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It took a war to put the EU enlargement process back on the political agenda.
For about a decade, enlargement was not a dominant issue in the thoughts and agendas of European leaders. Instead, the bloc focused on its own political problems and – in the wake of Brexit – avoided other members leaving the bloc.
On Wednesday, the European Commission is expected to propose that EU countries begin negotiations with Ukraine and several other candidate countries to join the bloc, thereby integrating Kiev’s future into the EU.
But as the EU draws closer to Ukraine, the United States is loosening ties.
Washington is reorienting its foreign policy towards the Middle East. And even before the war between Israel and Hamas, the United States was divided on the question of providing more aid to Ukraine before the 2024 elections.
With at least the NATO door closed as long as the war lasts, The EU will inevitably have to bear more of the burden for the future of Ukraine, a country devastated by war and with more than 40 million people who have risked their lives to be part of the bloc.
“You are fighting not only for your freedom, your democracy and your future, but also for ours,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. said the Ukrainian parliament last weekend. “You are fighting for Europe. This is something we are painfully aware of.
In the short term, the EU’s challenge will be to find enough money and military support to support kyiv in its war against Russia, which risks turning into a frozen conflict at the border of the block. In the longer term, this requires the European project to completely rethink itself to include several countries on its eastern border – which themselves have a herculean task to reach the bar for European membership.
Throughout this process, the 448 million people currently living in the European Union will have to remain convinced – or be convinced – that the future of the EU lies not only in Paris or Warsaw, but also in Kiev , Chişinău and Podgorica.
“The more concrete the enlargement process, the more complex it becomes,” said Kai-Olaf Lang of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“Solidarity with Ukraine and geopolitical considerations will continue to play a role, but as the implications of enlargement for the functioning of the EU become increasingly visible, the forces of doubt and deceleration in within the community will strengthen,” Lang said.
Overcoming enlargement fatigue
In recent years, the EU has struggled with enlargement fatigue, following its strongest growth on record in 2004, when 10 new countries bringing the total to 25 Member States. Since then, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia have joined (and the United Kingdom has left).
The pro-European Maidan protests in Ukraine in 2014 led to closer economic and political ties with the EU. But any talk of future membership in the bloc was seen as impossible – and a wake-up call for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
At the same time, hope is high in the Western Balkans that the EU can finally move forward with these countries’ applications for membership after waiting in line for more than a decade.
Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia have been granted candidate country status – first major step towards EU membership – about 10 years ago or more, but have since been stuck in slow accession negotiations. Bosnia and Herzegovina hopes the Commission will support the start of accession negotiations on Wednesday, while Kosovo aspires to obtain candidate status.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine snowballed the whole process. The same month, kyiv applied to join the European Union. A few days later, Georgia and Moldova followed suit. In a historically rapid move, European leaders four months later granted Ukraine and Moldova have the status of candidate countries.
“Leaders of EU countries that in the past have shown little enthusiasm for enlargement, such as France, Denmark and the Netherlands, have completely changed their tune,” said Engjellushe Morina, of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
At the same time, the EU also had to rethink its approach towards a number of Western Balkan countries, which were politically deadlocked. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Monday recognized that Ukraine has become “a new candidate and is pushing back the queue of old candidates who have been waiting for years. And the whole queue will move. And I think we need to recover the time we lost in a never-ending accession process.
Geopolitically, a gray zone of buffer states between the bloc and Russia was no longer an option after Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. If the EU wanted the countries on its eastern border to choose the western side, it needed to fully embrace them.
“If enlargement does not progress, then it will leave room for others to fill the void created by the Europeans,” Suela Janina, Albania’s ambassador to the EU, told POLITICO.
A heavier burden
But the new enlargement dynamic also presents risks for the EU.
The bloc must reform its internal decision-making processes to accommodate a much larger bloc. In practice, this often means less power and less money, especially if we include an agricultural power and a country devastated by war like Ukraine. “Behind this more enthusiastic rhetoric lies widespread pessimism about the possibility or even the necessity of rapid enlargement,” Morina said.
For many EU countries, including Belgium, which will hold the presidency of the EU Council from January next year, enlargement is only possible if combined with internal reforms .
“We need a different Europe to manage enlargement,” Portuguese Foreign Minister João Gomes Cravinho told POLITICO. “Today’s Europe is already showing signs of dysfunction… in its response to the outside world (and) in its response to our citizens. Adding eight or nine more members would really be… completely debilitating,” he said, adding that discussions on internal reform are finally resuming.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s burden is increasingly becoming a European problem. Brussels has promised to support Ukraine “as long as it takes”. But as the war drags on, how long and how long will it really take?
Already, growing Republican opposition is weighing on U.S. support for Ukraine, which is likely to double as Washington’s attention turns to the war in the Middle East. As long as Joe Biden is in the White House, the EU has an interlocutor in the White House who cares about kyiv.
However, after the 2024 elections, Europe could find itself shouldering a much larger share of the burden. A second presidency of Donald Trump, for examplewould likely leave Europeans alone to foot the bill for Ukraine’s financial and, increasingly, military support – a daunting task given that the EU is already struggling to agree on its aid 50 billion euros to Ukraine and his promise to send a million cartridges within a year.
But for von der Leyen, such challenges are surmountable.
“The Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, is adopting far-reaching reforms that many thought were impossible before the war,” she said. said Monday. “To protect Ukraine from future interference, Europe is the answer. And this is very important, the reverse is also true: in a world where size and weight matter, it is clearly in Europe’s geostrategic interest to complete our Union. Think about it: more than 500 million people live in a free, democratic and prosperous union. History calls us again and… it is up to our generation to respond. »
Jacopo Barigazzi and Gregorio Sorgi contributed reporting.