EU enlargement: Is the bloc ready for new members?

Brussels: Countries from Ukraine to the Western Balkans are busy undertaking reforms to qualify for EU membership. But the bloc has its own issues to tackle before it can roll out the welcome mat.

Since February 2022, a new consensus has settled in Brussels: The European Union needs to grow larger. EU members once considered enlargement skeptics now agree that it’s time to start thinking seriously about welcoming hopefuls like Ukraine, Moldova and Western Balkan states into the club.

The shift was prompted by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Before then, loose plans for expanding were Brussels’ favorite proverbial can to kick down the road, passed from one administration to the next while aspirant members such as North Macedonia — an EU candidate since 2005 — jumped through a series of shapeshifting political and judicial hoops to qualify for access without ever exiting the waiting room.

These days, the mindset has changed. As one EU diplomat put it: “Enlargement is a reality now, and it wasn’t a year and a half ago.”

But Brussels has its own homework to do if the political consensus is to become a practical path. “Before you can have a realistic conversation with the countries coming in, we have to figure out what an enlarged EU would actually look like — and that’s as far as we’ve gotten,” the diplomat, who asked not to be named, told DW. “We know the questions but we don’t really know the answers to them.”

The conversation has, however, begun. Earlier this month, a group of researchers commissioned by France and Germany unveiled a paper full of ideas on the workings of and pathway toward a larger union. Thu Nguyen, a senior policy fellow at the Jacques Delors Centre in Berlin, was among them. She told DW that rethinking how the EU takes decisions could prove most politically challenging.

The official list of EU candidate countries is long: Ukraine, Moldova,Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey. Georgia and Kosovo are also considered “potential candidates.”

But even with 27 members, the bloc sometimes struggles to take action. Foreign policy moves like sanctioning Russia require unanimous backing, meaning negotiations can sometimes take months as member states hash out which products to ban or whose assets to freeze.

Changes to other policy areas like migration and asylum require support from a “qualified majority” of EU members — meaning at least 15 states which also represent at least 65% of the bloc’s population. Last week, the limits of this political arithmatic were also on display when Germany greenlit reforms to a new rulebook for migration crises, only for fellow heavyweight Italy to swiftly walk out and leave the deal deadlocked.

Under the current system, Ukraine — with its population of more than 40 million — would become one of the most politically powerful countries in the EU. Meanwhile, each smaller Western Balkan state such as Montenegro — population circa 620,000 — or Albania with its roughly 2.7 million inhabitants — would add more voices into the mix.

“The more the member states there are, the more risk of having veto players that block decisions,” Nguyen said. That could prove even tougher for politically-loaded calls like blocking EU funds to countries accused of breaching rule of law standards.

Nguyen and her co-authors therefore suggest scrapping unanimity and recalculating qualified majority voting shares to make sure a bigger EU still has the “capacity to act.” Controversially, that proposal would also make it more difficult for big powers France and Germany to block agreement.

But such reforms would require a rewrite of the bloc’s founding laws and need support from member states who would lose power in the reshuffle. And, as Nguyen acknowledges, “the political mood currently is not very favorable toward treaty change.”

Then there’s the question of how to divvy up EU funds across deeper economic disparities. Most EU candidates have a lower GDP per capita than the bloc’s current poorest member Bulgaria — and with around a third of Brussels’ current budget assigned to agriculture subsidies, the arrival of farming powerhouse Ukraine would radically shift the current disribution sheet.

Last month, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary announced plans for unilateral embargoes on Ukrainian grain to protect their own producers from potential price drops. For the EU’s former trade commissioner Phil Hogan, this shows the rocky road ahead.

“There’s going to have to be huge institutional change, huge budget change and policy adaptation to the new reality,” Hogan told DW. “Ukraine is a huge country with huge agricultural interests. And the notion that you would overnight be able to deal with the issues of Ukraine becoming a fully integrated member of the European Union’s agricultural policy is going to be a major challenge.”

“Even in my time, there were sensitivities around many trade issues with Ukraine,” he added. “It’s nothing new to have tensions between Ukraine and Europe in relation to agriculture — but you can imagine the challenges are going to be ahead for the European farmers in the context of the Western Balkans and Ukraine and others becoming part and parcel of the family.”

Still, Hogan remains hopeful: “I am very much in favor of the expansion of the European Union and bringing into our European fold countries that otherwise could go into a different fold that we may not like,” he said, making a thinly-veiled allusion to Russian influence.

“Politics is about the art of the possible and I expect that the existing member states will stretch themselves and their citizens will stretch themselves to ensure that we have our neighbourhood in a less tense place.”