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Enlargement Package marks a turn in policy to the East

EU enlargement / EPC ROUND-UP
European Policy Centre

Date: 14/11/2023
It was welcome news last week that the European Commission had approved the 2023 Enlargement Package, which has been regarded as historic because it covers ten aspiring members toward accession - the first time in many years.

It marks a turn towards the East, with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declaring in her press conference, “Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine chose clearly where they want to go”. 

But while the news has been well received for the EU’s geopolitical standing and economic security, it’s clear that optimism must be managed, and expectations must be tempered. So, what might be the challenges and potential obstacles in the accession process?

The EPC Round-Up assesses the EU Enlargement Package from different angles. It collects contributions from EPC analysts and experts in the field, bringing together various points of view for a more comprehensive and nuanced picture.

This year’s schizophrenic EU Enlargement Package is overall rather underwhelming. The struggle to square the imperative of expanding the Union’s borders in the new geopolitical context with a merit-based approach to the process is real. Under the heavy weight of political considerations, especially when it comes to the Eastern aspirants, the European Commission recommends that the Council opens accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova, and grants candidate status to Georgia. But its long-standing commitment to a strict and fair process binds the Commission to invoke reform conditions for progress in all countries. The ‘BUTs’ seem less constraining on the Commission’s avis for the Associated Trio than the Balkan countries, where, incidentally, security concerns are perceived as comparatively less salient than in the East. Moreover, across the board, the conditions are linked to stubborn problems of democratic governance or bilateral disputes that take time to address, even if geopolitics can hardly wait.

The Commission has nothing to lose pretending that it can have it both ways – i.e. urgent and rigorous – since, ultimately, it is the member states deciding whether strategy or merit prevails in each case. The question is whether this tactic helps the already bruised credibility and leverage of the policy. Double-dealing is unlikely to go down well with the Balkan countries, which have been queuing at the Union’s doors for decades, while the incentives (e.g. Growth Pact) are not generous enough to compensate for further delays. The EU should not forget that stability interests also prompted its engagement in the Balkans, and conflict can always return in the region (as recent events in Northern Kosovo demonstrate). Reforms are undoubtedly important, but effective solutions are lacking; otherwise, we would not still be talking about the same unfulfilled demands. The Commission is imprecise on how issues that so far have proven intractable will be dealt with differently henceforth. Doing more of the same and expecting different results seems counterproductive at a time when history calls for bold and exceptional action.

Finally, since the Commission’s assessments are based on the Copenhagen criteria, which specify the EU’s absorption capacity as a precondition for enlargement, why does the package spare no words on the Union’s preparedness to welcome the current aspirants? Without a doubt, it will take two to enlarge the ‘family’. 

The European Commission published its 2023 Enlargement Package. It is a comprehensive package with ten (potential) candidate countries, including Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia and a Western Balkans Growth Plan. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, enlargement policy is once again seen as a part of the EU’s toolbox in this ever-challenging geopolitical environment. 

One of the most remarkable points about the package is the emphasis on EU membership as a “strategic choice”.  With this approach, Common Foreign and Security Policy alignment was given as a key requirement demonstrating "shared values and strategic orientation”.

This emphasis, even if very much fitting the context, risks undermining the democratic transformation required to become an EU member state. It won’t be the first time the EU let some rules not be complied. The enlargement towards the Central and Eastern European countries was a case in point. The lessons taken from these cases, however, have become one of the core reasons for the stalemate in the Western Balkans. The enlargement process has to stay merit-based.

Moving forward, the EU faces a complex picture that triangulates enlargement, institutional reform, and the EU's economic security. Following the European Parliament elections in June 2024, the next EU leadership will be tasked with setting the priorities moving forward. The midterm review of the Multiannual Financial Framework and the negotiations for the next one will demonstrate where the EU's resources will be spent in the coming years.

