EU Enlargement and Europe’s Future. How to Revive One of the EU’s Most Successful Policies


In an ironic twist of history, Russia’s devious attack has brought Ukraine closer to European Union membership than ever. Russia’s unprovoked assault has left even the EU’s enlargement-sceptic member states no choice but to declare their support for Ukraine’s ambitions to join. French President Emmanuel Macron stated on 1 June this year that “we must remove the ambiguities and agree to have a Union which is enlarged, which is geopolitical.”[1]

The big question is how this can actually happen. The EU is, unlike NATO, not a club of like-minded countries content to co-ordinate and cooperate in one specific policy area. EU member states give up parts of their sovereignty. They delegate considerable parts of their decision-making powers to the EU and accept the EU court as the highest arbiter. They have established the European Single Market, a vast area where goods, services, people, and capital can travel unhindered like within a single country. This is made possible by tens of thousands of pages of EU legislation binding on all member states.

The EU has very few of its own institutions. For the implementation of its rules and policies it depends on the institutions of its member states. These institutions must be reliable and capable to work in accordance with the vast body of EU rules and regulations, otherwise the EU’s functioning is under threat.

For this reason, following a “geopolitical approach” cannot mean allowing Ukraine to join the EU without meeting its demanding membership criteria (a process that takes a few years at minimum). However, to pursue a “geopolitical approach” can – and should – mean that the EU makes a serious offer to Ukraine (and other European democracies not yet part of the EU) to participate in a credible accession process. This is more exciting than it sounds.

It is the process leading to accession that changes countries more substantially than actual membership. It is the most successful tool ever developed in terms of transforming states on a broad scale. Every single former communist country that was admitted to the EU is a living monument to its transformative power. There are differences in how each new member subsequently developed, but there is no single case for which it would be fair to say that the process failed. 

Since the Central and Eastern European countries joined the EU in 2004 and 2007, however, the process has been neglected. Stability in Europe’s periphery was taken for granted and further enlargement – against the backdrop of pressing challenges like the financial and economic crisis, the war in Syria, the migration crisis, and Covid – was pushed into the distant future. EU members remained silent when some of their peers blocked accession countries through bilateral vetoes that had nothing to do with accession criteria, dramatically undermining the credibility of the process. With no credible accession prospect, the process also stopped delivering reforms. This in turn reinforced the belief among skeptics that the countries in the waiting line were not fit to become members.

While many now attest a “new momentum,” the skepticism and the underlying beliefs that have formed in the last decade, including many legitimate concerns, remain, and are not likely to go away anytime soon. The challenge is to find a way to make the accession process work under the current circumstances (the last section of this article includes a proposal to address this).

Success or failure in this undertaking will not only decisively shape the future of Ukraine and other contenders for membership, such as Moldova, Georgia and the Western Balkan countries, and determine if they follow their Eastern European peers to become stable and increasingly prosperous democracies, it might very well also decide the shape of Europe’s future as a whole. 

Balkans I: Transformative power

It is a familiar Balkan story: A botched transition from communist rule, empowering networks of the former regime and a few new oligarchs. Corruption rules. The economy is in tatters. The poverty rate stands at 36 percent of the population, up from 20 percent four years earlier. Purchasing power adjusted Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita reaches barely a quarter of the EU average. The upcoming elections offer an appalling choice: old strongmen of the former regime, new nationalists, and a bunch of quarrelling reformist parties all polling below 10 percent. 

This was Romania in the year 2000. At the second round of the presidential elections in December of that year, Romanians had the choice between Ion Iliescu, a former member of the central committee of the Communist Party that took over after the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989, and Corneliu Vadim Tudor, an antisemitic poet and journalist turned racist politician. Eventually, Iliescu, who had already been president from 1989 to 1996, won with two-thirds of the vote. In the parliamentary elections his Social Democratic Party won 37 percent of the vote, Tudor’s Greater Romania Party 20 percent. All other competitors remained in the single digits. 

