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European Union Enlargement: Heading East

European Union Enlargement: Heading East

The European Union’s enlargement seemed to have come to a relative standstill since Croatia joined in 2013. Some membership applications have been pending for many years: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia and Serbia have been waiting since 2012, Turkey since 1999.

Yet, Moldova and Ukraine secured the opening of accession negotiations with the 27 member states at the European summit last December, thus confirming the decision taken by the Commission on June 22nd 2022. Following the passing of Jacques Delors, who was a strong symbol of the EU and of Franco-German dialogue, a defender of a political and almost moral vision of the EU, in favor of a Europe of Defense, does this accession signify a new turning point for Europe?

Is this signal sent to Ukraine a historic turning point? What is Ukraine seeking by joining the European Union (EU)?

Preference was given to the Neighborhood policy and, when it came to Moldova and Ukraine, the very idea of Ukraine joining had been largely sidelined, including during the Crimean war in 2014.
However, Ukraine represents a major asset for the European Union in several respects. First, in geostrategic terms, it offers an undeniable advantage. In a global world where other alliances are gaining strength, the EU's rise as a coherent bloc sends out a strong signal. With its 44 million, mostly young, inhabitants and its vast territory of around 600,000 km2 in the East, Ukraine enables the EU to strengthen its territorial and demographic position in a Europe subject to expansionist dynamics and faced with an aging population.

Ukraine represents a major asset for the European Union in several respects.

Ukraine's accession would also help strengthen the EU's single market, one of the largest integrated markets in the world. As an economic powerhouse in the agricultural sector, Ukraine is crucial to the EU, as demonstrated by the latter's dependence on Ukrainian grain exports highlighted at the start of the conflict.

The free movement of capital and goods between the EU and Ukraine will open up mutual economic opportunities and strengthen economic cooperation between the two parties.

How do Ukrainians see this accession?

Membership of the European Union is seen by Ukrainians as a major political and historical objective. Although the country has strong historical ties with Russia, the Ukrainian people's desire to move westwards and join the EU has long been asserted. The political class will comply with these objectives and adapt to all the criteria demanded by the Union through the 35 chapters of the EU acquis. This means complying with the requirements of the rule of law and accepting controls in this area. This constraint is widely accepted, given the context of war, but Ukrainian leaders have at other times been reluctant to accept it. The priority now is to respond to Russia with a united voice. This also underscores Ukraine's determination to consolidate its independence and its orientation towards Europe, despite persistent tensions with Russia.

Is there a consensus among EU countries? Which countries are most inclined to support accession? Which are the most reluctant?

The critical stance adopted by Hungary, led by Viktor Orbán, which highlights corruption, inequality and mismanagement in Ukraine, seems to overlook the essential role played by the European Union in promoting democratic transition in candidate countries. Democratization does not happen automatically, even over a 10-year timeframe; it is the EU framework that provides the essential impulse for this transformation.
There is no question of compromising the acquis. On the contrary, it will require intensive mobilization of all sectors of Ukrainian society, even in the face of the challenges of war, in order to meet the requirements of membership. Areas such as the judicial system, industry, research, education and the rule of law will be subjected to a thorough examination, testifying to the rigor of the criteria imposed by the European Union.

It is through this comprehensive assessment that Ukraine will be able to progress towards its membership goal, while consolidating the fundamental principles of democracy and the rule of law.

There is no question of compromising the acquis.

Demographic weight (44 million inhabitants in Ukraine), organization of the economy (competition from agriculture): is the EU at risk of becoming unbalanced? How can this risk be avoided?

The debate is not new, and was already raised in 2014: what should be done in the face of these 44 million inhabitants and the consequences this implies for the free movement of citizens, competition on prices or the labor market? This fear is particularly prevalent among farmers and the business community. The EU is not at a loss to organize these new inflows, as it has already demonstrated with other Eastern European countries. Controls and standards are all tools that need to be put in place and mobilized.
Nevertheless, the launch of the accession process will also have a significant impact on funding: the EU budget will not increase in size, but will be more evenly distributed, particularly with regards to agricultural aid. In fact, with the candidate countries contributing only 15% of the aid paid by Europe, which assumes the remaining 85%, the budget remains more or less constant while the burden increases. Poland, a major beneficiary of the CAP, will receive fewer subsidies, and Kiev could become the biggest recipient of agricultural subsidies. A study by Hertie, carried out with the Centre Jacques Delors, nevertheless warns against overestimating these financial consequences: the additional expenditure caused by Ukraine's accession would amount to 13.2 billion euros, including 7.6 billion euros under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
Rather than imbalance, we can speak of new trends. The political driving force is the Franco-German axis, while Eastern European countries have tended to follow, with the exception of Viktor Orbán. With Ukraine's accession, Poland, the largest country in the East, will benefit from a rebalancing to its advantage.


With Ukraine's accession, Poland, the largest country in the East, will benefit from a rebalancing to its advantage.

It shares religious convictions and influence of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches on its society with Ukraine, with converging views on certain bioethical issues (LGBTI, euthanasia, abortion, surrogacy). The European conservative blocwill emerge stronger on societal issues.

What is France's position on EU enlargement?