The European Council of December is expected to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova. Georgia's and Bosnia Herzegovina's paths will depend on the steps they will take in the upcoming months. In any case, the enlargement dossier is moving forward. The countries may become full members as we know today, or this process may become the driver of new forms of membership. It is time to rethink the future of Europe for the 21st century.

The European Commission's much-anticipated Enlargement Package, hailed as a "historic package" by HRVP Josep Borrell, strives to embody the essential characteristics to be recognised as the Commission's most substantial endeavour to transcend the EU's rhetorical commitments in its enlargement promise.

In a historic and strategic shift, it advocates initiating accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova while proposing to grant candidate status to Georgia. Merely two years prior, under the EU's Eastern Partnership policy, even contemplating a European perspective, let alone accession talks, seemed implausible. Now, the EU's executive body is not only open to but actively pursuing the launching of the screening process with Ukraine and Moldova, aiming to significantly expedite the timeline. This approach intertwines strategic interests with geopolitical aspirations, reflecting a profound change in the EU’s stance towards its eastern neighbours.

No doubt, the Commission's Enlargement Package showcases its geopolitical ambition through its innovative features. The focus on compliance with the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the explicit requirement for EU aspirants to actively counter foreign information manipulation signal a broader strategic objective. These criteria, likely to become integral to the EU accession process, demonstrate a clear and strategic language in the EU's external relations, signalling a more assertive and proactive EU foreign policy.

Yet, incorporating both the Eastern Trio and the Western Balkans into a unified framework uncovers the inherent complexities of this policy, deeply intertwined with domestic political factors. The European Commission's sober assessment of the Western Balkan countries' progress highlights that the path towards EU enlargement is neither straightforward nor exclusively geopolitical. Optimism must be tempered with the practical challenges of implementing reforms and meeting the EU's stringent criteria, raising a question or even a dilemma: How can expectations be managed while ensuring that both the EU and candidate countries effectively sustain the momentum of EU enlargement, keeping their citizens on board?

The European Commission's recommendations to open accession talks with Ukraine are unequivocal and a significant achievement for the country in a full-scale existential war. The amount of work done signifies Ukraine’s determination to implement long-awaited reforms to achieve this outcome. This step also has symbolic meaning for Ukraine, confirming the EU’s readiness to make its enlargement commitments credible and translate them into practical steps. Since the beginning of the war, European integration – and long before – has had unprecedented support from Ukrainian civil society, which has traditionally been active in conducting an independent monitoring of the reform process. It also boosted the country’s morale during the war and was an eloquent reply to Russia’s prediction of fading support for Ukraine in the EU.

The assessment was based on achievements, with no exceptions for wartime Ukraine. Ukraine’s implementation of the necessary reforms was not always smooth. In some cases, Ukraine had to make more than one round of changes to already adopted legislation to achieve compliance with the recommendations of the European Commission and the Venice Commission.

According to the Commission, Ukraine’s progress is sufficient for the European Council’s political decision to open accession talks on 14-15 December. Ukraine has achieved substantial progress in all seven areas, fully compliant with four of the criteria – reforming key judicial governance bodies, establishing a pre-selection system for the Constitutional Court judges, adopting key media and anti-money laundering legislation.

The technical preparation of the negotiating framework for the accession talks is supposed to start just after the Council’s conclusion in December, revealing the EU’s commitment to keeping the process dynamic.

Adopting the negotiating framework (likely in March 2024) will be conditional on implementing four additional measures: national minorities, anti-corruption and countering oligarchs (i.e. adopting a law on lobbying, increasing the staffing cap and powers of anti-corruption bodies regarding asset declarations for public officials). Some of these conditions are new but, Ukraine should fulfil them without delay to proceed to the next accession step. Conducting consultations and finding an agreement with representatives of national minorities will also be a priority. Proper implementation of all the adopted legislation is of crucial importance to overcome skepticism about Ukraine’s capabilities to implement reforms during wartime and to get the support of member states.