The eventual outcome was a government led by Iliescu’s party colleague, Adrian Nastase. Expectations were modest, as the Economist explained back then: “The immediate problem is to cope with the winter. After years of misery, Romania’s economy is expected to grow this year by a mere 2%. Inflation is nudging 40%, the average wage is only $100 a month. Millions of Romanians cannot afford to heat their homes properly. Mr Nastase cannot easily find the money to subsidise heating costs.”[2]

But then, the tide turned. The poverty rate started to decline, reaching 25 percent in 2003.[3] Net Foreign Direct Investment, which had lingered below 3 percent of GDP for years, started to pick up, surpassing 9 percent of GDP in 2006.[4] And this was only the beginning. Looking at purchasing power adjusted GDP per capita, Romania went from 26 percent of the EU average in 2000 (lagging behind all current EU member states and even behind North Macedonia and Serbia) to 77 percent in 2022, at the same level as Hungary and Portugal, and leaving behind five other EU member states – Latvia, Croatia, Greece, Slovakia and Bulgaria.[5]

Romania’s citizens are still poorer than those of wealthy EU members; its politicians more corrupt than those of Denmark; its democratic institutions more fragile than those in the Netherlands. But no one can deny that Romania’s transformation from Europe’s poorhouse into a dynamic economy based on a robust political system is an impressive success story. (Along the way Romania also delivered some of Europe’s highest-level convictions for corruption, including of former Prime Minister Nastase.)

How did this happen? There were of course many factors. But one can hardly be overestimated: From 2000 to 2006, Romania underwent the EU accession process that allowed it to join as a full member in 2007. As the political scientist Alina Mungiu-Pippidi put it in 2006, “The existence of a European option prevented Romania from staying as Albania or regressing to become a new Belarus.”[6]

The accession process is essentially about three things.

First, a credible promise that every accession country can reach an attractive goal (EU membership) through its own efforts: When in December 1997 the EU invited six countries to open accession negotiations, it made sure that the other five Eastern European hopefuls that were not (yet) invited to open negotiations were kept as tied to the process as possible, and stressed that “at the same time the preparation of negotiations with Romania, Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania and Bulgaria will be speeded up.” Slovaks clearly believed that this promise was real. In 1998, seeing that their country remained stuck under Vladimir Meciar while their neighbors pulled ahead, they voted him out of office, paving the way for a dramatic catch-up process. 

Second, the actual process, euphemistically called “negotiations”: This means bringing the legal framework of the country in accordance with EU legislation in all areas relevant for the functioning of the EU, from environmental protection and product safety standards to public procurement and state aid; setting up new or adapting existing institutions; and implementing all these EU policies, laws and regulations. While this might sound modest, it is not. EU policies touch upon most policy areas. Collected active EU legislation approaches an estimated 100,000 pages. As Silvana Lyubenova, a civil servant involved in Bulgaria’s accession negotiations, once put it, “Accession negotiations mean making a time schedule for your reforms.”[7]

Third, substantial financial assistance and tailored support programs: For Romania this amounted to € 5.7 billion between 2000 and 2006.[8] Unlike classical development assistance, these multi-billion euro funds are specifically designed to help accession countries implement new EU-compatible legislation, set up institutions required to function as an EU member state, and develop the skills required to apply for complex multi-million-euro infrastructure projects according to EU rules and procedures, allowing them later on to benefit from even more support to help their economies to catch up after accession (as vividly illustrated by Romania, but also all other former communist countries that joined the EU since 2004). 

All of this took years, but in hindsight not that many: Romania applied in 1995, started negotiations in 2000, closed them in 2004 and became a full EU member on 1 January 2007. The core of the process, the negotiations, lasted four years and 10 months.

Balkans II: A process in ruins

The key reason why the process was so successful was its meritocratic nature. Countries doing well on reforms progressed, laggards fell behind. 

