The challenge of a new enlargement of the EU is decisive for the future of the European continent. This is one of the crucial debates facing European states in the coming decade. This is as important as the debate regarding European economic sovereignty, and the growing European interests for security and defense. Brussels must decide how to become a geopolitical heavyweight without losing its internal coherence and, at the same time, appear as an interesting political project for potential new candidates to become full members of the EU.
To build a position as a major geopolitical actor, above all in terms of security and defense, the EU has to resolve the apparent contradiction between a technocratic and highly bureaucratic enlargement process and the political dimension of any European decision to welcome a new full member. The decision to accept or not in the coming decade the membership of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia will be key for the European capability to avoid the emergence of a zone of insecurity along its eastern borders. Many European observers are calling for a quick decision on new members and are urging for reforms inside the EU to avoid a crisis of governance.
The decision on enlargement is an historical turning point. One has to consider that EU enlargement has stalled since the accession of Croatia in 2013. In June 2022, the decision to give Moldova and Ukraine membership candidate status and to acknowledge Georgia as a potential candidate, the EU goal was to show that Brussels would not accept the emergence of a Russian sphere of influence on its eastern flank.
This decision also ended the idea of a “shared neighborhood” between Brussels and Moscow. The new geopolitical clarity is nevertheless tested given the increasing risk of conflict between European countries supporting the Ukrainian war effort and Russia in the hypothesis of a protracted conflict. Moreover, there is a debate among European countries regarding the idea of having Ukraine as a full EU member. This can be best explained by two factors: the difficulty to abandon European standards for accession and, from an institutional point of view, once again and as it was the case for the previous waves of enlargement, the deepening of European integration should precede any geographical widening of the EU.
The eastern border is a European security issue that can be addressed by the French idea of having a “European Political Community.” This is an old French idea to have a Europe with many circles but each having different degrees of integration. French President Emmanuel Macron presented his idea of a European Political Community to avoid the Cornelian dilemma facing countries seeking to become full members. This is also a way to address the risk of seeing internal divisions rising on the question of welcoming new full EU members at a time of war. On the other hand, this idea of having different levels of integration is not fully in line with the Ukrainian political objective behind the country’s application to join the EU: this is more than just an effort to join a club, for Kyiv, it is a matter of survival.
From June 23 to June 24, 2022, the European Council’s decision to add new members to the list of countries wishing to join the EU was taken given the lack of progress in the candidacies of other countries such as some Balkan states and Turkey. It is interesting to note that in July 2022, Brussels decided to add Albania and North Macedonia to the list of candidates after respectively eight and 17 years in waiting.
There are now two groups of countries wishing to become full EU members: the six Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia) and Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia that became candidates after the beginning of the 2022 war between Russia and Ukraine. This large number of countries is questioning the EU’s capability to address all these candidacies without reforming the accession criteria. To avoid this debate, Paris offers the emergence of a new form of cooperation beyond the EU framework to create a European sphere of influence eastward without having to enlarge the EU. Beyond the technocratic debate regarding the administrative form of European widening, one has to consider the important costs of reconstructing Ukraine and integrating it at the same time in the hypothesis of an end to the war with Russia. The European bet is that Russia’s power and dominance in the post-Soviet region will diminish in the long run as witnessed during the recent confrontation between Baku and Yerevan. This analysis explains why the EU is seeking to expand its Eastern Neighborhood Policy to the Caucasus and Central Asia. This is also a more realistic approach than promising full membership to new countries without reforming the internal governance of the EU and without changing the accession criteria.
The security challenge of the war between Russia and Ukraine is a geopolitical awakening for the EU. Nevertheless, to avoid the risk of being diluted in a new enlargement process, Brussels may consider a middle way between a new wave of enlargement and ignoring the aspirations of its eastern neighbors. Flexible partnerships are needed rather than endlessly postponing the prospect of a new wave of enlargement at a time of war.