The prospect of EU enlargement is good news for the EU’s geopolitical standing and economic security. Supply chain disruptions in the context of COVID-19, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and an increasingly confrontational geo-economic environment have highlighted the need for greater strategic autonomy of the EU economy. Like the US and China, the EU will need to home-shore and friend-shore strategic supply chains, particularly in the green and digital fields. REPowerEU envisages a ramp-up of European renewable energy production. The Net Zero Industry Act and Critical Raw Materials Act call for 40% of green and raw material value chains to be diverted to the EU. EU accession candidates, particularly Ukraine, can play an important role for Europe in achieving these goals and in providing greater economic security.

Ukraine’s electricity grid has already been integrated with the EU’s, providing cheap nuclear power to European consumers. Similarly, Ukrainian facilities have increased the EU’s gas storage capacities for the winter, increasing the bloc’s resilience in the face of the energy crisis. Ukraine already produces some of the largest quantities of hydropower in Europe and could ramp up its production along with other green energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass. The EU and member states like Germany are considering large-scale investments in Ukrainian green hydrogen production, which could conveniently be transported through the extensive existing pipeline infrastructure. Ukraine has also been a major metal exporter and is home to lithium and rare earth deposits crucial for the green and digital industries.

Furthermore, Ukraine’s agricultural industry is one of the biggest in the world. Its integration into the internal market would dramatically increase the EU’s food security. Finally, Ukraine and other accession candidates boast a well-educated workforce and particularly potent IT sectors. Their inclusion in the Single Market could help alleviate the skills gap in the EU economy, which has increasingly become an obstacle to European competitiveness and help accelerate the digital transition.

Within the Enlargement Package, the European Commission recommends granting Georgia candidate country status to the Council. This is positive news for Georgians and for the EU. Still, while Georgia has taken several important steps forward, Tbilisi should not be complacent as many areas require more effort, and Georgia must swiftly crack on.

Georgia fulfilled only three out of 12 priorities. Wrapping up the other seven ahead of the 15 December European Council must be prioritised. Deoligarchisation and depolarisation have been major stumbling blocks and need to be put properly addressed and put to bed. Furthermore, the Commission has added a further two pieces of homework for Georgia, namely countering disinformation, foreign information manipulation, and interference against the EU’s values and improving Tbilisi’s alignment rate with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, which is currently 43%. While Georgia’s security situation is, without doubt, perilous, with 20% of the territory occupied and Russian tanks a mere 40 km away, it is in Georgia’s interest to show readiness to boost this figure. It is also important for the EU to recognise Georgia’s existing contribution to Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) missions in Africa.

While the Council will decide Georgia’s fate, it is ultimately up to Tbilisi whether it gets on the EU train or remains in the waiting room. While Georgia made a clear geopolitical choice two decades ago, Tbilisi must reiterate this choice and prove that it shares EU values, and its strategic orientation is irreversible. In this case, the Council must follow the Commission’s recommendation and grant Georgia candidate country status.

The 2023 Enlargement Package marks a real turn in EU policy towards the East. Seeing the recommendation to open accession talks with Moldova and Ukraine is fantastic, especially since Georgia received the candidate status recommendation. This answers a decades-long question of whether Georgia belongs in the EU and will boost the pro-Europeans in Georgia.

In the Western Balkans, however, the Package was more of the same. The region has been engaging in EU accession processes for over two decades, with less to show than the countries in the east who applied only last year.

The “new growth package” offers an additional €6 billion in grants and loans for the Western Balkans, which, if countries can absorb, can help with infrastructure building and aspects of green or digital transition. Although, it will not boost income as much as the Commission estimates: a GDP growth of 10% is a gross overestimation. To put it in perspective, €6 billion for the region amounts to just over €300 per capita, less than 10% of the support a country like Estonia would get from the EU in the pre-pandemic period.