France's position on EU enlargement reflects a clear desire to play an active role, with President Macron as a reforming supranational political player.
Emmanuel Macron and France are positioning themselves as a force for proposals and decisions within the European Political Community (EPC). Although the Balkan countries initially perceived the EPC as confining them to European limbo, Macron has demonstrated a genuine interest in reforming the European Union and enlarging it.
The question of enlargement for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia (countries that are part of the European Neighborhood Policy and have developed cooperation agreements with the EU) has moved ahead rapidly, overtaking the progress made on the Balkan requests. This gap could raise questions of double standards, although one could rather speak of a double approach, conditioned by the context of the war in Ukraine.
As far as the Balkans are concerned, President Macron has been particularly active in the region, mobilizing his diplomatic efforts. He proposed solutions to overcome the deadlock between Bulgaria and Northern Macedonia, and visited Albania, marking the first visit by a French president to the country.
France's commitment to EU enlargement is therefore clear, with visible efforts to resolve regional problems and a desire to positively influence the accession dynamics of the Balkan countries. However, the difference between the Balkans and other countries underlines the complexity of the issues involved in enlargement, and the need to take into account various factors, including the geopolitical context and regional relations.

Is a country at war likely to meet the conditions (economic, political) set by Brussels? Is Europe not running a risk by setting such a precedent?

The question of whether a country at war can meet the economic and political conditions set by Brussels raises legitimate concerns about the possibility of setting such a precedent, and the associated risks for the European Union. Yet the history of past enlargements offers some useful lessons.
Precedents already exist, notably with the accession of countries deemed insufficiently mature in 2007. Control procedures on crucial issues such as anti-corruption had been approved faster than usual, resulting in the need to delay accession later on. The European Union is determined not to repeat these mistakes.
Of the seven previous enlargements, only those of Finland, Austria and Sweden can be considered to have been completed satisfactorily. The others were marked by problems such as territorial disputes, neighbor disputes and rule of law issues.
As far as Ukraine is concerned, it will not be ready by the time chapters are opened, due to the particular context of the war. However, this situation is not unique, and none of the countries aspiring to membership will be able to compare themselves immediately with long-standing EU members. The EU's rigorous standards on aspects such as the rule of law, electoral and judicial systems, the fight against corruption, the separation of powers, freedom of the press, etc., must be maintained. However, other criteria can be adjusted.

The four membership criteria (political, economic, community and integration capacity) allow for a degree of flexibility.

None of the countries aspiring to membership will be able to compare themselves immediately with long-standing EU members.

On more technical issues such as climate, education, research and agriculture, a more lenient approach can be considered. The climate agenda, for example, is one of the most costly chapters. The case of Croatia shows that countries can catch up with European requirements after accession: Zagreb, which was not ready to close the climate chapter when it joined in 2013, entered on condition that the specifications were met within 15 years. It is now well on the way to achieving this. Kiev, meanwhile, is already working on the accession chapters, adapting to the EU acquis and meeting the required criteria. In the best-case scenario, this process could take between ten and fifteen years.

Isn't there a risk that membership could be called into question if the war situation changes?

Turkey points out that no possibility can be ruled out, and that suspension of membership remains a possibility, particularly if a newly-elected Ukrainian political class were to neglect European requirements, following the precedent set by Erdogan. However, this possibility seems closer to political fiction than reality. As a matter of fact, the Ukrainian political class is currently demonstrating a strong commitment to making progress on various issues, preparing for the single market, and adapting public life to European standards.

Are we moving towards a European Defense?

The question of a European defense has always been a subject of debate. It does not seem to be on the horizon in the near future. The absence of a European army is obvious for now. In the foreseeable future, its creation does not seem to be a priority. NATO remains the central pillar of European defense, with significant US involvement. Moreover, Washington is not particularly enthusiastic about the idea of a militarily independent European Union. Outside the NATO framework, European countries seem to prefer national strategies, often without close coordination between them.

Outside the NATO framework, European countries seem to prefer national strategies, often without close coordination between them.

Maintaining NATO as a major reference underlines the current preference for a collective approach to defense in Europe, with close cooperation between the Alliance’s member states. However, it is important to emphasize that geopolitical dynamics may change, and the question of creating a European defense may need to be reassessed in the light of future developments.

What are the specific challenges facing the Western Balkans? Should the EU accession process be reformed to adapt to the new threats facing Eastern Europe?

The Balkans have long been marked by the influence of Turkey, China and Russia. While these dynamics are not new, they do give rise to persistent concerns among Europeans. Nonetheless, the Balkan region has clearly expressed its choice in favor of Europe, with the exception of Serbia which maintains an ambiguous position as it navigates between different influences.
While Serbia may seem to have a minor impact with its 7 million inhabitants and small territory, its role is actually eminent from a geostrategic point of view. It could play an important role for the European Union, strengthening its ties with NATO and facilitating the installation of military bases for potential intervention in other conflicts.
However, delaying the Balkans' accession to the European Union is a risky business. The region is democratically fragile and economically poor, making it susceptible to the influence of outside powers. Encouraging the accession process should not mean neglecting technical procedures, but rather accompanying these countries to improve their transparency and increase their attractiveness to foreign investors.
It is also imperative to reform the accession process itself, by putting an end to the mechanism that allows any member state to reopen a chapter of its accession treaty.

Interview by Hortense Miginiac

Copyright image : Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP

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