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Judy Asks: Will Enlargement Spur EU Reform?

To prepare for a larger union, the EU needs institutional reform. But enlargement and deeper integration have always gone hand in hand and should not be seen as mutually exclusive.

Published on June 27, 2024

Rosa Balfour

Director of Carnegie Europe

The enlargement of the EU is an ambitious project to redesign the security architecture of Europe with a strong democratic anchor in EU principles and rules. Russia’s aggression against Ukraine reinforces this logic which dates back to the end of the Cold War—this time round excluding Russia.

In light of this grand strategy, it is uninspiring that the debate in the EU is frontloading a narrow institutionalist focus on reform. This can be seen in aspiring countries as an excuse for delaying enlargement, as the past decade of lukewarm engagement with the Balkans has shown.

Recovering a credible enlargement strategy is at the moment more important than the nitty gritty of institutional reform. This said, of course the EU will need to reform its functioning and policies. When and how this happens will also depend on the pace of accession and on which countries actually want to join.

While the EU demands political reform in the aspiring countries, it may want to think about strengthening the democratic values that bind members together to ensure its future resilience and prevent democratic downgrading.

Dimitar Bechev

Senior fellow at Carnegie Europe

If you ask the bloc’s heavyweights, the answer is “it should.” Last year, France and Germany produced a paper containing a list of prescriptions on how to make what was once named “the EU’s most effective foreign policy” work.

The holy grail among those in favor of reform appears to be limiting unanimity and opting for qualified majority voting in the EU Council. Once Brussels’s decisionmaking becomes immune to national vetoes—think Hungary twisting Ukraine’s arms, for instance—the union could act in a more coherent and credible manner in rewarding star performers and sanctioning laggards among candidate states.

The bad news is that such an internal overhaul is not very likely. Member states will jealously guard unanimity. No one would be willing to give up their commissioner or antagonize prickly farmers in the name of the common good.

Last year, some of the most pro-enlargement eastern EU countries moved to restrict the import of Ukrainian agriproducts. Sectoral and individual member states’ interests will continue to shape the union’s expansion. That is why the only scenario is the usual muddling through.

Given that political reality, the EU will have to adapt and work out a flexible arrangement, a theme in the Franco-German paper, to extend economic benefits and access to institutions to non-members and candidates willing to go an extra mile in meeting Brussels’s conditions. 

Krzysztof Błędowski

Visiting adjunct professor at the Rzeszów University of Information Technology and Management

Probably not.

The proposed admission of Ukraine and Moldova into the EU has become a political decision. Russia now treats both countries as priorities for territorial conquest or subjugation. It is in Europe’s interest to help these countries stay independent. Consequently, this enlargement round features the type of geostrategic urgency that bolstered postwar reconciliation between France and Germany and subsequently facilitated the creation of the EU.

Ukraine has deep historical ties to Poland while Moldova’s past intertwines with those of Romania and Poland, both going back centuries. Beyond history, economic relations tightly bind the two candidate countries to the EU. Finally, both countries’ citizens reject close links with Russia and favor the EU by overwhelming margins as their preferred strategic ally.

Ukraine and Moldova will not meet the entire acquis communautaire soon. Since time is of the essence, the EU needs to create some form of conditional accession pending completion of the process. Current voting procedures will present another obstacle but thoroughly reforming the EU to enable fast-tracked admission is equally unrealistic.

If Europe takes its strategic considerations seriously, it will find ways to expedite accession. As the saying goes, “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.”

Ian Bond

Deputy director of the Centre for European Reform

Enlargement might spur EU reform, but I won’t hold my breath for more than minor changes.

The substantive obstacle to reform is that some of the changes often mentioned in the context of enlargement—in particular the extension of qualified majority voting to areas including foreign policy and taxation—don’t command consensus. Some member states, though enlargement enthusiasts, do not want to lose their veto rights for fear being outvoted on a matter of vital interest.

The procedural obstacle is that some member states would have to hold referendums on any treaty amendments required, and no EU leader wants that. Since Denmark narrowly rejected the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, three of the four subsequent treaties have been rejected by at least one member state. French and Dutch voters killed the Constitutional Treaty completely in 2005.

Before the “big bang” enlargement of 2004, some member states insisted that reform was essential if the new members were not to overwhelm the EU. In reality, the EU accommodated ten countries easily, with minor changes to policies and procedures. The next group of candidates, and especially Ukraine, may challenge EU absorption capacity more. But the EU should be bold: enlargement is an urgent geopolitical necessity, while reform can come at a more leisurely pace.

Marie Dumoulin

Director of the Wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations

The opening of accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova makes it even more urgent to give answers to two dilemmas that have been underlying the EU’s enlargement policy for the last ten years.

