europeans face a tough winter with high energy prices, inflation, and a possible recession. Still, popular support for Ukraine is strong. Europe has delivered humanitarian help, military equipment, and budgetary support and is ready to provide financing for the reconstruction of Ukraine. Ukraine has been connected to the European energy grid and will be a member of the free roaming area that is in place for all EU citizens. Thanks to the DCFTA, Ukraine is already rather aligned with the internal market in areas such as telecommunications, financial services, maritime, and postal services.
A long and bumpy road ahead
Still, it is not going to be an easy ride for Ukraine to become a full-fledged EU member. After a peace deal is reached, Ukraine will need to implement reforms to fully establish an independent rule of law and show clear commitment to fight corruption. The country will need huge amounts of financial support for reconstruction, including investments in infrastructure, which can benefit European companies.
The road to a larger EU will also take time. But every enlargement has been beneficial and led to economic growth and enhanced welfare for the whole union. The initial cost to include the remaining Balkan countries, and later Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, will of course be high, which is why the EU budget must be reformed before any new steps are taken. There is no way member states—and taxpayers—will be able to pay to new members the same amounts for agriculture and regional policy they give current members today. But political stability and a stronger democracy in the candidate countries will of course benefit the whole continent. The road ahead will be long and bumpy, but it is absolutely necessary to take it.
1. The 10 countries to become EU members in 2004 were Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Cyprus, and Malta.