Since the European Council granted EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, European policymakers have been debating French President Emmanuel Macron’s vision of a “European political community”. The Council’s decision, made on 23-24 June, mentions a proposal for a “wider Europe” but does not explain what form this community would take.
The Council also recognised Georgia’s European perspective, anticipating candidacy for the country once it has met certain conditions. In the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the Council’s decision is a show of solidarity with a war-torn Ukraine and a fragile Moldova. Furthermore, it highlights member states’ recognition that enlargement policy is a geopolitical tool – one that the EU can use to counter third actors’ destabilising influence in its neighbourhood. However, this is a risky approach to enlargement. The historic decision on Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia could weaken enlargement policy and heighten candidate countries’ vulnerability to outside pressure.
Western Balkans countries’ frustration with the Council’s decision illustrates the dangers of this approach to enlargement. They have long been irritated by the many obvious flaws of the enlargement process. For instance, there is a fundamental contradiction between the ambitious reform agenda the EU prescribes for candidate countries and the regional agenda it promotes through its enlargement policy.
The union uses its enlargement policy to settle regional disputes (such as that between Serbia and Kosovo) while simultaneously linking progress in talks with one country to that in others. This has often left the countries involved in a double bind, which has benefited some of them more than others. For example, Serbia has opened new chapters in its accession talks despite making no progress in its democratic reforms. In contrast, Albania has not started accession talks yet, despite making real progress in its reforms. This is because the EU intends to open talks with Albania at the same time as talks with North Macedonia, and the latter are still blocked by a Bulgarian veto.
As a result, some Western Balkans leaders use the prospect of accession to build up their influence at home, while failing to enact reforms and blaming the EU and its member states for a lack of progress. This is why many citizens of Western Balkans states increasingly see EU membership as a moving target and become disillusioned with the process.
Therefore, the decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova is risky for at least two reasons. Firstly, there is the danger of overpromising and underdelivering – which would create similar frustrations in the two countries as are now evident in the Western Balkans. Secondly, the EU could appear to be granting Ukraine and Moldova a “geopolitical discount” – that is, supporting their EU candidacy because of Russia’s aggression rather than their approach to democratic reforms, the rule of law, or economic convergence with the union.
This signal would be particularly destructive for candidate countries in the Western Balkans and elsewhere, as they would have fewer incentives to build stable, transparent democracies with competitive economies. However, it would also be disastrous for the EU. If the rules and principles of reform no longer appeared to be preconditions for joining the EU, it would become harder for the union to take a strong stance on these rules and principles in its member states. This would also show outside powers – primarily Russia and China – that the EU’s enlargement policy is all about geopolitics. These powers could then exploit the period between countries receiving EU candidacy status and accession to derail the process or increase their leverage over prospective member states. In turn, candidate countries and the EU would become more vulnerable.
A European political community could help the EU overcome these problems. By binding candidate countries to the union, such a community would create a stronger incentive for them to enact reforms. In turn, these reforms would improve the cohesion of an EU with more than 30 member states – and help them resist external pressure. A political community would not be a substitute for EU enlargement but a mechanism to assist candidate and aspiring candidate countries on the path to membership.
The benefits of belonging to the political community should not focus solely on the extension of the single market, as this would create the impression that the EU is merely a trade bloc. Rather, the union should provide support for reforms, to emphasise that this is a shared political project. Furthermore, it should offer security assistance to members of the community – helping increase their resilience against a range of security challenges (including cyber-attacks, disinformation, and the use of corruption to undermine political stability).
To achieve these goals, the EU would not need to build new frameworks that could repeat its experience with the Union for the Mediterranean. In fact, doing so could produce structures that are empty shells and that give candidate countries the impression they have been parked in a second tier. The European political community should build on existing EU institutions and policies – and should find new ways to involve candidate countries in them.
The June meeting of the European Council ushered in a new phase of EU enlargement policy. But, if the enlargement process continues to be only technocratic, there is a risk that this will heighten frustration with it in the EU’s neighbourhood. Meanwhile, a purely geopolitical approach to the process would lower the expectations of candidate countries and weaken everyone involved. Efforts to ease this tension will fail if they merely expand the single market or create an empty framework for candidate countries to join.
European policymakers need to adjust the enlargement process to member states’ and candidate countries’ shared aspirations, as well as their views of the nature of the European project. All member states and candidate countries should discuss their reasons and expectations for joining the EU. For example, do candidate countries mainly aim to become part of the single market, the EU family, or a common space, or to gain protection from powerful neighbours? The same questions should be asked of current EU member states. How do they see the EU functioning with more members?
The European political community should not be just a forum for discussion but also a new kind of closer association between candidate countries and the EU. As the union and its member states invent this new kind of association, they should have an opportunity to reflect upon the nature of the European project itself.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.