Comment

We need to talk about EU enlargement

Veronica Anghel and Erik Jones / Apr 2024

Photo: Shutterstock

 

The European Union (EU) has embarked on a new phase of enlargement. The novelty goes beyond the choice of candidate countries. The whole process of enlargement needs to be reconsidered, as does the process of state transformation upon which it is based. What follows are five reasons we think this is so. Some of this analysis draws on lessons from the past, and some from a clear-eyed look at Europe’s strategic situation.

First, democracy is about people and not (just) institutions. The institutions of the United States have not changed in the last 75 years, but American democracy has. The only way to explain that is to look at the norms and values of the people engaged in politics. If those people do not want the institutions to work, then those institutions will not work. This raises a question about why we focus so much attention on the criteria for enlargement on political institutional design. In an essay published in the latest edition of the Journal of Democracy, we went back to the last enlargement to focus on what was happening in Hungary during the accession process. What we found was that there was ample evidence that Hungarian democracy was already failing by the early 2000s, just as that country was accepted for membership. The problem is that the criteria for acceptance had little or nothing to do with the forces undermining Hungarian democracy.

Second, enlargement is about people and firms, and not just nation states. When you think about it that way, Europe has already enlarged to encompass millions of people from the Western Balkans. This becomes evident on every walk on the streets of Vienna. Europe has grown to encompass millions of Ukrainians as well. And what goes for people also goes for firms. Many of the firms based in countries in the Western Balkans or in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are already doing business in the European Union. Many of those firms are challenging EU firms for market share. The question is how to get those firms to operate according to European rules and norms. Whenever possible, people on the move recently entering the EU should also have the opportunity to return (and rebuild) their countries of origin where they can contribute to (and benefit from) prosperity and political stability. That will only happen through enlargement to new member states – because working in partnership with those governments is the key to managing both migration and market competition. In that sense, the formal notion of ‘enlargement’ is an important part of the solution to the many challenges that have arisen from the real, human-centred enlargement that has already taken place.

Third, enlargement is about security policy and not just foreign policy. Here it is important to remember that the historic enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe was not originally an ambitious project. The original plan was to focus on the gradual transformation of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe to democratic politics and liberal markets. That plan was meant to be slow. But suddenly the pace changed in 1999. What worked as a slow process started moving much more quickly. And what worked as a restricted process, that only those countries that qualified could begin, suddenly became a more inclusive process where all potential candidates received a prospect for membership. We explored this dynamic in a 2022 essay in the Journal of European Public Policy. What we found is that the change in the tempo was a response to change in the strategic environment. The European Council wanted to use enlargement to stabilize the countries of Central and Eastern Europe then much as they do today. The difference in the 1990s is that the threat was internal to those countries; today the threat comes from third parties like Russia and China. This is a more challenging threat to respond to. And it calls for an important change in thinking about membership. Membership in this context works more like the membership of a security community than some kind of club. Turkey remained a loyal and effective member of NATO through various cycles of democracy and dictatorship because Turkish participation is a security requirement for the North Atlantic alliance. The EU will have to begin to think that way as well. Such thinking is consistent with a people-centred approach to enlargement. The goal when faced with ‘backsliding’ is not to punish the country but to create the conditions for supporting the people in their efforts to return to the norms and values of democracy.

Fourth, enlargement – understood in people-centered terms (i.e. as we suggest in the second point above) – will change the way the EU works, with or without a reform of the formal European institutions and with or without a formal expansion of membership. Here again, we notice that enlargement has already taken place through the movement of peoples and the access of firms from outside the European Union. That expansion (or access to Europe) is forcing the EU to adapt. We show how that works both in theory and in practice in a recent article in West European Politics. By focusing on the evolution of the single market, the single currency, and the single financial space, we demonstrate how access to the European Union necessarily coincides with a change in the way the EU has to operate. Formal enlargement and institutional reform proceed in parallel and not necessarily as a cause-and-effect relationship. In that sense, there is no more reason to wait for institutional reform for enlargement to take place this time around than there was during the enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe in the early 2000s. Here it is worth remembering that the final phase of enlargement talks took place alongside the European Convention. The results were hardly fortuitous. Spain and Poland initially blocked agreement on the European Constitutional Treaty and then referendums in France and the Netherlands put an end to it. Europe did not collapse as a result of this failing. The lesson is that we should expect this next round of enlargement to move alongside institutional adaptation as well. It will be risky, but the EU is resilient.

Fifth, this enlargement is going to be hard, but it is still better than the alternative. Current debates should focus more attention on that alternative. If Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and the countries of the Western Balkans are left out of the EU and undefended from third-party attempts at destabilization, the people in those countries will not become more democratic. If anything, they are likely to move in the opposite direction under foreign influence. At the same time, more and more of those people are going to have to seek refuge in the European Union. More and more of their firms will rely on access to Europe for their success, and those firms are going to be more and more resistant to European regulation or influence and facing a division between East and West. Worse, the security conditions in those countries will deteriorate and that means European security will also diminish. Europe will face ever greater challenges along the way, and its institutions will have to adapt to the growing requirements for crisis management. Europe will change, but not necessarily for the better.

Thinking about it in people-centred terms and with full appreciation for the security imperative, enlargement offers the chance for the European Union to get control over its future. It will be hard, but the EU can become a model for stabilization and prosperity if Europeans both inside and outside the European Union work to make it a success. European integration was that model in the past. It could be so again in the future.

 

Veronica Anghel

Veronica Anghel

April 2024

About this author ︎►

Erik Jones

Erik Jones

April 2024

About this author ︎►

cartoonSlideImage

EU Elections

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Sunak puddle

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Nul points

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Better Late...

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Erdogan

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

US Gladiators

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Scholz hacker

See the bigger picture ►

cartoonSlideImage

Navalny

See the bigger picture ►

soundcloud-link-mpu1 rss-link-mpu soundcloud-link-mpu itunes-link-mpu