Daniel BaerActing Director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The EU may not need a reimagined enlargement policy—the ingredients for a suitable one can be drawn from past experience and present debate—but it does need a renewed consensus on what its policy is. And of course, that requires consensus on what the EU is all about as a political project.

As a philosophical matter, the EU’s founding values, which are universal values, lay the foundation for an ever-expanding union. As a practical matter, there is a reasonable debate over whether membership in that political union can drive domestic democratic change or should be a way of consolidating and locking it in after the fact. The answer, it seems to me, is both, but neither will happen without the determined effort of both Brussels and major capitals.

But there’s a deeper problem of perspective: EU membership—or a path to it—is so valuable, especially to small countries, that too many in Brussels, Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere have come to see it as something they give out rather than something they are building, and building for the benefit of the existing members, too. This retards obvious and urgent priorities—particularly in the Western Balkans—and opportunities to embrace the appeal of the EU political project itself, including to millions of Ukrainians.

Dimitar BechevVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

The EU doesn’t need a new enlargement policy. It needs to improve what it already has. A putative overhaul is ridden with risks.

Emmanuel Macron’s speech on Europe Day rehashed early 1990s ideas about multi-tier Europe, with the likes of Serbia, North Macedonia, and Bosnia sharing company with Ukraine and Moldova—as well as the UK—in the outer circle. That means, effectively, that the EU will lose whatever little traction it has retained over the domestic politics of aspiring members.

A big-bang geopolitical enlargement is not in the cards either. War or no war, there is no appetite in core Western European countries to open the door wide in the name of projecting influence over Europe’s fringes. At the same time, the EU can and should follow a policy of small steps: inject momentum into membership talks with Montenegro in order to welcome it as its twenty-eighth member in the late 2020s, start accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, push Serbia and Kosovo to start negotiating once more—in good faith.

Most of all, the EU should find way to empower forces of change within candidate countries’ domestic arenas. At the end of the day, clearing the finish line matters only as much as the process delivers on its goals: democratic consolidation, institutional integrity, and reforms conducive to long-term growth and development. The EU can certainly do a better job on all of those.

Krzysztof BledowskiCouncil Director and senior economist at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation

It is hard to say, not least because the EU does not hold a unified view of its vicinity.

First, the EU is not clear about strategic assets, threats, and opportunities in its neighborhood. Member states prioritize their own foreign policies and then outsource the lowest common denominator to the EU’s External Action Service.

Second, for the EU—in stark contrast to NATO—it is difficult to develop strategic thinking about enlargement. For NATO, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Albania were always deemed critically important. The voice of the United States, which does not have a counterpart in the EU, carried preponderant weight in decisionmaking and facilitating accession.

Third, EU enlargement carries asymmetrical costs and benefits to incumbents and newcomers. This complicates the accession process. The incumbents focus on maximizing future cohesion while the newcomers eye financial transfers.

These impediments stall accession. So, perhaps there’s a need for a middle way. For example, the EU could extend its single market for goods, services, and (possibly) labor to a larger area. Full membership would still motivate candidates to shore up governance and meet the acquis eventually.

Yet in the end, even the new EU path could not address the strategic vacuum, which is Europe’s biggest weakness globally.

Jacek KucharczykPresident of the Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw

Ukraine’s heroic defense of European values against “ruscism” (the Russian variant of fascism) put the issue of Ukrainian membership on the EU enlargement agenda. Ever since Croatia became an EU member on July 1, 2013, the enlargement process has stalled. This was caused by a lack of progress of reforms in the candidate countries and a lack of political will on the side of current members, preoccupied with the “poly-crisis” and the ensuing seemingly endless process of introspection.

The recently concluded Conference on the Future of Europe is the latest effort to “deepen” the union, with a plethora of recommendations for internal reforms and hardly any mention of enlargement.  

In addition, democratic backsliding of some newer member states, most notably Hungary and Poland, has thrown doubts on the EU’s ability to maintain rudimentary cohesion as regards its fundamental values once the conditionality of the pre-accession period is removed.

Ukraine’s bid goes back to the origin of the European project, namely to ensure peaceful coexistence of all Europeans. The first step would be to grant Ukraine candidate status without any undue delay. Ukrainians, as well as other citizens of the so-called Eastern Partnership countries, have made it clear many times in recent decades that they are aspiring to be fully-fledged members of united Europe, and not of some substitute as proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron. The needs for internal reforms are valid and urgent, but they should not be used as an excuse to keep Eastern Europeans in the waiting room for decades to come.

Bidzina LebanidzeSenior analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics

The EU needs to stop viewing the enlargement policy as a purely technocratic process. The Russian invasion of Ukraine turned EU enlargement into a geopolitical process. Granting the EU candidacy status to the Associated Trio states—Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—will give them a new strategic roadmap to follow and will anchor them into the EU’s geopolitical orbit. This will be a decisive geopolitical victory of the union over Russia without firing a shot.

