Edition: International | Greek

Home » World

Is the EU Ready for Further Enlargement?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made EU enlargement a geopolitical imperative

By: EBR - Posted: Tuesday, May 9, 2023

"The EU is probably not able to admit more members, but it should be."
"The EU is probably not able to admit more members, but it should be."

by Judy Dempsey*


Enlargement remains the EU’s flagship foreign policy, but the EU is less and less ready to pursue it. Despite the push resulting from Russia’s war in Ukraine, the union is in no position to take in further members from the Western Balkans, let alone from Eastern Europe.

In a similar vein, no candidate country seems to be prepared to conform with the EU’s accession criteria or indeed to make sure that no Hungary and Poland-style democratic backsliding will occur once membership is achieved.

Montenegro, negotiating its accession since 2012, is probably in the best position to join. With some headwind the diminutive Balkan country could make it into the EU toward the end of the decade. But it is difficult to envisage another Western Balkan nation making its way in—certainly not Serbia, which has to settle the Kosovo dispute first and undergo a process of radical re-democratization, which could be an even greater hurdle.

A “geopolitical” enlargement to Ukraine is similarly unlikely so long as the war rages on. In such circumstances, the best hope we have is that the EU will move forward by deepening integration on the sectoral level, notably on issues such as energy and climate as well as on services and the digital transition. Such a model will deliver some economic benefits to all parties without raising the expectations too high and running the risk of a major let-down.


No, the EU is probably not able to admit more members, but it should be.

The track record of previous enlargement waves has been unmistakably positive: the economic catch-up of poorer regions, the anchoring of disparate and often shaky jurisprudence to a unified legal frame, and growing European consciousness, to name just a few acquis. They have all contributed to enhanced political stability across the continent. If skeptics doubt their value, they will be quickly disabused after looking into European history books.

Unfortunately, alongside this success story emerged a political narrative that spawned Euroskepticism and nationalism. The Ukrainian grain tussle is a perfect example of penny-wise narrowmindedness set against pound-foolish lack of strategic vision. Special interest groups—read Polish farmers here—will always fight their battles. Yet they and others like them inadvertently keep derailing policies that lie in the interest of the EU as a whole.

The Ukrainian and Balkan enlargement is of vital long-term strategic interest to the EU. Yet it will almost certainly fail in the near future. Reforming the EU so it can keep an eye on the forest as much as on the trees is difficult because there will always be centrifugal forces set against it.


It had better be ready. If Europe wants to be a player, the EU has no choice but to grow. The enlargement policy has done the EU a lot of good over the years. Even EU citizens see that. On average in the EU, more people are now in favor of further EU enlargement (52 percent) than against it (38 percent). This was not a case four years ago, when the attitudes were the inverse: 45 percent were against and 43 percent in favor.

But of course, the devil lies in the details. Even one of the most enthusiastic countries about enlargement—Poland—now struggles to grasp the consequences of welcoming Ukraine to the European club, even before the process has really begun.

For the next enlargement to happen, both the EU and its neighbors have to be ready. Today, neither side is. The EU’s institutional architecture is cumbersome and needs adjustments. As some critics observed after 2004, the commission had more members than serious jobs. Likewise, policymakers show no appetite for treaty changes. Additionally, the EU has to bring its house in order when it comes to adherence to the rule of law.

Finally, we need a mindset change. It may just be semantics, but if Central and Eastern Europe, after nineteen years of being fully fledged members, are still called “new” then we have to wait for them to “grow up” before we welcome new ones.


In the current geopolitical conditions, any EU enlargement beyond the Western Balkans looks largely unrealistic.

The process most likely to temporarily replace the idea of enlargement will be the so-called progressive European integration through areas of close cooperation under the EU banner. As the Polish case has shown, even a powerful supporter of EU enlargement to the east is prone to putting national and electoral interests first.

The East Europeans will also compete for EU accession funds with six Western Balkan countries and Turkey. In order to expand, the EU as a supranational institution and the existing member states have to agree that they will have to increase the union’s budget and reduce the participation of those who are now part of the club. The poorer the potential newcomers—Moldova and Georgia—or those treated as risky competitors in the sensitive EU agrifood market—Ukraine—the more complicated existing EU resources, whose elasticity is currently limited, will be shared with the oldest and increasingly nervous member states.

To make enlargement work, it is imperative to have honest anticipatory thinking about the development of current limitations. Wishful thinking and superficial approaches will only jeopardize enlargement in the medium and long term.


It doesn’t look like it. Enlargement of the European Union is a geopolitical imperative. Keeping a “gray zone” of states in Europe’s East outside the union is surely a recipe for disaster. But as currently designed, enlargement is also highly problematic.