Some member states were tempted to use the accession process to push for concessions on specific bilateral interests: Austria with regard to nuclear power plants in Slovakia, Italy with regard to Italian property expropriated during communism in Slovenia, Germany with regard to the fate of the Sudeten-Germans expelled from Czech lands after the Second World War. Eventually, however, before the 2004 and 2007 enlargement rounds, all these issues could be overcome without threatening the integrity and credibility of the process. 

Then, in late 2008, Slovenia blocked Croatia over a bilateral dispute primarily over the sea border between these two countries. Immediate reaction followed. EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn engaged in shuttle diplomacy and drew up proposals. Eventually, after the resignation of Croatia’s prime minister, a solution drawing heavily on Rehn’s latest proposal was fleshed out by Slovenian and Croatian negotiators, assisted by the Swedish EU presidency. While negotiations were formally on hold for 11 months, all technical meetings continued. Croatia effectively lost only little time.

Since then, however, bilateral vetoes have proliferated. When the European Commission recommended the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia in 2009, Greece objected because it claimed that the name of that country implied territorial claims towards Greece. The ensuing impasse lasted for nearly a decade. North Macedonian political leaders finally agreed with Greece to rename their country “North Macedonia” in 2019, but only to find their country blocked by France. French president Macron told reporters, “We need a reformed European Union and a reformed enlargement process, a real credibility and a strategic vision of who we are and our role.”[9] Once France gave up its objections in 2020, Bulgaria blocked the opening of accession talks because of objections related to North Macedonian history writing and teaching. Pending constitutional changes that it has promised to alleviate Bulgaria’s concerns, it remains unclear if North Macedonia will be allowed to finally start substantive negotiations later this year.

North Macedonia is not the only country exposed to arbitrary conditions. Bosnia and Herzegovina was asked to meet 13 conditions before the EU would accept a membership application – something the EU has never asked from any other country. 

Kosovo, not being recognized by five EU member states, has currently no membership prospects at all. While the Commission insists that “Kosovo has a clear European perspective as part of the wider Western Balkans region,”[10] when it finally handed in its membership application in December 2022, Spain made immediately clear that it “does not recognize the independence of Kosovo and will therefore vote against any procedural decision and granting of candidate status.”[11]

Taken together, this has all hugely damaged the credibility of the process. 

Making things worse, it has become unclear how progress is measured. The accession process is structured in 33 policy areas (called chapters). In the negotiations these chapters are opened and – once the country is deemed ready in that policy area – closed. The European Commission annually assesses how accession countries are doing and allocates each chapter one of five grades (early stage – some level of preparation – moderately prepared – good level of preparation – well advanced). 

In the last enlargement rounds, the number of opened and closed negotiation chapters gave a good indication of how far a country had advanced. But this is not the case anymore. Take Serbia, for example: According to the Commission’s own assessments, the average score of the chapters already opened and the average score of the chapters not yet opened is virtually the same (“moderately prepared”).[12] Serbia was allowed to open four chapters with the low grade of “some level of preparation”, while 11 chapters with a medium grade of “moderately prepared” remain closed.

According to the assessments by the European Commission, North Macedonia is as prepared as Serbia and nearly as prepared as Montenegro.[13] In the time that Serbia and Montenegro have been negotiating, for nine and 11 years, respectively, North Macedonia has not been allowed to open a single negotiation chapter. But then, what has been the point of nine years of accession talks with Serbia and 11 years with Montenegro if a country that never opened negotiations is as prepared for accession as they are? 

All of this also means that reforms slowed down. Incentives to work hard have vanished. Why invest political capital and credibility if there is a considerable risk of being left out in the cold by the EU, making pro-EU political leaders look silly and naïve in front their electorates? 