At the same time, the accession process will probably be very lengthy as the EU should not compromise on the complete fulfilment of the Copenhagen criteria. There should not be a fast-track membership either for Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova. A stringent policy on democratic and acquis conditionality can both encourage the pro-reform actors and discourage non-compliance with the EU’s norms and policies.

Alternative approaches or new visions focusing on deepening of sectoral integration in various policy areas cannot replace EU membership, but they can act as provisional steps before the potential candidate states can meet the membership criteria. For instance, granting some form of labor mobility to the Trio countries can act as a strong incentive and further bind these states to the EU.

Stefan LehneVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

President Emmanuel Macron’s idea of a “European political community” reflects the French tendency of thinking of enlargement primarily in terms of finding alternatives to it. Like with François Mitterrand’s similar concept of a “Confederation,” countries wishing to join the EU will fear it would relegate them to an outer circle, while states preferring a more distant relationship (like the UK) will find it too constraining.

However, Macron is right that the current approach to enlargement is not working and that a better process needs to include differentiated integration. It should combine a strong focus on fundamentals (rule of law, democratic standards, economic reforms) with the gradual phasing-in of candidate countries into various sectors of EU integration.

For those interested, participation in the internal market could constitute an interim objective. As a powerful incentive for reforms, access to structural funds should also happen well before accession based on tough conditionality. The process also needs to be streamlined to reduce the number of veto points and avoid bilateral blockages.

Transferring the failing template of Western Balkan enlargement to the three Eastern European candidates would just spread the same frustration to another region. An enlargement process fit for the new European situation must be fundamentally restructured in order to become more flexible, dynamic, and rewarding.

Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe

The EU does not need an enlargement policy so much as a European policy. It is surreal that more than twenty-five years after Srebrenica and two decades after the Serb policy of ethnic cleansing and killings in Kosovo was stopped by Europe and the United States, there is still no full and final peace and integration into Europe.

Imagine in 1970 if France and Germany were still at loggerheads and there was no open trade and travel across the Rhine. That is roughly the condition of the Balkans. To be sure, the corruption is a problem and the politics is based on identity and historical hate—not what is needed for our fellow Europeans in the Western Balkans.

But the same could be said of other poor, corrupt, politically divided regions of Europe, from Southern Italy, to Malta, to Ireland, to Croatia, which joined the European Economic Community and then the EU. By a process of European osmosis, good practice and EU law and values replaced their bad behavior of the past.

Brussels, Paris, Berlin pretend that the Western Balkans constitute a region on the dark side of the moon. In the meantime, it is a longstanding goal of Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy to Balkanize Europe—hence his support for Brexit—and to stop the Europeanization of the Western Balkans or Georgia.

It remains a puzzle why so many policymakers in EU capitals are fellow travelers of Putin’s hostility to European partnership, enlargement, and integration.

The EU cannot leave unhappy suppurating countries on the European continent. Over to French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to show leadership.

Marc PieriniVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

The EU’s enlargement policy is now being put into question in two different ways.

First, the horrific invasion of Ukraine by Russia has triggered requests for accession from Kyiv, Tbilisi, and Chisinau. The European Commission has announced that its opinion will be given in June.

Second, as a consequence of the same military invasion, French President Emmanuel Macron celebrated Europe Day on May 9 by proposing a formula outside of enlargement. His “European political community” would constitute a faster track toward political solidarity with not only Ukraine but also other candidate or aspiring candidate countries or former EU members such as the United Kingdom.

There is little doubt that the EU’s enlargement policy as it stands is being made immensely more complex, both politically, and security-wise, by the Kremlin’s aggressive stance against Ukraine and, more generally, by the EU.

Several factors make enlargement more unpredictable: uncertainty about the military outcome of Russia’s invasion; influence of the “Russian brand of governance” around the EU; Serbia’s relationship with Russia; Turkey’s massive degradation of its rule-of-law architecture and defiant attitude with rulings of the European Court of Human Rights; competition between long-standing candidates for accession and newcomers.

Faced with the threefold need to take a major political stand in confronting Russia, to show solidarity with Ukraine, and to address the diverse political situations of existing candidates, the European Council may be tempted with Macron’s proposal if it can provide a quick and evident answer to the current political conundrum. Time will tell.

Kristi RaikDirector of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute

Yes, but definitely not something that would replace the prospect of full membership with a lighter alternative, be it the European Economic Area or a confederation. That would be a slap in the face of Ukrainians, with dire consequences for European security.

The EU needs to adapt its enlargement policy to the new geopolitical environment and to develop a novel, step-by-step accession process. From a geopolitical perspective, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine shows that the EU’s approach to security in its Eastern neighborhood, characterized by restraint and strategic ambiguity, has failed. Now the EU needs to work toward full membership of Ukraine in order to end the strategic ambiguity, make sure that Russia’s use of force is not awarded, and prove that it is serious about defending the rules-based European security order.

