Competing options for EU enlargement

Once seen as the most powerful foreign policy tool in the EU’s toolbox, ‘enlargement’ has lately become nothing more than a source of frustration for countries wishing to join the club.

With the European Commission’s recommendation to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, and potentially to Georgia in the future, enlargement policy is back on the agenda. But it’s not just the Trio Association.

The EU-Western Balkans leaders’ meeting on Thursday 23 June — ahead of the full EU summit — also set the tone for the Western Balkan countries’ path to the EU.

But in addition to discussions related to enlargement policy, various ideas for complementary institutional arrangements for the whole continent are on the rise. We have French President Emmanuel Macron’s European Political Community, European Council President Charles Michel’s European Geopolitical Community and former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta’s European Confederation, among others.

These proposals are open to in-depth discussion.

Today, there are three urgent tasks for the EU when it comes to the wider Europe: to move forward in the processes of the candidate countries; ensuring cooperation through transitional integration and complementary institutional arrangements in the meantime; and reform the EU if necessary.

The three tasks are different pieces of a larger puzzle. Today, the dichotomy between democracies and autocracies is increasingly visible in the enlarged Europe. If the European Union wants to regain its ability to shape the continent and to define the frontiers of democracy and good governance, it is time to upgrade the policy of enlargement and reflect on complementary institutional arrangements.

To do this, the European Union should also increase its absorption capacity in the meantime. It is paramount to remember that all these steps are not a favor to (potential) candidate countries but rather an inclusive reshaping of the continent to ensure cooperation to face common challenges.

Furthermore, it should be emphasized at this point that, for Candidature Status and membership negotiations to work as real fertilizer for democratic reform, there must be light at the end of the tunnel.

Credible prospects = concrete steps

Only a credible prospect of future membership can lead to lasting reforms. In addition, the concept of transitional integration, immediately making this waiting room a tool for later rapprochement, will also be important.

If concrete short-term benefits — beyond the already existing association agreements of candidate countries — could be offered, the promotion of democracy might be more accessible.

For this to be the vision, we need a change of mindset. The problem is that today enlargement is above all perceived as a favor to the candidate countries. This is why the absorption capacity of the EU (which is certainly an important consideration and mentioned in the Copenhagen criteria) is frequently used as a counter-argument to membership.

Aspects related to the promotion of democracy, good governance and the possibility of better cooperation in foreign and security policy are not necessarily seen as priorities by many in the EU.

One of the main reasons for this is that democratic backsliding in some EU member states – mainly Hungary and Poland – discourages further investment in the region in the form of EU membership. This perception needs to be challenged if the EU is serious about being a geopolitical player.

It is important to understand that today, rethinking the enlarged Europe does not only concern the European future of the candidate countries, but also the capacity of the EU to shape its continent. It was through European integration and the transatlantic alliance that many countries advanced their democracies in the 20th century. Now is the time to extend this model to other countries.

Today, Russia’s war of aggression is unfolding to challenge Ukraine’s existence and its path to a more democratic model. This war is also a war of models. The ability of the EU to act on this reality will shape the future of the continent. If the candidate countries move towards the Union, the collective resilience of the continent will increase.

Today, working on the enlarged Europe is not a choice but a necessity. If the European Union wants to continue to transform the countries of the continent, extend its model of governance, encourage democratic reforms and secure cooperation, it must be multitasking. If this is a geopolitical contest, the EU still has a lot of interesting things to offer. He should just make his offer tangible and real.


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