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EU Enlargement: Is Less More?

Earlier this month, the European Commission recommended open accession negotiations to Moldova and Ukraine and candidate status to Georgia. This announcement comes shortly after Ursula von der Leyen's sixth visit to Kyiv since the beginning of the conflict. The topic of EU enlargement has been in the backlog of the European Union's (EU) agenda after a number of crises encountered ever since its last enlargement in 2013. But what does this announcement mean for the EU's bigger picture?

After the Russian attack on Ukraine in February 2022, Ukraine launched its application to become a member state of the EU, and several of the Union's members have since pushed for its accelerated accession. Back in 2014, the country had already signed the Association agreement, the first step towards membership. This agreement sets specific criteria that any country wishing to join the Union must comply with; these criteria entail reforms regarding the rule of law, the fight against corruption, and strong economic and political regional cooperation. The conditions are set in the Copenhagen criteria, and the Commission emits the final recommendation, but the final say is in the hands of the European Council.

Moldova has had the Association agreement in place since 2016, and Georgia will obtain candidate status when the country ceases to bypass European sanctions against Russia.

Moldova and Ukraine have made considerable efforts to implement the reforms necessary to become an EU member state (MS). Why are these changes required to join the EU? A core principle of the EU is to have convergence across MSs, particularly on the economic level, accompanied by strong democratic principles. The Association agreement thus sets the base to be considered for candidacy.

The recommendation of the Commission has given hope to many of the countries' citizens to become, perhaps sooner rather than later, part of the European project. Yet the current conflict between Ukraine and Russia has muddied the waters of Ukraine's candidate status and possibility of full-on membership.

Already, the scope to further enlarge the Union is a topic that divides EU representatives. Back in 2014, the president of the European Parliament, Jean-Claude Juncker, even stated that the EU should take a step back on its enlargement process to test the waters of what could be achieved with (at the time) 28 member states.

Indeed, a common Eurosceptic argument is that governance and decision-making in the EU bodies is paralysed by veto powers, qualified majority voting, and the need for unanimity (as is the case for membership acceptance). So, what has changed since Juncker's presidency? For von der Leyen, enlargement is "the natural path to our Union". The successes both in Moldova and Ukraine in reforming its political and economic landscape to comply with the Union's criteria, notably by fighting corruption and a prevalent oligarchic system, is rather promising. However, the current conflict in Ukraine is undeniably a critical hindering factor in its membership process.

For now, the prospect of enlargement for Ukraine and Moldova is further challenged by current Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. Orbán's persistent accession blocking lies in his claim that Ukraine is not being considerate of the Hungarian minority located in the west of the country. Because enlargement has to be approved unanimously by the EU Council, it seems the road ahead is a rocky one.

What would change if the EU were to reach 28 members for a second time? Well, a lot. First, and most importantly, the European Parliament's (EP) composition would see its balance of power considerably shift. The number of representatives in the EP would increase by approximately 55 members elected by the Ukrainian population and 11 for Moldova, thus affecting the EP's behaviour in the EU's decision-making processes. The enlargement would also necessitate adaptation of the numerous treaties regulating the European common market, such as the Common Agricultural Policy.

Nevertheless, including Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia (and possibly the western Balkans) would suggest that Putin's attempted sphere of influence over former Soviet satellite states is failing. The waves of support for Ukraine through military aid from Europe and the US, combined with the no-longer neutral stance of Finland and Sweden, have further isolated Russia. Putin fears the possibility of European Union enlargement; having its western neighbours part of a powerful economic rival is a geopolitical nightmare for the Kremlin. The Union's resilience in the face of the energy crisis and its dedication to supporting Ukraine has sent a strong message to Putin — we will not be intimidated into abandoning our common neighbour.

EU enlargement is an undeniably complex process. Doubts remain over the Union's ability to govern the current 27 member states, and welcoming Ukraine and Moldova in the near future would kickstart a rollercoaster of re-negotiations of treaties, institutions, and economic plans. But the critical thing to keep in mind is that the Union's enlargement would signal to Eurosceptics, Putin, and the world that the European integration process is successful.

The heads of all 27 member states are scheduled to meet in December to discuss this topic further, so let's keep an eye open for any future discussions on EU enlargement.

Image: EPA-EFE/via Radio Free Europe

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