There is no progress, neither by the laggards nor by the frontrunners. In the last three years, Bosnia, North Macedonia and Serbia have practically not moved closer to meeting membership standards at all. At the current level of improvement, it would take Serbia another 99 years to reach an average score of a “good level of preparation.” Albania made most progress. But even with its quicker pace, Albania would take another 28 years to reach an average grade of a “good level of preparation.”[14] 

Another indicator of the problems of the current process involves the closing of chapters. Currently five countries are formally negotiating: Albania and North Macedonia (since 2022), Serbia (since 2014), Montenegro (since 2012) and Turkey (since 2005).[15] All need to close 33 chapters, meaning 165 chapters in total. However, so far all together they have closed only six chapters. The last country to close a negotiation chapter was Montenegro in June 2017, more than six years ago. 

For more than six years no single negotiation chapter was closed by any country! This is a period longer than it took each and every of the 13 countries that joined in 2004, 2007 and 2013 to open and close all negotiation chapters!

A new momentum?

The nature of the enlargement discourse started to shift in 2022 after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Ukraine’s membership application. But a closer reading suggests continued hesitation. 

After the European Council on 23 June 2022, when Ukraine and Moldova were declared candidates for membership, Macron admitted there was a “need to advance.” He explained that “this is a question of credibility but also a geopolitical issue of stabilizing the Western Balkans.” But a few seconds later he also said, “At a certain point we see that there is a tension between this geopolitical approach and our ambition that we have to deepen our Europe.”[16]

How can that tension be resolved? Through time, Macron suggested: “We have the enlargement process. Very good ... but let’s be clear: it will take a lot of time. Maybe some will not be able to finish it. But we have to think much more quickly and stabilize our neighborhood. And somehow – we have to be honest – we don’t have to live in the same house all together but we can live in the same street.”[17]

Olaf Scholz said at the end of August 2022 in Prague, “I am committed to the enlargement of the European Union ... But we must also make the EU itself fit for this great enlargement. This will take time, and that is why we must start now.”[18]

The Council conclusions from December 2022 state that the accession process will be made “more focused on fundamental reforms, more predictable and based on objective criteria and rigorous positive and negative conditionality.” The Council also looked forward to “‘phasing-in’ to individual EU policies, the EU market and EU programmes” and encouraged “the further advancement of gradual integration between the European Union and partners already during the enlargement process in a reversible and merit-based manner.”[19]

Suddenly, the topic was being taken more seriously. In a joint op-ed in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Scholz and Macron wrote in January 2023, “We are striving for rapid and concrete progress in the EU enlargement process. At the same time, we must ensure that an enlarged European Union remains capable of acting, with more efficient institutions and faster decision-making processes, particularly through the expansion of qualified majority voting in the Council.”[20] On 9 May 2023, Scholz tweeted,

At a conference in Bratislava on 31 May this year, French president Emmanuel Macron stated that “the question is not whether we should enlarge – we answered that question a year ago – nor when we should enlarge – for me, as swiftly as possible – but rather how we should do it.” He added that “our current method is not working.”[21]

He said that the EU needed to avoid two mistakes: First, “to give hope to the Western Balkans, Ukraine and Moldova, and then procrastinate.” He added that “we are very familiar with this tactic, we’ve been using it for a long time.” Second, “to say ‘let’s enlarge, it’s our duty and in our geopolitical interest ... Let’s do it. We’ll reform later.’ This would also be disastrous.”[22]

At the end of the day, the key problem persists: Enlargement-skeptical EU members, including France, might have come around to the necessity for further enlargement, but they cannot see how this could work without reforming EU decision-making procedures first.

This means that membership cannot be obtained “by own merit.” It depends to a considerable extent on the current EU members and their efforts to find agreement on internal EU reform. No one knows when this will happen as it requires support from all current members, some of which have very different positions on this. 

There is a high risk that the eventual outcome of the “new momentum” will be to formally open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, but without any substantial changes in the process as such. This would leave Ukraine and Moldova, together with all other accession countries, in a process that is not leading anywhere. More than one and a half years after the membership applications of Ukraine and Moldova it remains unclear how to move on. 

