Why a larger EU doesn’t mean a stronger EU 

In the shadow of war, a new chapter in enlargement policy requires careful reform.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Edi Rama, Prime Minister of Albania, Ursula von der Leyen, EU Commission President, and Charles Michel, EU Council President in October 2023 in Tirana. In November, the EU reinvigorated the accession process with its new Growth Plan for the Western Balkans.

By David McAllister

David McAllister (EPP, DE) is chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs

26 Mar 2024

European Union enlargement is experiencing a renaissance. In November 2023, the European Commission presented a historic package, including 10 reports on the state of play of candidate countries on their path to EU accession. It has also published a new growth plan for the Western Balkans.   

Furthermore, with the European Council giving the green light to opening negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, it is clear the EU is no longer simply showing symbolic solidarity with neighbours invaded or threatened by Russia. Rather, a new chapter is beginning in the shadow of, and accelerated by, Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine – and rightly so. 

An enlarged EU will only be stronger if we overhaul the way our union works.

Grey areas are danger zones. They give Russian President Vladimir Putin room to expand as he tries to plough an imperial trench through Europe, exploiting the vacuum that the EU partially created when it failed to deliver on many promises made to the Western Balkans 20 years ago. The frustration, resignation and, to a certain extent, enlargement fatigue are deliberately utilised by Moscow and Beijing.  

These grey areas along the EU’s borders must disappear. The EU ought to communicate its immense technical and financial assistance strategically. Enlargement is a geopolitical necessity. 

Enlargement is a regatta, not a convoy   

While Russia’s war provides a tragic context in which enlargement is being accelerated, it does not remove the obstacles. The process remains merit based, as every country must fulfil the criteria. There can be no shortcuts, especially when it comes to the ‘fundamentals’ – the rule of law and democracy and thus the constitutional reality.  

Ukraine still needs to do more on investigations and convictions, but the country has taken impressive steps in the fight against corruption and implementing the rule of law. In December 2023, the European Council recognised this. Progress was considered sufficient for accession negotiations to be opened.  

This also applies to Moldova and Georgia where large sections of civil society are clearly in favour of joining the EU. The geopolitical reasons that speak in favour of the accession of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia naturally apply to the Western Balkans. Following the progress made by Bosnia and Herzegovina on its reform path, leaders finally gave the green light to opening accession negotiations with Sarajevo at the Council meeting in late March.

No black and white thinking 

People in the Western Balkans must not be left with the feeling of ‘all or nothing, black or white.’ We should instead enable people to witness the tangible benefits of the EU at an earlier stage, before their country is a full member. Let us work on concrete ways of gradually integrating candidate countries into the EU. Starting points for such an approach exist in the Council conclusions of June 2022.  

The aim is to advance political association and economic integration as far as possible before formal accession. The enhanced association agreements with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia provide a basis. The Stabilisation and Association Agreements with the six Western Balkan countries, which date back to the 2000s, are narrower in scope. Thus, the new growth plan for the Western Balkans, being negotiated now, is a welcome addition.  

The renaissance of enlargement policy and the consensus that we need to expand is one of the most strategically significant but least recognised consequences of the Russian war against Ukraine.  

However, an enlarged EU will only be stronger if we do what we have long hesitated to do: overhaul the way our union works. If the number of members is to grow by almost a third, then our community needs a strong structure – from the basement to the roof. It’s not just a matter of embellishing the façade but of strengthening the very fabric of our community. The Commission’s proposal on pre-enlargement reforms and policy reviews is a welcome step. By the summer, I expect the Council to adopt a roadmap for future work.  

The pressure to reform works both ways: candidate countries have to make themselves fit for the EU and the EU must be fit for candidate countries.  

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