Overall, the distinct sense one gets reading the package is that there is clarity on the East - namely that Russia must be contained and allies who fight Russia must be rewarded. But there is resignation in the Western Balkans. The proposal for “normalisation” of relations between Kosovo and Serbia does not solve the status question of Kosovo nor its relationship with Serbia.

The way the EU is using enlargement and other tools in the Western Balkans does not inspire confidence that full membership of this region to the EU is possible. Even if the Council approves the full package proposed by the Commission, it is doubtful that it will help Bosnia and Herzegovina or North Macedonia out of internal deadlocks, will enable Kosovo to become a candidate country and will convince Serbia to align its foreign policy to the EU. Without solving these essential political challenges, the region cannot move forward in any meaningful way.

The European Commission’s Enlargement Package published this week recommends opening accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) once the country “has achieved the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria and, in particular, has met the key priorities”. While this avis was presented as a “historic step” by the Commission and positively welcomed by domestic political leaders in BiH, it essentially repeats what the Brussels’ executive has already expressed in its 2019 opinion on Bosnia’s application.

This reiteration suggests that the Commission might have felt caught between a rock and a hard place in Bosnia. The rock is the need to show some advances in the Balkans after endorsing progress on the EU path for all three Eastern aspirants to avoid reinforcing the perception that the EU has abandoned the region, prevented further frustration, and not kill the momentum that the EU has been trying to create to reinvigorate the enlargement process. The hard place is the risk of undermining the exactness of the enlargement process without acknowledging the lack of substantial reform efforts in BiH and failing to attach conditions for the country’s potential step forward. After all, the country’s leaders have done little to meaningfully engage with the Commission’s prescribed reform agenda for BiH.

The Commission’s ifs and buts for BiH also respond to the disunity in the Council about the country. Some member states, e.g. Austria, Slovenia and Croatia, insist on the strategic geopolitical importance for the EU to open accession talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina immediately. Other diplomats consider that the start of negotiations with BiH, when the country’s political situation and the rule of law standards are deteriorating, is a mistake that would send the wrong message.

The report postpones a decision on BiH to March 2024, stating that the Commission will “continuously monitor the [candidate country’s] progress” until then. This deferral, as well as the scarce description of how the country should progress and what will constitute a critical mass of delivered reforms by next spring, leaves room for manoeuvre for the member states in the Council to reach a common position on how to handle Bosnia next.

The lack of strategy on how to incentivise Bosnia’s real transformation is nevertheless disappointing on the side of the Commission, which seems to have simply passed the buck to the Council to decide on a way forward. Meanwhile, frustration and indifference grow across the Western Balkan public who see how the prospects of becoming EU citizens become increasingly blurred.

The European Commission’s 2023 report on Türkiye held no great surprises. While it repeats that Türkiye “remains a key partner for the European Union and a candidate country”, it also highlights the ongoing backsliding on democratic standards, the rule of law, human rights, and judicial independence, along with deficiencies in Türkiye's judicial system.

With Türkiye’s accession talks frozen since 2018, relations have become transactional. More worrying is that the EU seems quite happy with this state of affairs. Furthermore, Türkiye has become an afterthought or left out when EU leaders talk about accession/candidate countries. This approach is shortsighted and not in the EU's interest, as over the years the Union has gradually lost its leverage on Ankara which is detrimental to Turkish civil society and other democratic actors.

With Türkiye’s economic and foreign policies increasingly linked, this could open the door for a more institutionalised, cooperative, and less transactional relationship with the EU, given the economic importance of the EU to Ankara. Starting discussions on modernising the Customs Union - a priority for both Türkiye and EU business - is the most effective way to improve relations while supporting civil society and other democratic actors.

The Commission’s upcoming paper for the December European Council, on the future of relations with Türkiye should include this recommendation.  Moreover, given the new geopolitical realities we in and Türkiye’s growing influence as a key regional actor and global middle power, it would be foolhardy for the EU to allow Türkiye to slip further away.

This Round-up is part of the EPC's Task Force on EU Enlargement.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein. 

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