The over-reach risk: The unanswered questions of EU enlargement

There are three steps EU leaders must urgently take to prepare themselves for the enlargement process – starting by suspending Hungary’s voting rights

Emmanuel Macron President of the Republic of France at the European Council Summit at the Round Table – Tour de Table meeting room. The French president spotted during the European Council summit talking with the EU leaders Ursula von der Leyen President of the European Commission, Olaf Scholz Federal Chancellor of Germany, Petteri Orpo Prime Minister of Finland, Evika Silina Prime Minister of Latvia, Roberta Metsola President of the European Parliament and Kyriakos Mitsotakis PM of Greece, ahead of the formal official talks and negotiations. European leaders agreed to open EU accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova. Hungary blocks €50bn in EU aid for Ukraine hours after membership talks were approved. Hungary’s PM Viktor Orban vetoed the plan of the bloc for extra money to Kyiv. EUCO, Brussels, Belgium on December 14, 2023 (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto)
European leaders agreed to open EU accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova. Hungary blocks €50bn in EU aid for Ukraine hours after membership talks were approved
Image by picture alliance / NurPhoto | Nicolas Economou

At their year-end summit, EU leaders committed the bloc to a bold new phase of enlargement. They decided to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, and to recognise Georgia as a candidate for membership. Their conclusions name-check Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and the Western Balkans more generally. Overall, eight neighbouring countries to the east and south are now offered, conditionally, entry to the European Union.

This outcome was a surprise, since Hungary’s Viktor Orban had been widely expected to veto the opening to Ukraine. Instead, he blocked €50 billion of financial support for Kyiv. The other 26 leaders seem confident they can find a work-around to restore the aid package at an emergency summit on 1 February. But, for the moment, the EU is left as having willed the end but stumbled over providing the means. And Orban has made clear that his obstruction of the enlargement programme will continue. He is evidently confident in both the effectiveness of his veto and the strength of his political position, no doubt emboldened by the gains now being made by right-wing nationalists across Europe. So the question arises: has the EU just over-reached? Will it be able to deliver its ambitious new policy – or even sustain political support for it? The EU’s renewed enthusiasm for  enlargement is, after all, a recent development, with still-shallow roots.

Scroll back even a couple of years, and few member states were anxious to welcome countries perceived as being in varying degrees corrupt, undemocratic, illiberal, and in conflict (in the cases of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, with Russian troops actually on their territory). The costs were a major concern, given the lacklustre performance of European economies since the financial crash of 2008, and then the impact of the pandemic. Moreover, assaults on the rule of law by the populist governments in Poland and Hungary had pointed up the EU’s inability to discipline members which, once inside the EU and enjoying its economic benefits, choose to resile on their treaty obligations on matters such as freedom of the press and independence of the judiciary. As recently as May 2022, President Emmanuel Macron was promoting his European Political Community as a possible alternative means of acknowledging the European ambitions of aspirant countries without creating the costs, political and security risks, and jeopardy to the EU’s very ability to function entailed by enlargement.

It was of course Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that changed everything. That, and Europeans’ surprise and delight at both Ukraine’s heroic resistance, and their own unified and generous response. Vladimir Putin, it began to seem, had made a monstrous miscalculation; and resolute European action might save not just Ukraine, but half a dozen other neighbouring countries into which he had his claws. So pressing on with enlargement was suddenly an accepted geopolitical imperative: “a geostrategic investment in peace, security, stability and prosperity”. As for Orban’s blackmail-by-veto tactics, these could be thwarted in an enlarged EU through reforming its operating rules, such as by replacing unanimity with majority voting. (Had not a Franco-German study group come up with an encouraging account of how this might work?)

But – is this bold opening sustainable? The EU’s last major enlargement took place in 2004, in a  different world – one of peace, of European self-confidence, and of reliably rising standards of living. None of these conditions now apply, or look likely to return in the foreseeable future; and insecurity and discontent are reflected in the rise of populist nationalists across the continent (with Poland the sole recent exception). ‘Liberal elites’ are routinely attacked for their neglect of the interests and concerns of their own populations. Orban’s domestic anti-EU propaganda showcases key themes – migration, gay rights, the costs of supporting Ukraine – and finds increasingly strong echoes across the continent. 

And now the EU has committed itself to a course  – costing an estimated €250 billion, at a time when it must already find big money for the green transition and defence – that will turn member states that have so far benefited from the EU budget into net contributors. From Germany to France to Spain to the Netherlands to Scandinavia, this will present an easy target to right-wing politicians – with additional seams of sectoral anxiety to mine as well, such as the impact of Ukraine’s accession on farmers across the EU. The success of Trump Republicans in holding further US aid to Ukraine hostage to their own nationalist agendas will embolden them further.

Such encouragement will, of course, be as nothing compared with the political impact if Europeans find themselves looking at Trump redux next autumn. How will Europe’s bold new enlargement policy look and feel if, in a year’s time, full responsibility for Ukraine has been tossed into Europe’s lap, along with responsibility for its defence? (As per, for example, the “burdenshifting” approach to NATO being worked up in Trumpian circles.) The risk is palpable that there is neither bandwidth nor money to deliver on the promises the EU has just made – even supposing that the rightward political drift in member states does not cause their governments to sidle away from honouring them.

The EU has taken a big gamble which could come off very badly, especially if Trump returns to the White House

In short, the EU has taken a big gamble which could come off very badly, especially if Trump returns to the White House. In the circumstances, hoping for the best will be inadequate: the EU must now do everything it can to address its internal weaknesses, and prepare itself for difficult times ahead. Most urgently, it must stop indulging Putin’s man on the European Council: it is time to suspend Hungarian voting rights as per the Article 7 sanction against persistent disregard of EU values. Next, it must get down to serious negotiation of just what reforms to how the bloc functions will be needed for an EU of more than 30 members. And finally, the member states must do some urgent contingency planning for what happens if Trump, for example, pulls all US ground forces out of Europe. There is plenty else that could be added to this list (and has been, in a recent ECFR policy brief).

No one will want to address issues such as these. But, satisfying though it may be to commit to a bold and generous enlargement plan, failure to recognise and face up to the risks arising could all too easily end in the loss of the neighbourhood, and even of a liberal internationalist Europe.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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