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25th Jun 2022

Opinion

Ukraine should prompt wider EU rethink of enlargement

  • Balkan countries have demonstrated the shallowness of the EU's vision of enlargement (Photo: Biblioteca Nacional de Espana)
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Ukraine's dogged fight to defend its democracy against a brutal, unprovoked Russian attack deserves the West's full support: Ukraine's struggle for survival is Europe's, too.

Declaring the country a European Union candidate member would be the right signal to send for next week's summit of EU leaders.

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But to make sure that the signal goes beyond mere declaration, EU leaders will have to back up their words with deeds and refocus on what the Union stands for .

At next week's European Council (23-24 June), the EU's national leaders will decide whether to follow a recommendation issued by the European Commission on Friday (17 June) and grant the status of membership candidate to Ukraine.

This would be unprecedented: never before has the EU extended this offer to a country at war. As a result, and in light of Ukraine's size and undeniable reform challenges, some governments appear lukewarm.

Before the leaders discuss Ukraine, they will have dinner with the leaders of the six countries of the Western Balkans.

The experience of the six countries, some of which have been membership candidates for more than 15 years, should give the assembled leaders pause and strengthen their resolve not to repeat the mistakes that were made in southeastern Europe in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia (Moldova for candidate status alongside Ukraine).

In the past decade and a half, the Balkan countries have demonstrated the shallowness of the EU's vision of enlargement.

This goes beyond mere "enlargement fatigue," first diagnosed as early as the big-bang enlargement of 2004 had been completed.

Following the accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 and the Eurozone crisis of 2009-10, enlargement fatigue prompted the EU to set tougher reform conditionality while simultaneously weakening their policing.

Incumbent elites across the Balkans recognized this and exploited it for their own struggle to preserve a status quo that benefitted them handsomely.

The EU's hysterical response to the refugee movements of 2015-16 helped solidify a transactional approach which rewarded even autocratising regimes, such as that of president Aleksandr Vučić in Serbia .

As a result, Serbian commitments to the rule of law, media freedom, and alignment with EU foreign policy have been soft-pedalled to the point of parody.

This has damaged not only the EU's reputation as a "community of values" (already badly dented by the numerous human rights abuses committed in the course of keeping migrants out), but as a political actor.

The EU and wider democratic world's potential constituency of EU-aspiring citizens in the Western Balkans feels not just let down, but jilted, in favour of the governments who humiliate them while faking reform on the EU stage.

And when the EU downshifts on the values elements while continuing to talk about economic liberalisation and opportunities, the entire point of the European project should rightly be brought into question.

The real issue, then, beyond mere enlargement fatigue, is that the EU's own political elites have lost any conviction of why enlargement is the right thing to do — a Europe "whole and free," a deepening political union of values — and instead viewed enlargement, in the best case, as a half-hearted obligation stemming from earlier promises, such as that given to the Balkan states at Thessaloniki in 2003.

The complete absence of a strategic vision on enlargement was perhaps best exemplified when French president Emmanuel Macron vetoed the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia in October 2019 and his proposal earlier this year for some kind of vague "political community" to which would-be members would be relegated (at least temporarily).

Lack of vision and conviction was accompanied internally by the domestic dismantling of basic democratic features and the rule of law by the governments of Poland and Hungary, aided and abetted by Berlin and Brussels, which further undermined any sense that enlargement is indeed in the EU's interests, while increasing the risk of illiberalism within the EU itself.

Russia's brutal war on Ukraine has delivered an electrical jolt to a morally listless, flatlining EU (and wider West), forcing it to recognize that democracy has enemies and that human dignity must sometimes be defended with force.

While still in flux, Ukraine's valiant self-defense and invocation of democratic values has guilt-tripped the EU, Nato, and the wider West into having to articulate Ukraine's political perspectives.

While this makes some member state leaders who were already on the fence about enlargement uncomfortable, this inflection point should be seen as a gift which provides the Union with an opportunity to have a long-overdue reset back to its foundational and moral values.

This also entails a hitherto sidestepped internal reckoning with the illiberals in Budapest, Warsaw, and elsewhere. The EU needs to ask itself whether it still believes in the combination of political and rights-based liberalism with economic liberalism — the necessary combination that has made the EU the success that it is.

This is a chance to recalibrate not only the enlargement process, but the entire European project. EU leaders ought to embrace it.

Author bio

Toby Vogel is a Brussels-based co-founder and senior associate of the Democratization Policy Council, a think tank in Berlin.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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