First is the efficiency dilemma, that is, the need to adapt institutions and internal decisionmaking processes to prepare for the accession of up to ten new member states—while incumbent member states are unable to reach consensus on the scope and the legal form of these changes.

This lack of consensus underlines how difficult it is to reach important decisions with twenty-seven member states, and thus reinforces the argument in favor of more efficient decisionmaking procedures. But it also underpins the second dilemma—one of credibility. The enlargement process has a powerful transformative effect on candidate countries if it is associated with a credible accession perspective. But the delays of enlargement to the Western Balkans, along with unresolved debates on internal EU reforms undermine the credibility of this perspective, thus weakening the incentives for reforms in the candidate countries.

If the EU is serious about bringing in Ukraine, Moldova, and its neighbors in the Western Balkans, it needs to rapidly come up with answers to these two interrelated dilemmas.

Agnieszka Legucka

Senior research fellow at the Polish Institute of International Affairs

We must stop seeing the future of the EU as a choice between enlargement and deepening integration. This is a false dilemma because enlargement is strategically vital and can push institutional reform in the right direction. Europe needs a strategic vision and enlargement is the overarching concept that will strengthen the EU’s global position against authoritarian regimes in Russia and China. Enlargement will improve the security of its citizens, as the number of buffer zones in Europe diminishes.

The start of accession negotiations by Ukraine and Moldova will help others to join, in particular the Western Balkans and Georgia. Enlargement will strengthen the EU’s international standing and the competitiveness of the single market.

However, we need to find a balance between the European Commission’s proposal for a wider use of qualified majority voting and a multispeed Europe. From Poland’s perspective, the gradual integration of candidate countries into the EU common market is beneficial but should not be a substitute for full integration. Poland insists on fair competition and protection of EU producers from market distortions. While the European Commission’s proposals serve as a critical reference point for future discussions on EU enlargement and reform, they are unlikely to be implemented soon.

Mary C. Murphy

Head of the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork

Crisis situations often present opportunities for ambitious change and progress. The Russian invasion of Ukraine—a major geopolitical crisis on Europe’s borders—precipitated the fast-tracking of accession negotiations for Ukraine and Moldova. It is not clear however, that this crisis can also generate the necessary political will to spur internal EU reforms.

Institutional change in any setting is invariably difficult. A glance at earlier EU reform efforts demonstrates the extent of the challenge. The ill-fated Constitutional Treaty, which included institutional reform proposals, was rejected by European electorates. The Nice and Lisbon treaties were temporarily derailed by negative referendum results in Ireland. With a growth in support for Euroskeptic and right-wing political parties, an appetite for future EU reform looks all the lesser today.

Compounding the challenge, the European Commission’s current reform proposals are limited—more a case of tinkering at the edges than a meaningful pursuit of deep reform. The European Parliament is more polarized and Euroskeptic than ever before, as are many member states’ parliaments. This translates into few of Europe’s national or supranational institutions demonstrating strong support for reform.

The opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova may have been spurred by crisis, but it is unlikely that EU reform will form part of this current crisis response.

John O’Brennan

Professor of European politics at Maynooth University

It is becoming increasingly nauseating to find the EU talking up an allegedly crucial step in the road to accession. This is where we are once again with the opening of talks with Moldova and Ukraine. 

The simple truth is that the enlargement process is completely unserious, you might even say fraudulent. The EU is going through the motions of taking candidates through these early stages, giving hope to the candidates that accession will happen.

The reality is that there is no political will within the EU for further enlargement. Ask anybody in a Western Balkan capital. As soon as the candidates begin negotiating it is highly likely one or other EU member state will produce an objection on some specific grounds. Then the process grinds to a halt. The dispute over Ukrainian grain last year is indicative of the kind of blockages that have come to define the enlargement process.

In most candidate states, reforms are going into reverse. Tensions in the Western Balkans are as high as they have been in the post-1999 period. Brussels pretends all is well.

The vacuum in leadership within the EU is especially evident in the accession process. Until the union gets serious about enlargement and demonstrates both the will and the capacity to negotiate seriously with candidate states, the reform process is going nowhere.

One other thing: the choice of European Commission president, enlargement commissioner, and high representative for foreign policy will be crucial in determining whether the EU changes the dial on further accessions. Not to mention the outcome of the French Assembly election.

Oana Popescu-Zamfir

Director of GlobalFocus Center, Bucharest

The EU cannot push the genie back into the bottle. Once the debate has started around absorption capacity, especially with a view to integrating Ukraine, and detailed scenarios have been laid out, the ball has started rolling in the direction of reform. But most of all, the multiplying blockages in the accession of the Western Balkans and the Hungarian blackmail regarding Ukraine have provided the clearest illustration of how dysfunctional EU decisionmaking mechanisms already are.

