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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: ec.europa.eu)
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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).

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"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.

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