At the same time, the EU’s integrity requires that the criteria for membership are not eased—and hence reaching full membership will take years for any of the current candidates. To make the prospect of accession credible and give a strong message of inclusion, the pre-accession process should entail gradual integration into EU policies and institutions on the basis of meeting relevant parts of the accession criteria.

Paul TaylorContributing editor at Politico

EU enlargement is stuck in a rut and has become a source of anger, frustration, and disillusionment to aspirant countries and to many EU citizens. It needs to be fixed without lowering EU standards on democracy, rule of law, and regulatory compliance.

At the same time, the EU needs to send a political signal to Ukrainians fighting to defend their democracy, and to Moldovans and Georgians who may be next on Vladimir Putin’s menu, that they are part of the European family, even if they are still far from meeting all the membership criteria. The EU needs an inclusive, flexible structure to embrace them.

Emmanuel Macron’s idea of a “European political community” that could cooperate on security, energy, transport, infrastructure, and trade while Western Balkans and Eastern European countries work through the long process to achieve EU membership is worth exploring.

If it were accompanied by reducing some barriers to accession, such as the requirement for unanimity in opening and closing each of the enlargement “chapters,” it could be attractive to aspirant states without robbing EU members of their veto power on the ultimate decision on membership.

Then Macron’s “community” would be a stepping-stone, not a parking lot.

Louise van Schaik and Wouter ZweersHead of the EU & Global Affairs Unit, and research fellow at the Clingendael Institute respectively

With family troubles abound, most EU member states are hesitant to allow in new countries. The revised enlargement methodology as applied for the Western Balkans has not overcome the lack of political will and engagement from both the EU and candidate countries. Over time, conditionality has become stronger and the accession perspective weaker. Instead of promoting democracy, the accession process has contributed to stabilitocracy formation.

Without real political commitment, formulating a new enlargement policy will simply mean more bureaucracy. A new policy that would downplay accession criteria, notably those on ensuring a solid rule-of-law system, risks a more unstable and geopolitically vulnerable EU. President Macron’s option to tie countries to the EU as political partners might help, but be insufficient to really ensure their buy-in.

In any case, for any credible enlargement strategy, the EU needs to tackle undue political influence in the European Commission’s Directorate-General, Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), show more sincerity in (public) political steering of candidates, and prevent blackmailing by individual member states. The EU should also improve the quality of technical reporting, hold accession countries accountable on the basis of set timelines, improve accessibility and readability of Commission reports, enhance its focus on citizens instead of governments, and increase (financial) benefits for candidates.

Ivan VejvodaPermanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences

Already existing enlargement policies need to be much more robustly implemented and important new elements added. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has hopefully focused the minds in Brussels and in EU member states on the need to act.

If there ever was a strategic moment that requires clear-cut, bold political decisions, it is now. The fundamental goal should be to progressively bring the countries of the Western Balkans as well as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova to the EU table, wherever possible and as soon as possible.

There are many good proposals for the process to be accelerated while respecting the accession rules. These suggestions are not alternatives to full membership but ways in which it can gain in substance and speed. Clearly it behooves the candidates and prospective candidates for EU membership to do much more on the home front to achieve efficient democratic institutions, separation of powers, and the rule of law based on a democratic political culture.

The enlargement process must visibly and uninterruptedly move toward its goal of full membership for aspirant countries if the democratic European peace project based on the rule of law is to succeed. Otherwise, the Russias and Chinas of this world will continue to seek to undermine the EU’s position. Pro-reformers in these countries need to be empowered. But the regression of the rule of law within the EU, in Hungary and Poland, must be addressed in a determined way.

Thus, the credibility of the EU and its global role is at stake if the enlargement process does not continue.

Pierre VimontSenior fellow at Carnegie Europe

The plain answer is yes. And a thorough review of the enlargement policy should have been done long ago, the issue being a matter of when and how rather than if.

Today, tackling the enlargement issue has found a new urgency as Ukraine is eagerly awaiting a positive response from the EU member states to its membership request. Yet, faced with the choice of either postponing their answer or shaping a fast track for the sole benefit of Ukraine, the twenty-seven European leaders are doomed to display their usual divisions at their June meeting.

With the fall of the Soviet Empire, the EU went from epitomising the avant-garde of liberal democracy in Cold War times to being the transformative force that would drive the whole of Europe to prosperity and stability. But the illusion of simultaneously running an inflated enlargement process and an upgraded European integration has rapidly shown its limits.

Candidate countries are getting increasingly frustrated at the waiting game they are suffering while efforts to raise the union’s ambitions are being challenged by the member states themselves. It is high time for EU leaders to find the proper balance between more enlargement and enhanced integration and to accordingly adjust the accession process.