So far only the words in the enlargement discourse have clearly shifted. The deeds have not.

A simple proposal

Any model for a successful revival of the accession process, restoring its credibility and transformative power, needs to:

  1. provide an attractive goal that is reachable by own merit;
  2. provide rewards on actual reform progress measured through objective criteria;
  3. make bilateral vetoes as scarce as possible;
  4. take the concerns of skeptical EU member states into account. As their support is needed, everything else will fail.

While this might sound contradictory, there is a simple way to square this circle. The EU should admit the obvious: it cannot promise that when the next accession country has met all criteria and is ready for membership, that the EU will be ready to take in new members, too. Instead, the EU should propose a different attractive goal that accession countries can reach by their own efforts:

The EU and its member states should declare that if a country meets all the membership criteria, including respect for the rule of law and human rights, but the EU is not ready to accept new member states yet, then this country will immediately be admitted to the Single Market and get access to the four freedoms and EU funds.

This is an ambitious goal that would bring a country very close to full membership. The Single Market and the four freedoms (free movement of goods, services, persons and capital) cover most of the EU’s legislation and most EU policies. Joining the Single Market would also require countries to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria, including the rule of law, as this is required for the smooth functioning of the Single Market. 

In practice, the citizens and businesses of the countries that manage to join the Single Market would enjoy almost the same rights and benefits as those granted to citizens and businesses of EU member states. However, their political representatives would not (yet) get a seat at the decision-makers’ table in Brussels. 

Full EU membership would remain the goal. But participation in the internal market would be a big step on the way to full membership – an attractive, achievable interim goal. This has already worked in the past: Austria, Finland and Sweden were offered membership in the internal market in the first half of the 1990s, because at that time some member states were hostile to enlargement. Once political conditions within the EU changed, they were already well prepared and able to join the EU in a short time frame. 

This approach offers several major advantages:

First, Single Market membership is a highly attractive goal. It is true that being in the Single Market but not in the EU makes a country a rule taker, but not a rule maker. It is the position of Norway. When the EU changes the rules, it is forced to accept them. But Norway clearly thinks this is worth it, as it pays to be part of the Single Market (€ 2.8 billion between 2014 and 2021). This said, even countries that are not in the Single Market must accept many of its rules if they want to engage economically more closely. All this is much easier if it is seen as a step on the way to full membership. 

Second, progress can be measured objectively. The European Commission does this already through its annual reports. The benchmark for Single Market membership could be put at reaching at least a “good level of preparation” for all chapters.

Third, it removes bilateral blockades for the largest part of the process. Only at the very end is a unanimous decision by all the member states required to admit the respective country to the single market. The process thereby becomes truly meritocratic once more, with progress depending on the countries’ own efforts.

Fourth, no institutional changes are required: All this can be done with the tools the Commission has available already. There is no need for any new instruments. Legislative changes are only needed to regulate the accession of successful countries to the Single Market and access to EU funds. 

Fifth, this proposed solution addresses the concerns of France and all other member states that think that internal EU reforms need to be carried out before admitting new EU members. 

Sixth, this approach can be offered to all European democracies, regardless of their formal status in the accession process, i.e., also to Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Georgia, whose prospects for starting actual negotiations appear still distant, but who would strongly benefit from a credible and tangible vision for a better future. 

Finally, this approach would also counteract risks that the determination that Ukraine and Moldova currently show will dissipate once they are allowed to formally start negotiations, being exposed to the same process as the Western Balkans in the last decade, with meaningless exercises of opening chapters and tons of veto points to be exercised by every single EU member state, a practice that has robbed the process of its very engine: meritocracy. It would fill their process with meaning and give them an attractive, achievable interim goal on their way to full membership.

