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Sun. April 14, 2024
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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

An Enlarged EU Can Also Strengthen It


By Sébastien Maillard

The war in Ukraine has sadly entered its third year. As a consequence from the very beginning, it has put enlargement back on the European agenda. The country's negotiation framework for accession to the EU is expected in March from the European Commission. In contrast to Brexit, which four years ago saw one of its most powerful members leave, the EU is now preparing to potentially welcome up to nine new members in the coming decades. A Europe of 36 sets on its faraway horizon. Will this process weaken the European Union or, on the opposite, can it actually strengthen it?

Upon Robert Schuman’s post-WWII vision of reconciling the continent, enlargement does not betray the European idea of unity. It even marks its accomplishment. But, in doing so, it paradoxically changes its curse. The admission of new countries is not simply extending the existing EU. It is part of a project to transform the bloc in response to the new geopolitical risks it is facing. Let us not forget that Ukraine applied to the EU just the week following its invasion by Russia. It was immediately followed by Moldova and Georgia, in the same reaction to the growing threat of Russian imperialism.

Before the war, one has to admit that this wide part of our continent, that stretches on the edge of today’s EU, was an unthought part of European integration. The Western Balkans were implicitly considered to be the last who would enter the EU, at least in Paris. Their admission, in practice, has been pushed back to a point where the process has lost most of its credibility. Countries of the former Yugoslavia have not taken advantage of the new impetus to enlargement so far, except Albania and recently Montenegro. But elsewhere there is a new dynamic because Putin’s will to restore Russian influence over the former Soviet Union forbids to let Eastern Europe in some sort of grey zone, which would always be an area of instability. Any kind of 'buffer state' would live under permanent Russian threat. For the former Soviet republics, joining the EU thus means, first of all, saving their nation, preserving their freedom of action, and anchoring their country outside the sphere of so-called ‘Rouski mir’ (Russian world). When proudly waving European flags, Ukrainians are not pledging to an outside international organization but claiming the European identity enshrined in their own nation. Morally, a firm prospect of membership brings hope to the population at war. Economically, it also reassures private investors in view of the reconstruction.

Enlargement seems harder to admit in the West. France has been traditionally reluctant to the process, fearing it is prejudicial to deeper integration and to a nimbler EU. Small is beautiful, but is it powerful? Adding more member states is regarded as a burden that complicates the functioning of the EU and strains its budget (CAP, cohesion fund) rather than as a geopolitical imperative for the sake of our continent’s security. A way for the EU to affirm itself in a multipolar world.

Whatever the reason, membership is primarily a democratic choice on both sides. Through enlargement, the EU is not creating an empire in that it does not force any sovereign state to join it - or even to remain (Brexit). The first condition for any application, besides being regarded as a European country, is to be a liberal democracy. The other two conditions are to run a market economy and to respect European law. Hence, all the time needed to negotiate sector by sector, chapter by chapter (35 in total), to establish an accession treaty, which will then have to be ratified unanimously by each of the current Member States of the Union and will probably include transitional phases of several years before it fully comes into force. For sure, Ukraine will not be in the EU by tomorrow.

Even if enlargement responds to a new geopolitical imperative, it will not be achieved in one round. Another ‘Big Bang’, like the one that happened 20 years ago when the EU jumped from 15 to 25 member states, is not the most obvious option. The idea is rather to organize entries spaced in groups of 2 to 3 countries. At this stage, Montenegro, Albania, and North Macedonia stand out as the most likely to get near admission. On the other hand, letting in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Kosovo still seems a very distant prospect. But rather than a full admission only at the end of a long at times hesitating process, the idea also makes its way of a staged accession. It would enable all stakeholders, candidates, member states, and EU institutions alike, to become more familiar with one another. Future member states would learn to gradually absorb and manage European funds in several steps. In other words, should membership be compared to marriage, it would call beforehand an engagement period. The Commission has just published on March 20 a communication on pre-enlargement reforms, supporting 'gradual integration' ahead of accession.

Staged accession would also allow for stronger surveillance than in previous enlargements on the respect to the rule of law. Independence of the judiciary, freedom of the media, respect for the opposition,...: all the basic principles that make a liberal democracy are essential to building and sustaining trust between states in the Union. This trust must not fade away with enlargement. The ongoing case with Orban’s Hungary has led to raising the level of requirement upstream.

Homework is also on the EU’s shoulders for it to adapt its governance accordingly. Enlargement has thus put institutional reform back on the European agenda. Yet experience shows that the difficulty for member states to agree together is not just a matter of how many they are or how sophisticated are their decision process. It is mostly the circumstances, the common understanding of what is at stake, and the shared perception of a direct threat, that forge political will and lead to consensus. The pandemic and then the ongoing war have led the bloc to make quick and far-reaching decisions at EU level that it would not do otherwise. Today, the harshness of geopolitical threats to be averted, from Russia and beyond, the need for the EU to develop its own industrial capacities to overcome any over-dependence, as de-risking from China, and the risk of a more isolationist US command the unity of Europeans. Necessary institutional improvements will then follow and not just for the sake of enlargement.

To address these concerns and become a full-fledged power in its own right, an enlarged EU does not have to form one uniformed single bloc. The changing number of countries joining the Euro area or the Schengen area proves that European integration is not a one-size-fits-all process. It leaves room for differentiation. This will prove even more essential to keep a Europe of “30+” nimble from within and not end up crippled.

As can be seen, enlargement poses great challenges. But it also offers unique opportunities and not just for the candidate countries. Ukraine will not only be a cost for the CAP but it will bring some of the most fertile land in the world to the single market. At a time when the EU is trying to secure rare-earth elements and produce its own batteries to equip electric cars, countries such as Serbia have reserves of lithium, which could reduce our external dependence. There are other examples of strategic benefits. Enlargement, the absence of which would also present a cost, can renew the perception of countries still very little or poorly known in the West. Their European perspective getting now more concrete will transform their economies and their political and social conditions but also make Europe more powerful in the world. At first historically a peace project, the EU is becoming a power-project. Enlargement is part of that shift.

Sébastien Maillard is special advisor to the Jacques Delors Institute, working in its Centre Grande Europe and Associate Fellow at the Europe Programme, Chatham House. He previously served as director of the think-tank, which he joined in 2016 after a career in journalism at La Croix, a French daily newspaper. He was a correspondent in Brussels (2007–10) and Rome (2013–16), covering Pope Francis’ pontificate. He also co-headed the newspaper’s world desk and covered President Macron’s first presidential campaign. Sébastien Maillard has taught EU affairs at Sciences Po, from which he is a graduate, and at Boston College. He has written in-depth articles in several reviews and is a frequent media commentator. He is the author of Qu’avons-nous fait de l’Europe? and published an interview-book with former Italian PM, Enrico Letta, Faire l’Europe dans un monde de brutes. He was appointed Chevalier to the Ordre du Mérite in 2021.

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