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8 March 2023

The EU must accelerate its next enlargement

Admitting eight countries in eight years would be a daunting challenge for the European Union – but it would bring formidable benefits.

By Jeremy Cliffe

The wheels of the great European Union accession machine are turning once more. On 28 February 2022, just four days into Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukraine submitted its formal bid for EU membership. It was granted candidate status four months later in June, along with Moldova. Bosnia and Herzegovina joined them in December. Ahead of the first anniversary of the invasion last month, the entire college of European Commissioners travelled to Kyiv to announce a new package of support and the opening of an office of Horizon Europe, the union’s scientific research funding programme. Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhal, talks of joining the EU within two years.

Yet in major EU capitals, officials quietly opine that it will take much longer – quite possibly decades. Fast-tracking the Ukrainian and Moldovan applications, note officials, would be unfair on the five western Balkan states with candidate status. In October 2022, some EU countries sought to use a summit with western Balkan governments to set a target date of 2030 for their accession. They were overruled. A sixth western Balkan country, Kosovo, still does not have its desired candidate status due to its lack of formal recognition by EU members such as Spain and Romania, who are wary of stirring up breakaway movements at home.

[See also: Countries urging Germany to send Ukraine tanks must now do the same]

That the wheels of the accession process are only creaking forward reflects how demanding this next enlargement would be. Accepting Ukraine, Moldova and the west-Balkan six would take the EU to 35 member states (36 with Georgia, though its slide towards autocracy makes that less likely for now). The additional eight members would add 64 million to the union’s population – roughly the number lost through Brexit, but with well under one quarter of Britain’s gross domestic product (GDP) per capita. Ukraine would become the union’s fifth-biggest member by population and its largest by land area. The accession of this new EU8 would move Europe’s centre of gravity markedly to the east, with a new Warsaw-Kyiv axis perhaps rivalling the Paris-Berlin one.

That would create all sorts of thorny challenges for the EU – possibly greater than those of the 2004 and 2007 enlargements and the westward migration, eastward transfers of regional funds, and strains on the union’s cohesion that they unleashed. If it is to join the EU any time soon, Ukraine might have to do so while still at war (frozen or otherwise), and with Russia occupying parts of its territory. With Moldova would come the Kremlin-backed breakaway republic of Transnistria. Peace in the Balkans looks increasingly fragile and Serbia is again drifting towards authoritarian nationalism and the arms of Russia and China.

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France would have to concede major reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. Poland and others would lose development funds to the poorer new members. The likes of Spain would have to recognise Kosovo. Germany and the Nordics would have to accept greater fiscal transfers and integration. The union’s institutions would have to change. As Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz argued in a far-sighted speech in Prague in August 2022, the European Commission and European Parliament would need overhauls, and unanimity requirements on topics such as foreign policy and tax would have to go.

[See also: If the EU could speak, what would it say?]

Yet as fraught as all this would be – particularly if pursued on an accelerated timetable – it is worth comparing with the potential costs of continued limbo. Imagine that latter scenario in, say, the early 2030s. Imagine an Ukraine worn down structurally and industrially by years of war; its economy sclerotic and investment sparse; a slow-motion failed state; its voters and leaders resentful of an EU that failed to stand by its promises. Imagine Moldova or the west-Balkan states at war or turned into satellites of Moscow, Beijing or even Ankara. Imagine an archipelago of instability and poverty across eastern and south-eastern Europe, its fractures and crises creeping across the borders into the EU itself.

Compared with this scenario, the challenges of rapid EU enlargement do not look quite so insurmountable. This new EU8 might be much poorer than current members, but the 2004 and 2007 accession states show how fast progress can be within the club (Poland’s GDP per capita is on track to overtake Britain’s by the end of the decade). As European populations age rapidly and labour shortages bite, the politics of immigration is shifting – as the relative ease with which millions of Ukrainians have already been settled within the union has shown. And while concerns about the conflicts and instability the new EU8 might bring are valid, Europe has accommodated significant constitutional, historical and territorial enmities before. West Germany was a founding member long before its status and borders were finalised. Cyprus joined the EU as an internally divided state and remains as such. Slovenia and Croatia both joined with ongoing disputes over sovereign waters in the Adriatic. And membership can often smooth such disputes by the very act of making borders matter less. As a condition of its accession in 2012, Croatia agreed to an arbitrated settlement with Slovenia, which was reached in 2017. The Northern Irish dimension of Brexit has illustrated that same point in reverse.

[See also: Rishi Sunak discovers the EU is great after all]

A new can-do spirit in the name of a lastingly stable and prosperous Europe would mean fast-track membership for Ukraine, Moldova and the western Balkans by a target date of 24 February 2030 – close enough to focus minds and inspire the necessary sense of urgency, but not entirely fanciful either. Creative thinking about staging posts could accelerate progress along that road.

In a paper for the European Council on Foreign Relations in 2022, Susi Dennison and José Ignacio Torreblanca proposed “associate membership”, giving candidate states the right to sit in on EU ministers’ and leaders’ summits and send non-voting observers to meetings of the European Commission and Parliament. Such a status could be dovetailed with a rapid path into the single market: the Financial Times’ Martin Sandbu has proposed Ukrainian membership of the European Free Trade Association – and with the necessary recovery support for Kyiv, estimates of which are now approaching €1trn. It is already recognised in European capitals that the drip-drip of economic aid will have to give way to a more long-term financial arrangement. In Paris, for example, there is talk of a new debt-backed fund, akin to that used to finance the union’s Covid-19 recovery. Such cash could lubricate the wheels of fast-track accession – perhaps such a fund could also supply greater support for the other seven accession states in this new EU8.

Bringing eight poor, and in some cases unstable, states up to the level of institutional readiness and economic development needed to join the club at record speed would be something of a moonshot project for the EU. Eight countries in eight years (with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine as the starting gun): a task that would challenge a union that has been through its share of crises in recent years, test its reserves of ingenuity and collective will, but also see the union show itself, its incoming members and the wider world that it cannot be written off.  

[See also: Ben Hodges: “The only hope the Russians have is that the West loses the will to keep supporting Ukraine”]

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid