For more than a decade, the once-radiant instrument of EU enlargement seemed to have lost its popular appeal and was put to the shelf. Mantra-like repetitions of political declarations and the rather empty rhetoric of enlargement only led to fatigue and even further into the technocratic impasse. The European Union pretended it wanted to enlarge, while the countries of the Western Balkans simulated reforms. The result was a standstill.
Then came the Russian attack on Ukraine, a dramatic moment for Europe and, as it seems, a new lease of life for EU enlargement. The political momentum and interest in enlargement are now back, and a window of opportunity for not only enlarging but also fundamentally reforming the Union is wide open. Only a couple of days ago, while the debate was gaining in speed and substance, Europe was on the brink of another armed conflict in the Western Balkans, triggered by a military attack by a Serbian paramilitary group with obvious ties to the official EU candidate country, Serbia. In January 2024, it will be ten years since the official opening of EU accession negotiations with Belgrade. Paradoxically, since then, the country headed by President Aleksandar Vučić, has joined the list of the ten most autocratic countries globally. Today’s Serbia should almost be seen as a warning of what may happen, if one doesn’t speak the truth to power and neither the EU nor the candidate country are taking the process of negotiating EU accessions seriously.
Ivan Krastev, one of the sharpest minds analyzing Central and Eastern European realities, put his finger on the sore point, stating that it is not enough for Europe to wake up to a new geopolitical reality. You also have to get out of bed and make use of this wind of political change. If we don’t seize the opportunities in front of us, the tide may turn quicker than we think once the massive wave of public support for nationalistic forces in Europe translates into new government formations and Donald Trump, or his ideology, celebrates its return.
Winds of change
What needs to be done? First of all, the EU needs to get its act together and undertake serious and far-fetched reforms. After all, it is not enough to name possible target dates for the next round of EU enlargement, as done by Charles Michel, the president of the European Council. Yes, the political dynamics push the Union towards enlargement. It has become a geopolitical imperative. However, the devil lies in the details, and enlargement is not only driven by foreign and security policy concerns, but it also entails a strong economic, financial, and social dimension. That is the reason why the European Commission proposed to review all policy areas and make them ready for a bigger Union. This is why it is paramount to include the EU candidate countries in the yearly Rule of Law Monitoring of the EU, which is already at an early stage.
However, institutional questions are the easier exercise. The sheer size of a possible next enlargement with nine countries, in particular with Ukraine currently fighting for its existence, has no comparison. Next to the special security dimension, we should not neglect the huge economic differences between the EU-27 and the current candidate countries, with nine potential new member states belonging to the ten poorest countries in Europe. Once tough questions of competition or the future financing of EU negotiations are on the table, negotiations and political decisions will naturally become more complicated.
Democracy and passion for Europe
Besides internal EU dilemmas and necessary reforms, there is one important task for the Union, namely to intensify and widen its networks and partnerships in the candidate countries. A closer cooperation
with civil society and the many pro-European and emancipatory grassroots movements would be a welcome and much-needed help to boost democratization from below. Frontloading some of the tangible economic and social benefits and an early, gradual integration into the single market could give hope and perspective to the people, improving the quality of their lives. And more attention should be given to the dreams and needs of the next generation in the candidate countries — young Europeans. They are the core constituency of the future larger EU, and we have to inspire them for our common European family. In the end, it will be on them to secure internal democratic reforms and, with their passion and engagement, help hinder state capture by a still too often corrupt political elite.
Most importantly, all candidate countries and potential future members of the Union have to show serious commitments to European values and their own European ambitions. The EU and all its member states have to raise their voices and take a clear and unequivocal stance vis-à-vis volatile political systems see-sawing between Moscow, Beijing, and Brussels, such as Serbia, or with Georgia, still eying Russian support and proving the case in point. In the end, the EU enlargement is and will never be a process for the sake of political elites but for the sake of the people. We must not forget what stands behind the idea of EU enlargement: it is the Union’s core idea to promote European values, human rights, rule of law, and liberal and democratic societies, which apply to all, including, of course, the candidate countries.
To push enlargement back on track, we need a new set of rules, putting the functioning of the Union on a stable footing and making it ready to successfully integrate new members. But do we have the political strength and will in all EU capitals to take this path? The next few months will tell us whether the EU is actually able to prove that it understands realpolitik and, in particular, geopolitics. It is utterly clear that there will be no enlargement without internal reform. The next enlargement, with Ukraine being the core country, would change the Union in a way maybe only comparable to German reunification or the 2004 “big bang” Eastern Enlargement. The Western Balkans are the latmus test for the art of possible. Not succeeding in a region where the Union has invested so much is simply not an option. A failure in the Western Balkans would only make everything much more difficult for the whole of Europe.
Paul Schmidt and Vedran Džihić, on behalf of the WB2EU Network co-funded by the European Commission under its Erasmus+ Jean Monnet programme: www.wb2eu.eu