The process is both hyper-technical and too political. Incorporating tens of thousands of pages of acquis and aligning with technical standards is hard enough for large European countries with real depth of governance, but near impossible for Moldova or Ukraine. It will take up to a decade at least—more than two electoral cycles—where anything could happen.

We see the politics in the somewhat arbitrary list of conditions each candidate country has to meet and in the way one veto is enough to block the whole process. North Macedonia should be the leading candidate country but is not because of its local problems with Bulgaria. Viktor Orban’s Hungary or a post-Macron France can simply slam the door shut if they want to.

As many experts have already said, a redesign of the enlargement process is needed—one that promises the real benefits of the single market early on and only delivers full membership of institutions and voting rights at the very end.


If geostrategic developments, and notably the war in Ukraine, pose an irresistible pull toward another major eastward enlargement of the European Union, internally the EU is not ready to manage this process.

From an institutional viewpoint, decisionmaking in the union depends too heavily on the unanimity vote. Yet, if deciding at twenty-seven has often proved daunting, also due to the shrewd use of the veto by countries such as Hungary, increasing the number of member states will only make things worse.

Moreover, from a financial viewpoint, the EU still has only a limited fiscal capacity. Yet, if at the insistence of some countries—such as Germany—the experiment of common debt-issuance a la Next Generation EU remains a one-off, it is unclear how the EU could bear the massive costs of reconstructing Ukraine, and integrating it and other neighboring countries into the single market and beyond.

The Conference on the Future of Europe, which concluded in May 2022, correctly identified these issues and called for reforms enhancing the EU’s institutional effectiveness, and expanding its financial firepower. As of now, only the European Parliament has consistently pushed to implement these recommendations via treaty changes.

The crux of the matter is that most member states, with notable exceptions such as France, oppose the idea of constitutional reforms. Yet, more than in previous moves of European integration history, deepening should precede widening.


The issue of EU enlargement continues to be a point of contention. While public discussions often focus on macro-level topics, such as EU leaders’ stance on Ukraine’s potential membership, it is essential also to consider practical matters. The recent grain export issue serves as an example of how practical concerns can have significant consequences.

One such practical issue is how the EU can balance the need to invest in new member states while also prioritizing the deepening of cooperation in areas such as defense and climate. Moreover, The Economist recently noted that eighteen out of twenty-seven EU member states receive more from the EU than they contribute at the moment, but this could change to just four or five countries if Ukraine joins.

Additionally, the Common Agricultural Policy remains an important priority for the EU budget. Ukraine, one of the leading global exporters of grain and wheat, would make CAP reform inevitable, and it will not be easy.

Political leaders must address these concerns and work toward finding solutions. While it is clear that Ukraine belongs in the EU, it is vital to prevent a potential backlash from EU citizens who may be concerned about the impact of enlargement.


The speed at which the European Council granted candidate statues to Moldova and Ukraine, and acknowledged Georgia’s eligibility for membership in June 2022 should not distract from the fact that becoming an EU member usually takes around a decade. Even the quickest accession, that of Sweden and Finland, took five years while Turkey has been a candidate since 1999. Meeting the Copenhagen criteria and navigating the complexities of the acquis communautaire is difficult and something that seems unrealistic for the Ukrainian government to realize under current conditions.

Enlargement debates furthermore create unrealistic expectations. The approval of enlargement requires unanimous agreement from the Council of the EU and ratification on a national level. Some members, such as Italy, France, Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands, are skeptical about enlargement. Tellingly, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz emphasized the need for EU reform to ensure the union’s viability in his Prague speech.

Rather than entertaining wishful thinking about EU membership, the current moment should provide an opportunity for the EU to evaluate what it can offer to states short of full membership. This list is diverse and includes the UK, potentially Hungary, as well as those who remain perpetual candidates. An affiliation that goes beyond the current association agreements would enable links between Europe’s neighboring countries and the EU, while navigating the risk of an EU standstill.


On May 1, 2004, Poland and nine other countries joined the European Union. The euphoria of what came to be known as the big bang enlargement largely obscured the fact that joining the EU was accompanied by fears of parts of Polish society about its immediate consequences. One such group were the farmers who thought that competition from the more modern agricultural sector in the “old” member states will bring havoc to Polish farming. Yet such doomsday scenarios did not come true and the agriculture in Poland has thrived following the accession.

Nineteen years later the farmers’ protests have prompted the Polish government to hastily impose a ban on Ukrainian agricultural products. Until then, Poland had been a staunch supporter of Ukraine’s EU membership and this decision undermined this non-partisan consensus. While it is tempting to see this crisis as an exemplification of a deeper contradiction between EU enlargement and national interests, the real causes lie in the striking incompetence of the Law and Justice (PiS)-led government, which wasted precious months doing nothing to prevent the predictable crisis and then panicked in the face of the rebellion of its core electorate.

