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Ukraine Kickstarts European Enlargement, Just as US Backs Away

It took a war to put the EU’s enlargement process back on the political agenda.

For about a decade, enlargement was not an issue dominating the thoughts and agendas of European leaders. Instead, the bloc was focused on its own political problems and — in the slipstream of Brexit — avoiding other members leaving the bloc.

On Wednesday, the European Commission is set to propose that EU countries open talks with Ukraine and several other aspiring members on joining the bloc, embedding the future of Kyiv within the EU. 

Washington is shifting its foreign policy focus to the Middle East. And even before the Israel-Hamas war, the U.S. was divided on supplying more aid to Ukraine ahead of an election in 2024.

With the door to NATO closed at least as long as the war drags on, the EU inevitably will have to carry more of the burden of the future of Ukraine, a war-devastated country of more than 40 million people who have risked their lives to become part of the bloc.

“You are fighting not only for your freedom, your democracy and your future, but for ours too,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the Ukrainian parliament last weekend. “You are fighting for Europe. This is something we are painfully aware of.”

In the short term, the EU’s challenge will be finding enough money and military support to sustain Kyiv in its war with Russia, which risks ending up as a frozen conflict at the bloc’s border. In the longer term, it requires the European project to completely rethink itself in order to take in several countries at its Eastern border — which themselves have a Herculean task to meet the bar of European membership.

Throughout that process, the 448 million people currently in the European Union will have to remain convinced — or be convinced — that the future of the EU does not just lie in Paris or Warsaw, but also in Kyiv, Chişinău and Podgorica.

“The more tangible the enlargement process is, the more complicated it becomes,” said Kai-Olaf Lang of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. 

“Solidarity with Ukraine and geopolitical considerations will continue to play a role, but with the implications of enlargement for the functioning of the EU becoming increasingly visible, the forces of doubt and deceleration in the community will get stronger,” Lang said.

Overcoming enlargement fatigue

In recent years, the EU has struggled with enlargement fatigue, after its largest-ever growth in 2004, when 10 new countries brought the total to 25 member states. Since then, Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia joined (and the U.K. left).


The pro-EU Maidan protests in Ukraine in 2014 led to closer economic and political ties with the EU. But any discussion about future membership of the bloc was seen as impossible — and a red flag for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, hopes are high in the Western Balkans that the EU will finally push ahead with those countries’ membership bids after they waited in line for over a decade. 

Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia obtained candidate status — the first major step toward EU accession — around 10 years ago or more, but have been stuck in sluggish membership talks ever since. Bosnia and Herzegovina hopes that the Commission will back the start of accession talks on Wednesday, while Kosovo aspires to obtain candidate status.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine snowballed the entire process. The same month, Kyiv asked for European Union membership. A couple of days later, Georgia and Moldova followed suit. In a historically fast move, EU leaders four months later granted Ukraine and Moldova the status of a candidate country. 

“Leaders of EU countries that in the past showed little enthusiasm for enlargement, such as France, Denmark, and the Netherlands, have completely changed their tone,” said Engjellushe Morina of the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

In the slipstream, the EU also had to rethink its approach to a range of countries in the Western Balkans, which had been stalled politically. The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Monday acknowledged that Ukraine has become “a new candidate and it is pushing the queue of the former candidates who were waiting for years. And the whole queue will move. And I think that we have to recover the time that we have lost in an endless process of membership.”


Geopolitically, a grey zone of buffer states between the bloc and Russia was no longer an option after Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. If the EU wanted the countries at its eastern border to choose the Western side, it had to fully embrace them. 

“If enlargement is not progressing, then it will leave space for others to fill in the void that the Europeans created,” Suela Janina, the ambassador of Albania to the EU, told POLITICO. 

Bigger burden

But the new drive for enlargement also poses risks for the EU. 

The bloc has to reform its internal decision-making processes to accommodate a much larger bloc. In practice, that will often mean less power and less money, especially when including an agricultural powerhouse and war-devastated country like Ukraine. “Behind the more enthusiastic rhetoric there is widespread pessimism about whether enlargement can or even should happen quickly,” said Morina.

For a range of EU countries, including Belgium, which will hold the presidency of the Council of the EU from January next year, enlargement is only possible if combined with internal reform. 

“We need a different Europe for dealing with enlargement,” Portuguese Foreign Minister João Gomes Cravinho told POLITICO. “Already the current Europe that we have shows signs of some dysfunctionality … in responding to the outside world [and] in responding to our citizens. To add eight or nine extra members would really … be completely debilitating,” he said, adding that discussions about internal reform are finally picking up. 

Meanwhile, the burden of Ukraine is increasingly a European problem. Brussels has promised to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” But as the war drags on, how long, and how much, will it actually take? 

Already, growing opposition from Republicans is weighing on the U.S. support for Ukraine, which is likely to double down as Washington’s focus is shifting to the war in the Middle East. As long as Joe Biden is in the White House, the EU has an interlocutor in the White House who cares about Kyiv.  

After the 2024 elections, though, Europe could end up having to shoulder a much larger share of the burden. A second Donald Trump presidency, for example, would likely leave the Europeans alone in picking up the tab for Ukraine’s financial support and, increasingly, for its military support — a daunting task given the EU is already struggling to agree on its €50 billion in aid for Ukraine and its promise to send a million rounds of ammunition within a year. 

But for von der Leyen, such challenges are surmountable.

“The Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, is adopting far-reaching reforms that many had deemed impossible before the war,” she said Monday. “To protect Ukraine from future interference, Europe is the answer. And, this is very important, the reverse is also true: in a world where size and weight matter, it is clearly in Europe’s geostrategic interest to complete our Union. Just think about it with over 500 million people living in a free, democratic, prosperous union. So history is calling again and … it is for our generation to answer.”

Source : Politico