A remaining challenge is financing. A poor EU member receives much more money than a poor country in the accession process. What happens if an accession country joins the Single Market? There is no predefined answer. It has to be negotiated. Norway, as a very rich country, pays to be in the Single Market. Balkan countries, much poorer, should receive funds. With a combined economy half the size of Romania, the Western Balkans and Moldova could be treated like full members without incurring high costs. But this is different for Ukraine. Providing EU funds for this large and poor country would have a major impact on the EU budget. How much can the EU afford? How much is it willing to pay? Would agricultural funds be included? Resolving these questions will be a serious challenge. But they must be resolved regardless, should Ukraine join the Single Market or the EU (budgetary provisions were also the most contentious issue before the “big bang enlargement” of 2004). 

The bottom line is this: for it to work, the process leading to Single Market membership and the four freedoms must be preferable to the status quo for both accession countries and EU member states.

[1] Élysée, Déplacement en Moldavie pour le deuxième Sommet de la Communauté politique européenne, video (19:20), 1 June 2023.
[2] The Economist, Gulp, 14 December 2000.
[3] Alan Smith, “The Romanian Economy since 1989”, in: David Phinnemore (ed), The EU & Romania. Accession and Beyond, Federal Trust for Education and Research, 2006, pp. 29-37, p. 36.
[4] Stefaan Pauwels and Lorena Ionita, FDI in Romania: from low-wage competition to higher value-added sectors, ECFIN Country Focus, Vol. 5/3, 8 February 2008.
[5] Eurostat, Purchasing power adjusted GDP per capita, SDG_10_10, accessed 27 July 2023.
[6] Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, “Europeanisation without Decommunization: a case of elite conversion”, in: David Phinnemore (ed), The EU & Romania. Accession and Beyond, Federal Trust for Education and Research, 2006, pp. 17-28, p. 28.
[7] Interview with Silvana Lyubenova, Sofia, 29 June 2007.
[8] Sources: General Report on pre-accession assistance (Phare – ISPA – SAPARD), years 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006. The 2005 report only gives figures for Romania and Bulgaria together. As an estimate we allocated 66% of this total to Romania (in the previous year, 2004, Romania’s share was 65% and in the following year, 2006, it was 67%).
[9] Reuters, France under fire for “historic error” of blocking Balkan EU hopefuls, 18 October 2019.
[10] European Commission, The European Union and Kosovo: Political relations, accessed 28 July 2023.
[11] Agenzia Nova, The Spanish undersecretary for EU affairs: “No support for Kosovo’s application for membership”, 20 December 2022.
[12] Allocating 0 points for the worst grade and 4 for the best, the average of opened chapters is 2.0, while the one for not yet opened chapters is 1.9.
[13] ESI, Scoreboard – The true state of accession. What the Commission assessments reveal, ESI Background Paper, 17 March 2023.
[14] ESI, Scoreboard – The true state of accession. What the Commission assessments reveal, ESI Background Paper, 17 March 2023.
[15] Three are candidate countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine and Moldova (since 2022). Two are potential candidates: Georgia and Kosovo.
[16] Élysé, Conseil européen des 23 et 24 juin 2022 – La conférence de presse, video (15:32 and 16:24), 24 June 2022.
[17] Élysé, Conseil européen des 23 et 24 juin 2022 – La conférence de presse, video (17:26), 24 June 2022.
[18] Bundesregierung, Speech by Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Charles University in Prague, 29 August 2022.
[19] Council of the European Union, Enlargement and Stabilisation and Association Process ‒ Council conclusions, 13 December 2022.
[20] Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron, Sieben strategische Ziele zur Stärkung der EU, FAZ, 20 January 2023.
[21] Élysée, Globsec summit in Bratislava. Closing speech by the President of the French Republic, 31 May 2023.
[22] Élysée, Globsec summit in Bratislava. Closing speech by the President of the French Republic, 31 May 2023.

This publication represents the views of the author(s) and not the collective position of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) or the “Europe’s Futures” project.