22nd Feb 2024

Enlargement seen as EU's best reply to Russian aggression

  • The last big wave of EU expansion was in 2004, when 10 countries joined (Photo:
Listen to article

The EU ought to prepare for a new round of enlargement in reply to Russia's war, Europe's top official has said.

Ukraine, Moldova, and the Western Balkans, but not Georgia or Turkey, were put in the vanguard of future membership by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in her yearly speech to MEPs on Wednesday (13 September).

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

"The future of Ukraine is in our Union. The future of the Western Balkans is in our Union. The future of Moldova is in our Union," she said.

"And I know just how important the EU perspective is for so many people in Georgia," she added.

She compared the next enlargement to the 'big-bang' one in 2004, when the EU first began taking in post-Communist states.

"After the fall of the Iron Curtain, we turned an economic project into a true Union of people and states. I believe that the next enlargement must also be a catalyst for progress," she said.

She repeatedly mentioned an EU of "30+" members and the idea of "completing our union" on Wednesday.

"In a world where some are trying to pick off countries one by one, we cannot afford to leave our fellow Europeans behind," von der Leyen also said.

Her enlargement appeal was framed by the geopolitical and moral emergency of Russia's war on Ukraine.

The Commission boss told the story of late Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina, quoting Amelina's emotive words to her son before she was killed in a Russian air-strike in Ukraine, to force home the idea that Ukrainians belonged in the EU.

Von der Leyen also invited Colombian activist, Héctor Abad Faciolince, who survived the same air-strike, to hold up Amelina's photo to a standing ovation by MEPs.

Meanwhile, the numbers of Ukrainian refugees who had come to the EU was so big it almost constituted de-facto enlargement.

"Since the start of the war, four million Ukrainians have found refuge in our Union. And I want to say to them that they are as welcome now as they were in those fateful first weeks," von der Leyen said.

In practical terms, she announced "pre-enlargement policy reviews" to see how EU institutions needed to adapt to the "30+" model.

EU-aspirant states should in future face yearly rule-of-law checkups, she also said.

But she didn't mention the idea of introducing majority voting into EU foreign-policy making, which can get bogged down in national vetoes even at the level of 27.

She also didn't mention "strategic autonomy" — the old idée fixe the EU should be a military power independent of the US — but instead presented enlargement as Europe's best answer to Russia's menace.

EU concerns over Georgia

Her trumpeting of a bigger EU marked a major shift from last year, when she barely mentioned expansion.

Her mild snub to Georgia came amid EU concern that the ruling party of Georgian oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili is taking the country in an undemocratic direction.

Turkey is also an EU hopeful, but its accession process halted in 2016 due to a vicious crackdown on democracy by president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

France and Germany have both championed foreign-policy majority voting and strategic autonomy in the past.

But smaller and Russia-facing EU countries hate the ideas, as these would boost French and German power inside Europe, while destabilising its US security relations.

And if von der Leyen's speech was designed to offend no one, that could be due to undeclared intentions to run for an EU or Nato job after her term ends next year.

Ukraine had advanced in "great strides" toward EU-entry eligibility over the past year despite the war, she also said on Wednesday, even though its accession prospects and territorial integrity are up in the air until the fighting ends.

Moldova is currently battling Russian coup plotters to keep its pro-EU government in power.

And the six Western Balkan states in the queue are proceeding towards the EU at different speeds, amid ongoing Kosovo-Serb tension and ever-louder talk by the Serb part of the Bosnian federation that it wants to rip old peace accords to shreds.

Five frontline EU states push to extend Ukraine grain ban

Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia called on the European Commission to extend their ban on Ukrainian grain imports until the end of 2023 in a bid to safeguard their farmers and agricultural sector.


European Political Community and key media vote This WEEK

A major meeting of leaders from all over Europe will take place this week, with security and enlargement as key topics for discussion. In the Parliament, MEPs are expected to vote on the European Media Freedom Act.


Western Balkans and pre-COP meeting in focus This WEEK

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen will be travelling this week throughout the Western Balkan. Meanwhile, the pre-COP28 on Monday and Tuesday will bring together ministers in Abu Dhabi to prepare for the UN climate talks.


Podcast: Navalny, Ian Bremmer and "more Europe"

EU headlines, Russia after Navalny, the Munich Security Conference and an interview with Ian Bremmer, author and founder of the Eurasia Group on his main takeaways from the conference.

Latest News

  1. EU auditors: rule-of-law budget protections only partial success
  2. EU's €723bn Covid recovery fund saw growth, but doubts remain
  3. Von der Leyen rejects extremist parties, leaves door open to ECR
  4. Russian oligarchs failed to get off EU blacklist
  5. Podcast: Navalny, Ian Bremmer and "more Europe"
  6. Only Palestinians paying thousands of dollars leave Gaza
  7. Ukraine refugees want to return home — but how?
  8. African leaders unveil continent-wide plan to buy medicines

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us