The Bloc Must Add Ukraine—but It Won’t Be Simple
Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt on what EU Expansion really means – article published today (28/09/23) in Foreign Affairs.
Over the last six decades, no part of European integration has been as transformational as the gradual enlargement of what is now the European Union. The EU’s expansion brought democracy to places that knew only authoritarian rule. It turned what was a perennially conflict-ridden continent into one of the most prosperous regions in the world.
Ukrainian flags in front of European Parliament, February 2023 (Reuters Photo)From the beginning, the number-one aim of integration was to reconcile France and Germany, which had fought three wars within less than a century. To do so, the two countries tied together their steel and coal industries in July 1952—the symbols and substance of power in those days. In the following years, multiple European states continued to merge their economies in various ways, forming the institutions that eventually turned into the EU. Each wave of enlargement had a different aim. After the dictatorships of Greece, Portugal, and Spain fell in the mid-1970s, these countries joined the entity in a successful effort to stabilize their fragile democracies. After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the bloc naturally admitted Europe’s previously neutral nations, Austria, Finland, and Sweden. Over the following decade, it welcomed the ex–Warsaw Pact countries of Europe and the Baltic states, as well as parts of the Balkans.
During each round, many analysts feared that expanding the bloc would dilute it. But these concerns never came to pass. Instead, growth has gone hand in hand with deepening ties and connections. Originally, for example, all the bloc’s decisions had to be unanimous, which inhibited collective action. But when the EU introduced the integrated single market in 1993, it began making most of its decisions by a supermajority in most of the different councils of ministers (although still many decisions in practice are taken by consensual.) There is of course, a co-decision mechanism with the European Parliament on all legislative issues. There are also important domains where decisions must still be unanimous, notably on foreign affairs, and there are wide areas in which policymaking still lies primarily with different member states. But the EU today has far more power within its members than ever before.
There have, however, been setbacks in the process of enlargement. The United Kingdom played an important role in the bloc’s integration for half a century until, in a burst of populism, it decided to leave in 2016 (although a large majority of British people regret that decision). Turkey started negotiations on accession in 2005, but setbacks in its democratic development and continuing disputes over Cyprus have continuously delayed its application.
The biggest setback involves the countries in the western Balkans. At a summit in Greece in 2003, every Balkan state was promised membership, but since then, only Croatia has managed to enter, joining in 2013. The other Balkan countries have been stalled by bilateral disputes and an unwillingness to reform.
Today, the process of EU enlargement in the region has lost both momentum and credibility. EU leaders continue to pay lip service to the idea of admitting the western Balkan countries, and they continue to issue reports and hold meetings about their accession. But nothing of meaning has really been done.
In fact, in 2019, when it seemed possible that Albania and North Macedonia were ready to join (after Greece had spent over a decade blocking Albania’s acceptance), France, Denmark, and the Netherlands suddenly issued vetoes, stopping the process.
But now, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has changed everything. Suddenly, the peace and stability of all eastern Europe is under assault, with vast consequences for the continent as a whole. The result has been a quantum shift in numerous EU policies. The organization has entered a new phase in its development in which it is tasked with bringing stability to its flank—a goal that is bound to dominate its attention for years to come.
And to meet these challenges, the EU is poised to embark on a new wave of enlargement with major consequences for the future of the continent. It will start by entering accession negotiations with Moldova and Ukraine, and other states will follow.
To increase the size of the EU again, possibly to more than 30 states in the 2030s, will not be easy. This expansion will provoke intense haggling over institutional reforms, fierce fights over budget and financing, and endless maneuvering to ensure some sort of balance between the acceptance of Moldova and Ukraine and western Balkan countries. How these disputes play out will, to a large extent, depend on how the war in Ukraine proceeds. But the overall aim must be finding a pathway for Kyiv’s accession. Doing so will help bring about prosperity and stability in both Ukraine and all of Europe.
Ukraine has been knocking on the door of the EU for nearly two decades, beginning with the country’s 2004 Orange Revolution
Carl BILDT served as Sweden’s Prime Minister from 1991 – 1994 and as Foreign Minister from 2006 to 2014. He is Co-Chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations
- The Balkans and the issue of EU enlargement will be central to the AEJ’s upcoming annual Congress in Vlore, Albania from October 26 – 28