27th Feb 2024

EU should talk about cost of failed enlargement, experts say

  • Experts warned that internal reforms are needed to enlarge the EU (Photo: ec.europa.eu)
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The December's European Council was a mixed blessing. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán surprisingly backed down from blocking the opening of accession negotiations, but the €50bn Ukraine Facility still hangs in the balance.

Nonetheless, with the start of accession talks, the EU and Ukraine can finally get down to the nuts and bolts of reform and integration.

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Experts warn, however, that many challenges remain before the EU's historically celebrated enlargement policy can be successfully revived.

For Enjellushe Morina, senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations (ECFR), Orbán's antics illustrate how a lack of institutional reform within the EU has hampered enlargement.

"Internal reforms are really needed. The EU is hardly functioning, because of governance issues, problems with rule of law and conditionality, and too limited QMV [qualified majority voting]. It's not in a position to bring in new members, which is dragging down the enlargement process," according to Morina.

These institutional issues pile upon a lack of credibility that has hampered enlargement policy in recent times, according to Morina.

A serious, credible commitment to a timeline was crucial for motivating accession countries to reform during the 'Big Bang' enlargement in 2004, Morina says. "A roadmap, a timeline, and political seriousness are essential. Right now we are missing all three."

The problem of a lack of concrete, credible advantages for accession countries is echoed by Steven Blockmans, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). "Currently, accession negotiations take place without any benefits in the interim period before full membership."

This results in countries losing their "drive for reform" says Blockmans.

The issue is compounded by obstruction from member states themselves: "The different steps in accession are still subject to countless vetoes by individual member states", notes Blockmans, pointing out how member states abuse these vetoes for domestic political gains.

The cost of non-enlargement

Moreover, both Blockmans and Morina feel that the EU should change the conversation about the costs of integration.

The prospective financial impact of Ukrainian accession caused unrest in September after a report by the Council secretariat, and the financing of the Ukraine aid package proved to be a sticking point last week.

But this focus on the costs of enlargement paints a one-sided picture, say both Morina and Blockmans.

"We should talk about the costs of non-enlargement" argues Morina. These are first and foremost geostrategic: "For the Western Balkans, this is probably the last moment the EU can push back the malign influence of Russia and China," says Morina.

Similarly, the geopolitical cost of a destabilised, disputed Ukraine is obvious for Blockmans, who notes that instability could generate more migration as well: "This should be an argument for Hungary."

Generally, investing in a peaceful, thriving Ukraine will cost less than dealing with the consequences of failure afterwards, thinks Blockmans. "If you look back at the Big Bang in 2004, these countries have done amazingly. An economic catch-up took place, paired with a geopolitical stabilisation of Europe behind the Iron Curtain. We need to renew this success story."

Blockmans predicts that such an economic catch-up could result in the Ukrainian membership costing significantly less than projected by the EU Council.

Morina, too, doubts that Ukraine would be a burden on the Union's finances for long: "You can turn this around in four or five years, if done properly. There's the workforce, the agricultural potential, the energy potential. It's a huge country."

A proper conversation about these scenarios has been sorely lacking, feels Morina. "What happens if you totally ignore these regions? It doesn't look well! Not just for security, but for other topics as well, like the green transition, it's not okay to not enlarge further. It's very important that we talk about these things."

Author bio

Piet Ruig is a Brussels-based journalist who previously worked for the Dutch public broadcaster VPRO.

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