EU expansion, part XXIV

More bad news this week for Vladimir Putin: with the objections of Turkey overcome, this week’s NATO summit voted unanimously to approve membership for Finland and Sweden, which applied to join last month in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. It still needs to be ratified by the parliaments of the existing members, which will take some time, but the outcome is not in doubt.

The contrast could hardly be greater with the process for expansion of the European Union, which, as demonstrated at last week’s EU summit, continues to move at a glacial pace.

The EU summit was also a diplomatic defeat for Putin, since the leaders agreed to approve candidate status for membership for both Ukraine and Moldova (although not for Georgia, which remains further back in the queue). There is no room for doubt that both countries are firmly set on a European direction.

But membership itself is a long way off. That can be seen from the fate of the other four candidate countries – Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia* – which applied between 2004 and 2009 but are still mired in the process with no end in sight. North Macedonia is yet to even begin negotiations, since Bulgaria withdrew its veto only last week.

This weekend marks nine years since the last admission of a new member, namely Croatia. By the end of the year it will be the longest period without a new member since the very first expansion, back in 1973. The previous record time taken for admission was for Cyprus and Malta, which applied in 1990 and were admitted in 2004, but North Macedonia will hit the 20-year mark in March 2024, with no indication that it is likely to be close to admission by then.

Twenty years ago, the argument that the union should be confined to a manageable number of highly developed western economies made some sense. This was the famous “broadening vs deepening” debate, where some advocates of “deepening” feared that a larger number of members, particularly poorer ones, would slow down progress towards greater integration.

But the advocates of “broadening” – many of whom supported “deepening” as well; it was always something of a false dichotomy – won that debate, and it’s now much too late to revisit it. The EU has clearly set itself the task of eventually representing the whole continent, and having done so, there seems little point in dragging its feet at this point. The current delaying tactics are sending all the wrong messages to the western Balkans.

Ukraine is a quite different case. The four western Balkan candidates would add only about 3% to the EU’s population in total, but Ukraine alone would be about 10%: it would be the fifth most populous member, behind only Germany, France, Italy and Spain. It would also be the largest member by area (or second-largest, if France’s overseas possessions are counted). Unquestionably it would involve a major eastward shift in the EU’s centre of gravity.

It would also, of course, pose some unique challenges, given that a substantial part of its territory is under hostile military occupation. Even if the war goes no further, the costs of reconstruction in Ukraine will be enormous. And by European standards it was already a very poor country; bringing its living standards up to anything like the EU norm will be a huge undertaking.

On the other hand, the EU is likely to end up bearing a lot of that cost in any case, regardless of whether or not Ukraine is a member. And the events of this year made it politically impossible for the union’s leaders to deny that Ukraine is a European country and that its fate is intimately tied up with theirs.

Now they need to work out a way to accelerate the process.


* Technically there is a fifth existing candidate, Turkey, but its application, while not officially withdrawn, has been a dead letter since 2018.


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