Growing pains of EU enlargement



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Welcome back. The late Polish-born pope John Paul II was fond of saying that Europe ought to breathe with two lungs, eastern and western. This compelling image has lost none of its force as the EU grapples with how to advance its long-stalled process of eastern enlargement. I’m at [email protected].

Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s premier, quoted John Paul’s remark during a visit at the start of this month to Moldova, where dozens of leaders from EU and non-EU countries gathered for the second summit of the European Political Community.

Meloni said Italy supported the goal of EU membership for Balkan countries, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine as part of their “reunification into the European family”.

Fine words, with which all 27 EU member states agree in principle. As Emilija Tudzarovska, a lecturer at Charles University in Prague, writes for Social Europe, Russia’s attack on Ukraine last year concentrated the minds of policymakers in national capitals and at EU headquarters in Brussels.

In once-sceptical western European countries, where “enlargement fatigue” has spread for a decade or more, a more common view now is that Russia’s invasion has transformed Europe’s geopolitical outlook. Long-term security and stability require a serious effort at expanding the EU’s membership.

Most strikingly, French president Emmanuel Macron says that EU enlargement should proceed “the faster the better”.

But the obstacles to enlargement are formidable. Some relate to the internal political, institutional and economic conditions of candidate countries, which at present fall short of the EU’s exacting standards for membership.

Others concern the politically sensitive concessions and trade-offs that will be required of EU states to accommodate new members in their club. This week I’m asking what needs to be done to make enlargement a reality — and, one hopes, a success.

From six to 28 — then 27

Let’s start with a short look at the history of EU enlargement. To the six founding states of the 1950s (France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux trio), the original European Economic Community added Denmark, Ireland and the UK in the 1970s, Greece, Portugal and Spain in the 1980s and Austria, Finland and Sweden in the 1990s.

During this process, the EEC became the European Community and then the European Union.

The biggest and most challenging enlargement took place between 2004 and 2013, when the EU brought in 13 new members. All except Cyprus and Malta came from the former communist half of Europe: Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Then the UK left, reducing the membership to 27 from 28 countries.

Overall, enlargement looks like one of the EU’s greatest achievements. It has consolidated democracy and prosperity across a large part of the European continent, eased historical animosities among various member states and made the EU a powerful global actor in areas such as trade and business regulation.

Snail’s progress

Now eight more countries are official membership candidates: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey and Ukraine. Moreover, the EU regards Georgia and Kosovo as potential future members.

Map showing EU members, candidates and potential candidates

However, enlargement has slowed to a crawl or worse. No country has joined since Croatia in 2013. Even those Balkan states that have begun formal entry talks are nowhere near completing all 35 “chapters” of EU law that have to be negotiated. Turkey’s candidacy is little more these days than an optical illusion.

One reason for the paralysis is that some governments, especially but not only in western Europe, look at the “democratic backsliding” of Hungary and Poland, and at corruption in Bulgaria, and wonder if similar problems will disrupt the EU after another round of enlargement.

These fears are rooted in the feeling that, once a country is in the EU, it is no simple task to make it fully observe the rules to which it signed up when applying for entry. As a result, the admission process was toughened in 2020 with the inclusion of new tools to reward progress or punish backsliding on issues like democracy and the rule of law.

Another cause of enlargement paralysis is to be found in the territorial, ethnic and political disputes of the Balkans. Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have once again flared up. Without a settlement of that quarrel, neither state has much prospect of joining the EU.

In Kosovo’s case, the picture is complicated by the fact that five EU states — Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain — do not recognise the former Serbian province’s declaration of independence in 2008.

Frictions among Muslim Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs have persisted in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the war of the 1990s and are a serious obstacle to that country’s hopes of EU entry.

Finally, Bulgaria has persuaded the EU to establish certain conditions for North Macedonia’s accession that go beyond the normal admission criteria and set a bad precedent for the Balkans as a whole.

Ukraine’s friends have interests of their own

In a worrying sign for Ukraine’s EU prospects, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia imposed restrictions on Ukrainian agricultural exports in April because of gluts building up on their local markets.

The quarrel was smoothed over, but the lesson is there for all to see: when it comes to opening the EU door, even Ukraine’s staunchest allies will fight for their own interests.

For example, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party relies heavily on the electoral support of rural areas where competition from Ukrainian food exports is less than welcome.

As for Hungary — much less of a friend to Ukraine — it is unfortunately all too imaginable that the government of Viktor Orbán would raise objections to EU entry, alleging that the ethnic Hungarian minority of Ukraine’s Transcarpathia region suffers discrimination.

Claims on the EU budget

The larger point concerning Ukraine is that, by EU standards, it is a very populous country with more than 40mn inhabitants, if you include war refugees abroad and the people of Russian-occupied regions in the south and east.

Furthermore, if Ukraine joined the EU, it would account for about a fifth of all the bloc’s farmland. Even leaving aside the matter of postwar reconstruction, a cost expected to run into hundreds of billions of euros, Ukraine would be one of the least well-off member states.

It would therefore have a huge claim on funds available under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and regional aid programmes. Together, they make up about 65 per cent of the bloc’s budget, as set out in this excellent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on EU enlargement.

Column chart of Spending allocated in proposed Multiannual Financial Framework, current prices (billion euro) showing EU's long-term budget priorities

Which countries will volunteer to give up billions of euros to make room for Ukraine? At present, 18 of the EU’s existing 27 members receive more funds from Brussels than they pay in, but this could fall to four or five after Ukraine joined, according to informal EU estimates.

And don’t forget that every other candidate country would also exhibit an entirely understandable thirst for EU largesse.

EU treaty reform?

Enlargement throws up questions beyond money. A club of 35 members would have to redesign itself, redistributing seats in the European parliament, altering voting weights in the European Council (which groups national governments) and perhaps scaling back the need for unanimity in areas such as foreign policy or taxation.

No wonder some governments think the only way to make enlargement work is to rewrite the EU’s basic treaty. But that is easier said than done. From my FT days in Brussels, I have vivid (and not wholly pleasurable) memories of how difficult it was to pass treaty reform in all member states in the 2000s, the last time it was done.

In any case, as Stefan Lehne pointed out in this piece for Carnegie Europe, some 13 northern, central and eastern European countries last year published a “non-paper” (a quintessentially Brussels document, implying a viewpoint worthy of serious attention, but not a formal position) that came out against “premature attempts to launch a process towards treaty change”.

Keeping up enlargement momentum

There are, nevertheless, creative ways of getting enlargement on the road.

In this article published by the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies, Michael Emerson and Steven Blockmans explain that the EU need not delay until candidate states have met all the entry criteria. Instead, it could take a step-by-step approach, giving the benefits of membership in stages as the countries make progress.

Initiatives along these lines are already taking shape. Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, proposes to integrate Balkan countries, before full membership, into the EU’s digital single market in areas such as ecommerce and cyber security.

This seems to me a promising approach. But I fear it will still leave many questions unanswered about how the EU can ensure that one day it breathes with two lungs.

More on this topic

Is the EU ready for further enlargement? — Judy Dempsey collects the views of experts for Carnegie Europe

Putin has revived the EU’s dreams of enlargement — writes the FT’s foreign editor Alec Russell for the “global insight” section

Tony’s picks of the week

Western countries are concerned that China and Russia may exploit geopolitical tensions in the Arctic to bolster their regional influence and expand their access to its natural resources, writes Richard Milne, the FT’s Nordic and Baltic correspondent

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s re-election indicates that western governments are in for a bumpy ride in relations with Turkey, according to Luigi Scazzieri of the Centre for European Reform

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