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The EU says it must enlarge. But why did it stop in the first place?

Leaders attend an EU-Western Balkans summit in Brussels on June 23, 2022.
Leaders attend an EU-Western Balkans summit in Brussels on June 23, 2022. Copyright John Thys, Pool Photo via AP
Copyright John Thys, Pool Photo via AP
By Alice Tidey
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Enlargement is regularly touted as the EU’s most effective foreign policy, but since its biggest wave of new members joined in 2004, the process has largely stalled.


Russia's invasion of Ukraine has injected a renewed sense of urgency, with EU leaders multiplying meetings with the seven countries still waiting at the gate, including at a summit in Granada on Thursday.

Yet some of these candidates have had their bids stuck for well over a decade despite the process to join and what it requires remaining the same.

So what has changed in the EU to make accession so difficult?

Before the 2004 accessions, "everything seemed to be going in the direction of a more open global world. These countries were, most of them, transitioning from communism to democracy and the free market economy and so there was this great sense of hope and that we were returning these countries to Europe," Ian Bond, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, told Euronews.

Herman van Rompuy, the then-President of the European Council, later hailed the accession of the 10 mostly Eastern European countries as when “finally, Europe had become 'Europe' again”.

Now though, "the EU is now a much more sober place, looking also at the risks and the downsides and looking at the threats that it faces and trying to balance all of those as it thinks about the next round of enlargement," Bond said.

'Crises have taken attention away'

This new cautiousness from the EU is attributed in part to a series of global crises the world has faced since, including multiple financial crises, a migration crisis, the global COVID-19 pandemic, and now Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

All have forced Brussels to reckon with its raison d’être and crucially, to radically and swiftly change some of its modi operandi to adequately respond to these challenges.

The financial architecture was amended, multiple attempts to come up with a common migration policy are finally starting to crystallise, joint procurement was introduced for vaccines and gas, common debt was issued to raise money, and now the EU is looking into a common security and defence policy.

“This whole series of crises has taken attention away from enlargement. Enlargement used to be until 2004 the flagship project of the EU but because of all these distractions, somehow the EU took its eyes off the ball. The urgency was no longer there,” Stefan Lehne, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, told Euronews.

'Bilateral issues more prominent'

Internal developments, experts say, are also to blame, such as the rise of populism and nationalism in the EU which has led some countries to block progress on accession over bilateral issues.

This has been especially true for the Republic of North Macedonia. The country first applied to join in 2004, secured candidate status in 2005 and then suffered through 17 years of standstill.

Its bid was first blocked by Paris and Amsterdam— which argued the enlargement process first needed to be improved — and then by Athens over a dispute over the country's name. Once that thorny issue was resolved in 2018, Sofia jumped into the fray demanding formal recognition that North Macedonia's culture and language are heavily influenced by Bulgaria as well as stronger protections for the country's Bulgarian minority.

Accession negotiations were finally opened in July 2022. 

"The negotiating process has become more and more difficult, that can't be successfully completed in one government’s mandate," Zulfi Ismaili, the head of the mission of the Republic of North Macedonia to the EU, told Euronews.

"This evolution of the accession negotiations has been based more or less on the lesson learned by the EU from the previous enlargements, coupled with more reserved political support for the process," Ambassador Ismaili added.

Hungary, led by populist conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban, has already signalled that it would veto Ukraine’s accession until the country guarantees certain rights for its ethnic Hungarian minority.

Dealing with bilateral issues was always part of the enlargement process, Lehne said, but “the rise of populist far-right parties definitely makes it more difficult to move forward on enlargement because these bilateral issues become very, very prominent.”


Then, there is the issue of democratic backsliding and rule of law erosion in some member states.

It took years of legal conflict between Brussels and in particular Poland and Hungary, for a new rule of law mechanism linking respect of EU law and values to the disbursement of EU money to see the light of day last year. But progress is still slow-going as both countries have been dragging their feet to apply rulings from the European Court of Justice and have attempted to use their veto power on other EU files to secure concessions and funds.

The worry is that democracy and respect for the rule of law are already a lot more fragile and corruption more rife in some of the countries on the EU candidate list and that they would likely be more prone to try to play the system.

“It's incredibly important to the operation of the single market that the EU remains a single legal space, a common legal space, and that's what (Hungary's) Orban and also PiS, the Polish ruling party, are putting at risk with their judicial reforms is that you may not be able to go to a court in all 27 member states and get the same decision based on the facts of the case,” said Bond.

Money and voting rights

Another spanner in enlargement over the past two decades has been the growing debate over the so-called absorption capacity: the EU’s ability to integrate new members without jeopardising its efficiency and development.


The two main arguments bandied about by EU states for slowing down the process are money and voting rights.

New members tend to be poorer and could take up a lot of the bloc’s cohesion funds for the foreseeable future. The 10 countries that joined in 2004 all had much smaller GDPs than the bloc's average.

Some models predict also that Ukraine, an agricultural powerhouse, could become the only net recipient of the Common Agricultural Policy should it join without the EU first enacting a reform of the policy's rules.

Another concern often cited is the potential impact new members can have on decision-making and how it might be more difficult to find the consensus needed to quickly respond to unexpected challenges unless the use of unanimity voting is further restricted in favour of more qualified majority voting.

This worry has grown in recent years as member states have increasingly used their veto power to slow down decisions and secure concessions. Hungary, for instance, has blocked some sanctions on Russian oligarchs and managed to get a significant carve out on the Russian oil embargo. France and Germany have also used the unanimity rule to their advantage.


This fear, Bond told Euronews, is largely overblown, as the EU was able to adapt to the various crises over the past two decades.

"I think possibly people here are too afraid of what new members might do or that new members might not behave constructively. I think in most cases when countries join the EU, the first thing they want to do is to show that they belong," he said, noting that the topic was already raised before 2004 and then the accession of Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia in 2007 and 2013.

Gradual integration as a possibility?

For both experts, all these concerns are some the EU could have easily dealt with since 2004 had the momentum for enlargement been there. Russia's invasion of Ukraine provided just that. 

"Early on the point (of enlargement) was to consolidate Europe in the context of the East-West confrontation. And now again, it is basically an understanding that there shouldn't be grey areas between the EU and Russia," Lehne said. 

Since Moscow rolled its tanks into Ukraine, EU leaders have held two summits with their Western Balkan counterparts, with another initiative, the European Political Community (EPC), also created to boost ties with non-EU countries in Europe and facilitate exchanges at the leaders' level. 


Enlargement will be high on the agenda when EPC leaders gather in Granada on Thursday. EU leaders will also discuss the topic at their informal gathering on Friday with the topic expected to be central to their December summit. 

One idea increasingly gaining clout is that of gradual integration with candidate countries allowed to join some EU policies and programmes as they advance in their accession process. 

The concept, championed by French President Emmanuel Macron, garnered the support of North Macedonia. 

"We think that the accession process shouldn't only be focused on the end goal, which should always remain full membership, but it should integrate candidate countries in the EU structures as the reforms have been met - before membership," Ambassador Ismaili told Euronews.

"A chapter closed should mean a seat at the table in the adequate Council formation (without voting rights). The convergence gap between the Member States and the candidates should be narrowing instead of progressively widening," he said.

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