The bigger lesson here is that the rhetoric of national interests is too often a cover-up of populism and incompetence of EU governments. Whether the EU is ready for enlargement will not only be determined by the necessary institutional reforms but by the ability of the European public opinion to counter national populisms.


I would add more related questions. Is the EU ready to sustain the principles and values it declared in all founding documents? Is the EU ready to defend these values where and when they are challenged? Does the EU understand that it is not the only center of gravity? Many countries still cannot freely choose their political integration path because they face the implicit veto right of totalitarian regimes. Are those models getting the right response?

Torn by internal disagreements and inconsistencies, the EU is unable to formulate a strong principled position, a common policy within itself. Totalitarian regimes are consolidating power and claiming to change the world order. They deny liberal democracy, neglect basic human rights, and expose arguments of power.

The EU generates one sixth of the world’s economy but is practically unable to do anything as a global moderator in resolving crises and conflicts on its own continent. There are military and frozen conflicts in Europe which the EU fails to influence. Without the review of the Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) system, the EU will not be able to overcome the obstacles in defending the rule of law, agreeing on sanctions, and forging a common policy in relation to totalitarian regimes. It is unlikely to be ready for a timely and efficient enlargement.

Russia’s war against Ukraine gave Europe a chance to consolidate. Significant financial support for Ukraine is an example of this. Political steps must now follow.


Yes, the EU can and should accept its responsibilities. Begin with Western Balkans, where the UK, France, Germany, and the United States ended a decade of Serb death squads and ethnic cleansing in 1999. Twenty-four years later, none of the region’s small nations have been allowed to join the EU. The latest futile efforts by the EU and the United States to wean Serbia off being a Putin puppet have just collapsed.

When it joined the European Economic Community in 1981, Greece was regarded as poor, corrupt, and in conflict with Turkey. Today, the EU can easily take in Albania, Kosovo, and North Macedonia. Otherwise, they will be parked in President Emmanuel Macron’s European Political Community and forgotten until Greek calends.

Ukraine needs a special deal as farmers in East Europe will force politicians to veto. Georgia needs to stop putting Saakashvili to death. Moldova can enter as did Cyprus. The EEAS and its three high representatives have done their best. Now it needs national government leadership especially to end the surreal idiocy in Athens, Bratislava, Bucharest, and Madrid that Kosovo does not exist.

“Enlargement” is a bad word. It is about making Europe whole, free, and democratic. Waiting for the perfect moment is like waiting for Godot. Start with North Macedonia, Albania, and then continue one by one.


To be honest, no, the EU is not ready for further enlargement. It does not have the decisionmaking and voting structures to take in more members, especially not with a large society like Ukraine. Its funding structure, especially in the agricultural sector, needs reforms and it has a rule-of-law and governance problem with countries like Hungary and Poland.

This new push for enlargement with the Russian invasion in Ukraine is a chance to finally reform the EU and make it a more strategic actor in its neighborhood. Only a parallel process of integrating new members in the east and southeast combined with a structural reform of the EU can be the answer.

The EU is currently not ready to be a geopolitical actor because it is lacking the toolbox especially for security policy, the ambitions, and a common vision by the member states. Enlargement means the creation of a new core group which steps forward with integration. There is the possibility for partial and overlapping integration or integration of the wider neighborhoods like Central Asia in some sectors. It could also include increasing connectivity, combined with the export of EU norms and standards but also the cancellation of membership if the country does not share EU norms anymore.


Almost a decade ago, I wrote a piece arguing that EU enlargement policy was “flat lining” along a trajectory of “frozen negotiating chapters” amid an atmosphere of increasing mistrust between EU “insiders” and “outsiders,” toward an increasingly uncertain destination.

Virtually nothing has changed since then. The EU is locked into a relationship with the Western Balkans characterized by broken promises, inertia, and stalemate. Member states have been interfering more and more frequently and negatively in the negotiations.

A larger problem is the obstructionism of French President Macron and other European Council leaders who have more or less come out against any further accessions in the near future. This matters because the history of enlargement demonstrates a symbiotic link between the degree of seriousness—and thus credibility—of the EU offer of accession and the pace of reform in candidate states.

At the moment elites in candidate countries have virtually no incentive for implementing the reforms the EU insists on because they don’t believe this will be rewarded with progress in their accession perspective.

The decision to offer Moldova and Ukraine candidate status was the right thing to do. But the dispute about Ukrainian grain demonstrates in spades the contradictions of the EU position on enlargement.

The EU should be planning for a union of thirty-five member states in the next decade. But to get there, the member states need to become serious about the process and their responsibility to lead rather than obstruct, and set a date for these accessions.


The EU must meet its commitments to candidate countries. Some, like the Western Balkans, have been in the antechamber for far too long. And some, like North Macedonia, have implemented brave adjustments to gain accession. The stakes of not opening up are big, in terms of EU credibility and leaving these countries susceptible to the influence of third powers like Russia, Turkey, or China.

