In the wake of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the long-stalled ambition to accept new members of the European Union has experienced a remarkable revival. In June 2022, the EU granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, and in May 2023 President Emmanuel Macron declared he would like to see enlargement take place “as swiftly as possible”. This is a major shift: in the past, Paris perceived the accession of new members as a threat to the EU’s cohesion. Now it views this as a prerequisite of European sovereignty.
There is reason to hope that this time things will different. But supporters of enlargement should be under no illusions. The enthusiasm to welcome in new members could evaporate as quickly as it rose from the ashes of Bucha and Kramatorsk. Scepticism and concerns about the prospects for an enlarged union are still widespread, and these powerful currents will inevitably resurface. This was shown by the recent grain dispute, when even Kyiv’s strongest supporters, such as Warsaw, sought to prevent the entry of Ukrainian agricultural products into the single market. Quick and bold actions by the EU are therefore necessary while political energy remains potent.
The EU summit in December 2023 under the Spanish presidency is the moment for the bloc to set out what it will do to make this a reality. It will need to put in place a functional plan to be able to accept the Western Balkans countries and the trio of former Soviet states Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. The EU should do four things: set a target date of 2030 for enlargement; agree a plan to adapt EU policies to accept new members; formulate a ‘Madrid criterion’ of foreign policy alignment for aspiring members; and grant Kosovo candidate status.
Set 2030 as the target date for enlargement
Firstly, the EU should set a target date for its next round of enlargement. This would not mean accepting an obligation to allow in countries that are not ready. The enlargement process would have to remain – or, rather, become – truly merit-based. This commitment would instead be a (geo)political pledge by the European Council (not the European Commission) to open the door for accession to those able and willing to join. The date of 2030 – at least for states to participate in the single market, join the bloc’s climate action agenda, and receive EU funds – would be ambitious but realistic, and in line with the accession strategies of some candidate states, such as North Macedonia. The date is close enough to feel achievable and worth the political investment by elected leaders in the candidate states.
Agree the ‘Warsaw agenda’ of internal reform to prepare for enlargement
Secondly, accepting new members by 2030 – regardless of whether one envisages full membership for them by then, or only access to the single market and funds – will require the EU to get its own house in order. Lessons learned from the previous eastern enlargement in 2004 are instructive here. In 1999, the EU adopted the Berlin agenda 2000 to ensure the bloc’s policies were adapted to the reality of an enlarged union. It undertook a set of important and far-reaching reforms to its financial framework and agricultural policy. These were preceded by an impact assessment and policy recommendations put forward by the European Commission two years earlier. Now, this new enlargement, and the accession of Ukraine in particular with its significant agricultural sector, will require a substantial overhaul of the EU budget and the common agricultural policy. This is even more urgent and no less challenging than EU institutional reform, which tends to attract much more attention.
The next accession will take place during the next multiannual financial framework 2028-2034, the budgetary debate for which is shortly to begin. Under the Polish presidency in the first half of 2025, the EU should therefore adopt the Warsaw agenda 2030 – a comprehensive plan to make EU policies and finances fit for enlargement. The EU heads of state and government should define the path towards the Warsaw agenda in the coming months and announce the plan at the EU summit in December. Following next year’s European Parliament election, the new European Commission should provide an impact assessment and policy recommendations to support this. In parallel, an institutional reform process needs to be enacted with the aim to be completed by 2030.
Adopt the ‘Madrid criterion’ of foreign policy alignment
Thirdly, the EU should ensure it is crystal-clear about the reason behind the next round of enlargement: the geopolitical necessity to protect EU interests and security. This is why the EU will have to put much more emphasis on the foreign and security alignment of the aspiring partners and make the prospect of accession conditional on it.
The EU needs to communicate that foreign policy alignment is not just another box to be ticked, but one of the fundamentals. Thirty years ago, the EU adopted the Copenhagen criteria in preparation for enlargement to central and eastern Europe. These include democracy, rule of law, a free market economy, and the protection of human rights. Defining them marked a necessary assertion by the EU as a democratic and rules-based community in view of the invitation it was extending to former communist countries. These criteria remain in place as the EU’s guiding compass in enlargement policy.
The EU should now ensure foreign and security policy alignment carries comparable political weight. (Formally, it is already part of the enlargement methodology.) It should therefore embrace a ‘Madrid criterion’ at the summit in December in Spain, and declare that it will both support countries that make efforts to achieve alignment and not hesitate to punish those who fail to do similarly.
Grant Kosovo candidate status
Lastly, the EU needs to revise its approach to bilateral issues among prospective members. The Kosovo-Serbia dispute is of key importance – and a test case for the EU’s ability to use its leverage in its immediate neighbourhood. The EU’s approach here so far has failed, not least because it has never granted concrete EU accession perspectives for both Kosovo and Serbia. The EU can change this by granting Kosovo candidate status, ideally at the same EU summit in December.
This may seem like a pipe dream as some member states – including Spain – do not even recognise Kosovo’s independence. But the EU could use the same principle that allowed it to sign the Stability and Association Agreement in 2015 with Kosovo: divergence in recognition, unity in accession. Above all, this would show that the EU is serious about the geopolitical character of the enlargement. It would also enable the EU to regain the leverage needed to overcome other stumbling blocks on the way to a successful enlargement: threats to Bosnia’s statehood, bilateral problems between North Macedonia and Bulgaria, and potential political conflicts, for example between Hungary and Ukraine.
Making the new enlargement a successful reality – and completing the job, in the case of Western Balkans states long left in the waiting room – is the challenge of the age for the EU and its political leaders and supporters. It will take more than heartfelt speeches and the opening of new negotiations. Doing so will require firm commitments, made with accompanying plans to deliver these, and the political drive to see them through.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.