Expanding the EU in a turbulent geopolitical context

, by Louise Orvain, Translated by Tiffany Williams

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Expanding the EU in a turbulent geopolitical context

Since February 2022, the Russian war against Ukraine has reinvigorated the debate around expanding the European Union. Questions are emerging about whether the current institutional mechanisms for accepting new member states are still fit for purpose. The troubling situation in Ukraine, which is at the forefront of current events in Europe, is part of a wider context that touches on other situations, such as those affecting Moldova, Georgia and the western Balkans.

These discussions are prompting EU citizens to question the effectiveness of the current EU accession processes: do they meet the challenges of today, or do they require re-evaluation in line with plans for future enlargement?

A delicate puzzle in the current geopolitical context

In their last summit of the year, on 14 December 2023, the European Council agreed to open accession talks for Ukraine and Moldova, and approved a candidate status for Georgia.

The EU nevertheless faces a complex dilemma: how to assure Ukraine’s accession, without discouraging the Ukrainians with a long and technical process? How to lessen the painful adjustments, without risking a rushed expansion that would threaten the EU’s stability? The difficulties that emerged during the 2004 expansion are still widely divisive, increasing the risk that Ukraine’s accession will be poorly managed.

Nine countries are official candidates for EU accession: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Türkiye and Ukraine. While Kosovo applied in 2022, the country has not yet been granted candidate status.

Since its origins, the EU has been an ambitious project to promote peace, stability and cooperation between European nations. Over the decades, many countries have expressed a desire to join the supranational community, providing an impetus to reform the current mechanisms for new membership.

How the membership process works

Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) defines the process of EU expansion. The article stipulates that any European state which respects the fundamental values of the EU (article 2, including human dignity, freedom, democracy, amongst others) and commits to promoting them may apply for membership.

Any country wishing to join the EU must formally apply to the Council of the EU. The request is finalised by the signing of an “association agreement” establishing a free trade area with the EU. This is the first step for the state to begin integrating the EU’s rules into its legislation, before fully adopting them.

Once the application for candidacy has been submitted, the EU member states vote unanimously through the European Council before inviting the European Commission to give further approval, which must also be unanimous. This process can take a long time: for example, while Bosnia and Herzegovina submitted its application in 2016, the Commission’s opinion was not issued until 2019. In contrast, Ukraine’s application was processed in a matter of weeks. Why such a difference in treatment? Laurence Boone, French Secretary of State for European Affairs, said “We should forget about the timing, and instead focus on the goal. If these countries achieve their reforms quickly, then the membership process should be very quick. It is based on merit and on the progress achieved [...]”.

After the Commission provides its opinion, the Council must decide unanimously to grant the country candidate status. Note, achieving candidate status does not guarantee that the country will eventually be accepted into the EU. Once candidate status is achieved, the accession process begins. A pre-accession strategy is deployed in order to familiarise the candidate country with the EU’s policies and procedures. European leaders then check that the candidate country sufficiently upholds the four Copenhagen criteria (relating to politics, economy, institutions, and capacity to take on the obligations of membership). Finally, the candidate country must demonstrate its ability to apply EU rules and procedures at a national level.

In the final phase of the negotiations, which have been approved unanimously by the Member States in the European Council, each candidate country formulates its position on the 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire (the sum of EU legislation), describing how it will integrate them into its judicial and institutional framework. This formulation is the basis of the negotiations, and outlines the candidate’s engagement with adopting and implementing European law, and with making the necessary internal reforms (administrative reform, economic reform and reform against corruption).

If the country had met the expectations of all Member States, the negotiations are concluded by drawing up an accession treaty, which is then submitted to be signed by each country’s head of state, and to be approved by the European Parliament. After the treaty is ratified by all of its signatories, accession takes place on the date specified in the treaty, and the candidate country becomes a Member State of the European Union.

Towards a larger EU: the challenges and strategies for 2024

In September 2023, Jean-Louis Bourlanges, president of the Committee of Foreign Affairs of the French National Assembly, presented a report on the management of EU expansion. In his opinion, it is critical for the EU that reforms are put in place ahead of future enlargement

Bourlanges recommends that the process respects the time needed for candidate states to make adjustments, taking into account the tense geopolitical context. The report proposes three gradual stages of membership: political compliance with the values and objectives of the EU, followed by the implementation of policies via specific agreements with the Commission. Finally, after a monitored process, the new Member States would be able to fully participate in EU institutions.

In a follow-up paper presented to ministers of European affairs on 27 September 2023, Austria also proposed a list of political domains (including the single market, transport infrastructure and energy) in which candidate countries could be authorised to cooperate with the EU before becoming fully-fledged members. This change would allow them to reap some of the benefits of being in the EU well before full membership was confirmed.

Following the European Council summit of December 2023, the EU has set an objective for 2024 to produce a roadmap for a union of 30 to 35 Member States to function without institutional barriers. A number of European leaders, including Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz, are of the opinion that expansion must be accompanied by deep functional reform.

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