However, meeting accession criteria should be real and sustainable, not mere box-ticking. The question is not whether enlargement may be undesirable for some member states—it might as well be. The question is how we ensure enlargement does not undermine EU unity and cohesion, and that it serves a deeper union and a more powerful Europe in the world. (Viktor Orban is a reminder of how any maladjusted member can undermine EU unity and its ambition to speak with one voice).

To ensure that, enlargement should be preceded by deepening, the ability to reach common decisions especially on foreign and defense policy. On that, the EU is not yet ready, and neither are all candidate countries. A staged integration, tying closer EU access to Europeanization, is a pragmatic way to keep the enlargement momentum while making sure that the union is not diluted.


Where does the EU want to be in ten-fifteen years? This is the question we should ask first.

The EU is a product of the liberal international order. Its unique nature and its sui generis foreign policy stem from a privileged position of security and prosperity that it enjoyed as part and parcel of that order.

This order has been unraveling for some time now and although we are all rooting for liberal democratic forces and norms to prevail, the Russian aggression against Ukraine may well be the final blow to that order.

This raises questions about the EU’s identity and its foreign policy ambitions, especially in its neighborhood. Rather than engaging in self-congratulatory rhetoric of being bold enough to offer what is seen as the biggest and most precious prize of a candidate status to the embattled eastern neighbors, the EU should have a frank discussion about its regional strategy under worst-case scenarios.

The whole idea of enlargement is premised on conducting structural foreign policy by supporting deep transformation of states and societies. This cannot be achieved without taking into account immediate threats and fragilities. A new round of enlargement, if and when it happens, cannot be a replica of what happened under very different historical circumstances. The EU should be ready to radically rethink its strategic priorities first.


The EU experienced a geopolitical awakening as a result of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which led inter alia to granting Ukraine a candidate country status. After February 24, 2022, the EU finally tackled the Russia-Ukraine conflict rather than just trying to stay away from it, as it did in 2014–2021. Now it has to live up to its promises and actually work toward full membership of Ukraine as part of a future settlement.

The EU is not ready today, and neither is Ukraine. What matters is a commitment to move toward Ukraine’s accession, step by step. Ukraine is doing its homework in spite of the ongoing war, but the EU has not even seriously started its own homework.

Those member states that are most keen to support Ukraine should bear a special responsibility and engage in a debate over what needs to change within the EU before Ukraine and other candidate countries can join. They need to address difficult questions about how to manage the implications for institutions and decisionmaking processes, the EU budget, the Common Agricultural Policy and cohesion policy, rather than just saying “no” to any proposals for internal reform while insisting on fast enlargement. Some other member states don’t mind using the lack of internal reforms as a reason for not enlarging.


The short answer is: no, it is not.

The longer answer is: it may not have the chance to be fully ready. While the 2004 and 2007 enlargements were politically and economically grounded, the destablization of the European security architecture in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine made the enlargement of the union a geopolitical issue. Particularly as candidate status was granted to countries that are directly exposed to Russian hybrid warfare or, like Ukraine, had been invaded by Russia. This gives EU enlargement a new dimension—it becomes a tool to safeguard the geopolitical interests of European democracies and the security of their citizens.

At the same time, the turmoil within the union itself—the democratic backsliding and the rise of right-wing populist parties across the EU—is a reminder that the union is above all a community of values. As these values should not be sacrificed on the altar of geopolitics, the EU is faced with probably the biggest challenge in its history of reconciling the growing pressure from candidate countries with the need to ensure the condition of the union itself. Otherwise it risks losing credibility.

*nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe
**first published in: Carnegieeurope.eu


EU Actually

The G7 wants to project strength, but the traditional group photo shows its weakness

N. Peter KramerBy: N. Peter Kramer

An 81-year-old Biden trailing Trump in the polls; Macron and Scholz who have just been defeated by the far right; Sunak on his last G7 meeting before his election defeat

View 04/2021 2021 Digital edition


Current Issue

04/2021 2021

View past issues
Digital edition


EU Commission ups pressure on seven countries’ public spending; spares Estonia for defence investment

EU Commission ups pressure on seven countries’ public spending; spares Estonia for defence investment

The European Commission issued formal warnings to seven member states for violating the bloc’s budget rules


The new type of smart, sustainable entrepreneurship and the next day

The new type of smart, sustainable entrepreneurship and the next day

Both retail and industry go hand in hand with the new type of smart entrepreneurship as they are at the level of rapid developments and changes spearheaded by the new circular economy and sustainable development


Powered by Investing.com
All contents © Copyright EMG Strategic Consulting Ltd. 1997-2024. All Rights Reserved   |   Home Page  |   Disclaimer  |   Website by Theratron