Magdalena Frennhoff Larsén argues that there is a newfound momentum and relative consensus behind EU enlargement that contrasts with the situation before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
2024 could see significant progress in the EU’s enlargement process. Accession negotiations are set to begin with Ukraine and Moldova. In Georgia, which was recently granted candidate status, there are speculations that accession negotiations will also start this year. And for the Western Balkans, which were promised an EU perspective already in 2003, there are strong calls for an acceleration of the accession process.
Yet, enlargement is a complex process where countries seeking to join the EU have to meet stringent criteria relating to economic and political governance structures. The countries also need to fully align with all the rules and regulations adopted by the EU to date. The process is further complicated as all decisions – from granting a country candidate status to the conclusion of the accession negotiations – need to be taken unanimously by the member states. This means that enlargement will not progress unless all member states are on board at every step of the way – and so far, the journey has been anything but easy.
During the lead-up to the last European Council meeting in December, Hungary’s President Victor Orbán grabbed the headlines with his threat of vetoing the opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine. There were fears that the whole enlargement process would be derailed because of opposition from a single member state. But in the end, the leaders reached a consensus, even if it required Orbán leaving the room while the vote was held.
It is this consensus, rather than the veto threat, that provides the real news story, as it contrasts starkly with the EU’s record on enlargement before the start of the current war in Ukraine.
Despite enlargement being considered one of the most successful EU policies, support for progressing and opening new accession negotiations waned across the EU after the 2004-7 Eastern enlargement. There was extensive enlargement fatigue and concerns about the EU’s integration capacity. As a result, member states did not shy away from vetoing progress in the accession negotiations, often for reasons not directly related to the pace of the reform process in the candidate countries.
For example, Greece vetoed the opening of negotiations with North Macedonia for over ten years until their bilateral name dispute was solved. Croatia vetoed the opening of a specific negotiating chapter for Serbia until commitments were made regarding the translation of textbooks into Croatian. And France, supported by Denmark and the Netherlands, initially vetoed the opening of negotiations with Albania, mainly due to concerns about enlargement fatigue among EU citizens, and the prioritisation of inner consolidation to allow the EU to tackle its internal challenges before expanding further. These, and numerous other vetoes, led to a stagnation in the enlargement process.
However, since the start of the war in Ukraine, enlargement is back on the agenda with a renewed momentum. The war has highlighted the geopolitical and strategic importance of the neighbouring region to the EU. While economic, political, and moral arguments dominated previously, enlargement is now increasingly framed as a geopolitical necessity. The cost of non-enlargement is becoming increasingly clear, with other geopolitical powers, most notably Russia and China, exerting increasing influence in the region.
This geopolitical logic has led to a common purpose and new commitment among the EU institutions.
In the Council, where member states used to be divided between supporters and opponents of enlargement, a new consensus is emerging. The main shift is seen in the position of France, traditionally an enlargement-sceptic. In the wake of the war, President Emmanuel Macron has expressed commitment to enlargement, which he sees as an integral part of the EU’s strategic autonomy. Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholtz is also advocating for a completion of the enlargement process, while emphasising that it needs to go hand-in-hand with reform of the EU itself. Other previously enlargement-sceptical countries, including Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands, are also becoming more supportive. So even if the threat of a Hungarian veto will continue to loom, the odds of finding consensus are now much greater.
This consensus has allowed the member states to not only agree to the historic decisions of opening accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova and granting candidate status to Georgia, but also to start negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, as well as granting candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
As for the Commission, it has regained the initiative in the enlargement process. The war in Ukraine has provided a real test for Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s ‘geo-political Commission’. By making enlargement part of the EU’s response to the war, the Commission has expanded its role in international security affairs. Von der Leyen was also quick in advocating for the Western Balkans not to be left behind, as illustrated by the new 6 billion Western Balkans growth plan.
As a result, there is a sense of momentum among the Commission officials working on enlargement. This is a welcome change after years of frustration, not only with the continuous vetoes of their recommendations by the member states, but also with the lack of leadership within the Commission. For example, former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s declaration that no enlargement would take place during his term was seen as a downgrade of enlargement, and made it difficult for these officials to keep the candidate countries motivated to continue with their reform processes.
Finally, the European Parliament – traditionally the most enlargement friendly institution – has also intensified its enlargement activities. It recognises enlargement as a geopolitical investment, and through its direct engagement with the candidate countries, it is able to exert influence over the reform process on the ground.
Even if far-right parties do make gains in the upcoming European Parliament elections, they are unlikely to significantly shift the existing pro-enlargement parliamentary majority.
Despite the perceived geopolitical necessity and current unity in the EU, there is still a long way to go before the EU welcomes its next member. But at least the conditions are ripe for enlargement momentum to spill over into 2024. With a sincere commitment from the EU, candidates are more motivated to undertake the necessary reforms. The opposite was witnessed in the Western Balkans, where candidate countries were demoralised by the continuous vetoes expressed by member states regardless of the reforms undertaken. This led to a vicious circle where the candidates backtracked on the reform process, only to weaken the EU’s commitment further. 2024 might be the year when that circle turns around.
After all, for a Union that recently lost one of its biggest member states, the idea of countries queuing up to join should be welcomed.
By Dr Magdalena Frennhoff Larsén, Associate Professor in Politics and International Relations, University of Westminster.
Magdalena’s recent book, ‘The EU in International Negotiations’, analyses EU enlargement negotiations, and the difficulties faced in the last two decades.