Member states have learnt that they can strong-arm their non-EU neighbors to cave into ridiculous demands so as to be allowed to progress on the integration path, and that vetoing key measures is easier than negotiating with twenty-six other countries—hence the increasingly widespread use of this tactic.

Some of the union’s policies, such as the Common Agricultural Policy and the cohesion funds, are also in need of an update, not just because of the prospect of Ukraine becoming a member, but for the sake of economic modernization and competitiveness. Yet it is unlikely that we will see sweeping reform or treaty change; instead, we may see gradual sectoral adjustments within the existing framework—unless bold political decisions short-circuit the inertia of institutional mechanisms.

Paul Taylor

Senior visiting fellow at the European Policy Centre

The EU’s new enlargement process with Ukraine and Moldova will most likely not spur reform of the bloc’s creaking decisionmaking, at least until the last moment when the absence of such reforms becomes a roadblock to admitting countries that have completed accession negotiations.

Even then, it is more likely that the EU will admit the candidate countries gradually, using the new enlargement methodology, and delay their full accession, rather than adopting reforms that would require treaty change. Even using the passerelle clauses in the Lisbon Treaty that provide a way to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting in decisionmaking on sanctions, foreign policy, or taxation seems unlikely.

Central European and smaller west European countries will likely not renounce their veto on these issues, or be fobbed off with options such emergency brakes or constructive abstention. This was clear even before national populists made big gains in the European Parliament elections, but it is even clearer now. Moreover, France and the Netherlands, which saw the biggest populist surges, are likely to become even more skeptical toward enlargement and less willing to renounce national vetoes.

Unable to choose between enlargement and reform, the EU seems likely to consign candidates to an indefinite antechamber.

Ivan Vejvoda

Permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM), Vienna

By virtue of necessity the EU shall reform.

It is fundamental that the accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova have begun and that they are ongoing with most Western Balkan countries. Geopolitics oblige! This will willy nilly spur the need for change.

It is maybe a platitude to say, but needs repeating, that widening/enlarging and deepening/reforming have historically always gone hand in hand. The skeptics have been in most cases been proven wrong since up until now the EU has moved into unexpected territories driven by the need to survive politically, economically and in terms of security.

The Franco-German paper “Sailing on High Seas: Reforming and Enlarging the EU for the 21st Century” published in September 2023 lays out a series of important proposals that outline ways in which the EU should and could prepare for a larger union of thirty-seven member states.

Much debated, the paper shows that reform ideas are out there and that an EU confronted with a G2 world of the United States and China, with a declining demography and economically challenged, needs to rise to the moment or expect decline.

Also, one need not know the history of ancient Rome or Constantine Cavafy’s poem to know that in all sorts of different ways the “Barbarians are at the gates.”

Pierre Vimont

Senior fellow at Carnegie Europe

In the past, EU enlargements and reforms have been constant if not always friendly travel companions. Changes in the EU’s institutions and policies were presented as the indispensable corollary of an enlarged union. The final delivery sometimes missed the post and resulted in a more complex Europe. But the trend remained the same with future enlargements leading to major reforms like the single currency, the reorganization of the European Commission, or the permanent presidency of the European Council.

Nowadays the call for urgent and radical reforms on the EU side comes independently from the prospect of a new wave of enlargement. For Europe today, reform is of an existential nature. It has a life of its own, largely stirred by the war in Ukraine, which calls for a reinvigorated European defense, and by the ongoing economic decline of the union which requires strong initiatives to regain the ground lost in global growth, modern industries, and new technology.

Consequently, the enlargement process will have to be shoehorned into this mainstream of changes. If not a spur anymore, new accessions nevertheless will need to advance in tandem with these much-needed reforms. How to make these two priorities compatible will be the real challenge for the future of the EU.

Viktor Szép

Assistant professor at the University of Groningen

The future enlargement of the EU is very likely to stimulate further debates on institutional and procedural reforms. In particular, the requirement of unanimity within the Common Foreign and Security Policy already causes headaches in Brussels. If the union welcomes new member states from the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, it will surely need some more flexibility in terms of decisionmaking procedures. While some of these candidate states show an almost full alignment with the EU’s foreign and security policy decisions, others are lagging behind and there is a fear that this gap cannot be fully closed.

The good news is that the EU treaties already include provisions that allow the shift from unanimity to qualified majority voting in EU foreign policy. Some member states have so far been reluctant to activate these unused treaty provisions. They must be reminded that the same EU treaties also include an emergency brake, according to which even if qualified majority voting would be used in certain cases, any member state could request to revert to unanimity. Thus, a compromise could be found between those member states that want to move away from unanimity and those that fear these changes.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.