EU Must Prove It Is Serious About Enlargement – Analysis


By Luke Coffey

This has been a historic month for the EU. After months of deliberation, the Council of the EU last week voted to grant candidate status to Georgia and to begin membership talks with Ukraine and Moldova. This decision marks a turning point regarding the enlargement of the bloc.

When the EU’s predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Community, was created in 1951, there were only six members: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Over the course of the next 53 years, only nine new members were added to what became the European Economic Community and then later the EU, bringing the total to 15. This changed in 2004.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in the early 1990s, the EU focused on the enlargement prospects in Central and Eastern Europe. This initiative came to fruition in 2004, when the EU’s single largest enlargement occurred. At this time, 10 new countries joined, including seven that were once either part of the Warsaw Pact or Soviet Union. However, since this so-called big bang enlargement in 2004, only three new countries have joined: Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and Croatia in 2013. Of course, the UK formally left the EU in January 2020 after the Brexit vote. Today, the number of members stands at 27.

Because of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, there is a newfound geopolitical impetus for EU enlargement for countries in Central and Eastern Europe. In the summer of 2022, just months after the invasion, Ukraine and Moldova were granted EU candidate status. This month, both began accession talks to formally join the bloc. Meanwhile, Georgia, which has long remained committed to Euro-Atlantic integration but has experienced democratic backsliding in recent years that raised concerns in Brussels, was given candidate status.

However, before popping the Champagne, getting Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia across the finish line and into the EU will be no easy task. This is not because Kyiv, Chisinau and Tbilisi will be unable or too slow at making the required reforms to join. Instead, the biggest obstacles will likely be found in Brussels and among certain EU members in Western Europe as they grapple with the institutional reforms needed to bring in new members. There are four particular issues of concern.

Firstly, since voting in the Council of the EU is, at least in part, based on a formula that includes the population of each member state, some countries in Western Europe stand to lose influence if bigger countries join. For example, upon joining, Ukraine would become the fifth-most-populous member, followed by Poland and Romania. This would make Central and Eastern Europe more influential in the decision-making of the EU in a way that will likely make Paris and Berlin uncomfortable.

Secondly, there is also the matter of reallocating seats in the European Parliament if new members are added. Currently, there are 705 seats. These are distributed based on population, with the maximum number of seats for any EU member being 96 and a minimum being six. If a new member joins, the seats have to be redistributed. This means current members will lose seats, especially considering Ukraine’s relatively bigger population. For the EU’s smaller states, this will not make too much difference. However, the bigger states in Western Europe will lose out.

Thirdly, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy will need to be reformed before Ukraine can join. This will be no easy task. The CAP was introduced in 1962 to facilitate a complex system of agricultural subsidies and to set agricultural policies across the EU. The CAP is hugely expensive as it is and today takes up about a third of the EU’s entire budget. The number of agricultural subsidies received by member states under CAP is linked to farm size. Considering Ukraine has an estimated quarter of Europe’s total farmland, billions of euros in subsidies will be shifted eastward and away from Western European countries like France and Spain. Reforming CAP is already one of the most contentious issues inside the EU. A major farming country like Ukraine joining the EU would make CAP even more difficult to reform.

Finally, there is an important geopolitical matter that will need to be resolved before Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia join the EU. All three countries have Russian troops on their territory that are uninvited. It is also not well known that the EU contains a mutual defense clause (Article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union) that is similar to NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee. NATO’s defense clause is the No. 1 roadblock when it comes to countries like Ukraine and Georgia joining the alliance. With Russian troops already occupying territory in these countries, NATO members are concerned that their entry into the alliance would trigger an automatic war with Moscow. In theory, the same thing could be true regarding the EU’s Article 42.7, but there has been no public debate about how to address this matter. However, as these three countries get closer to the EU finish line, you can bet that this will become a contentious issue.

Right now, there is an understandable amount of euphoria in the EU over the prospect of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia joining. However, as Kyiv, Chisinau and Tbilisi make progress on the difficult but necessary reforms to join the EU, Brussels also has an obligation to make the necessary institutional reforms.

It would be tragic if Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia successfully underwent the political and economic reforms needed to join the EU, only to then have the process stalled because of Western European concerns over the allocation of European Parliament seats, voting weight in the European Council or farming subsidies. Even the challenges surrounding the EU’s Article 42.7 are not insurmountable with the right leadership and creativity in Brussels.

If the EU is serious about bringing in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia as members, it must start the necessary reforms now before it is too late.

– Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. X: @LukeDCoffey

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