Online Commentary

May 03, 2022

Time to Recognize Ukraine as European and Shake Up the EU Enlargement Process

Photo of EU President Michel hugging Ukrainian President Zelenskiy during an April visit to Kyiv
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The EU has seen enlargement as a technical process of building convergence in norms to the benefit of candidate countries. It has regarded geopolitical considerations as external to this process and incompatible with the imperative of domestic reform. Yet now – more than ever – a union of norms is not only a geopolitical union but also to the benefit of the EU itself. The EU’s response to Russia’s war on the rules-based international order must be to offer a clear European perspective to both the three Eastern applicants and the accession candidates in the Western Balkans.


Ursula von der Leyen started her tenure as president of the European Commission with the promise that hers would be a “geopolitical Commission.” Its usual technocratic approach to international affairs was set to be overhauled. Nowhere was the need for this more pressing than in the field of EU enlargement where the Western Balkan accession candidates were increasingly subject to a tug-of-war with Russia and China. Yet nowhere were EU leaders better able to sweep the pressure to compete geopolitically under the rug; they found it more expedient to keep these countries in the waiting room, treating the enlargement process as a purely bureaucratic (technical) process rather than a political one. Now, a bold demand for change has come – not from the accession countries of the Western Balkans but from three of the EU’s eastern neighbors: Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. These three countries have made their pro-European choice the raison d’être for their resistance to the Russian aggression with which they are confronted.

Their application for EU membership is not driven by narrow security imperatives, incompatible with the democratic transformation entailed by enlargement. Presented by Russia with the attempted imposition of a blunt sphere of influence, they have reaffirmed their desire to take on EU norms and values. They regard a common space of values as the most powerful geopolitical front with which to face the kind of violent great power revisionism that Russia – and China – seek to impose as the modus operandi of international affairs. In so doing they are loudly insisting on their European-ness. But this is not the assertion of the kind of ethnic identity that has underlined so many regional conflicts. It is a civic identity based on the democracy and freedom that form the backbone of the Western-led rules-based order.

A Clash of Political Systems

The “geopolitical Commission” has thus been presented with a window of opportunity. Far from standing in opposition to each other, geopolitics and democratic transformation now go hand in hand as never before. A global clash of political systems is emerging, explaining why most Ukrainians have chosen to align with the Euro-Atlantic community. They are not alone in this. Even Serbia, the most hesitant country in the Balkans, decided in which direction it wanted to go when it submitted its application for EU membership in 2009. Therefore, in the eyes of its friends and partners, the EU needs to be hard at work building a common area based on European norms and values. Other players, such as China, the Gulf monarchies, and Turkey, have been increasing their influence in the EU’s eastern and southeastern neighborhoods for years.

Governments and societies in Eastern and Southeastern Europe have understood the geopolitical implications of their choice even if Brussels has not. Kiev, Chisinau, and Tbilisi are still prepared to risk Russian retribution to join a bloc that does not directly ensure their security but only their commonality of purpose with the “camp” of their choice. In a world where thick dividing lines are being drawn, this shows that the EU has not entirely squandered the advantages it gained in 1989. Although the West was in a dominant global position for three decades, the EU failed to support the creation of an undisputed common space of stability, democracy, and peace across the whole European continent, which was the self-professed rationale of enlargement. Despite this mixed performance, the EU’s neighbors now rally to that rationale.

However, the status-quo across the EU’s neighborhood is not static, highlighting that the West’s window of opportunity could close as fast as it has opened. The current stalemate in the accession process means regress – and that pertains just as much to the Western Balkans as to the countries of the Eastern Partnership. For example, both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia were more prepared for enlargement a decade ago than they are today. Their leaders are also exploiting the gap between EU rhetoric and action for their own gain as demonstrated by Aleksandar Vucic’s win in Serbia’s recent elections. Meanwhile, recent reports from Sofia have revealed that Russian spies and Bulgarian President Rumen Radev have been working against rapprochement between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, stoking anti-EU sentiment.

A Commitment to Enlargement Is Not Naïve

Geopolitically savvy commentators can point to any number of reasons why a political commitment to eastern enlargement could backfire and set back the EU’s leverage and power. Some argue that EU enlargement will almost certainly be part of any postwar settlement with Russia – perhaps balanced against the formal renouncement of Ukraine’s NATO aspirations – so France and Germany should keep it in reserve for negotiations to this end. Others point to the fear that the sudden focus on Ukraine and Eastern Europe would communicate a lack of commitment or fair play to the southeastern accession candidates, potentially leaving the EU with two flanks in limbo. Of course, there are also territorial and societal divisions in the east and southeast that make enlargement extremely difficult.

These are all concrete grounds for robust EU commitment. The EU already needs to provide Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy with a credible European perspective for him – not France or Germany – to trade for the concessions that the Ukrainian people will likely have to make to Russia if there is to be some form of negotiated peace agreement. This may not need to be a promise of full membership although that should at least be a clear prospect to provide Ukraine and other Eastern Partnership countries that applied for membership with incentives to walk the walk. In creating these incentives, the EU should look at its neighborhood to the east and southeast and as a whole. While making an offer to the three Eastern Partnership countries is essential, the credibility of that offer depends on the EU’s actual behavior toward the Balkan countries already on the path from post-conflict reconstruction to membership.

Concerns that the EU will be forced to skimp on societal and territorial reform if it makes an enlargement pledge under these circumstances are unfounded. The geopolitical imperatives all point to the EU needing to boost its incentives and conditionality for reform. In the current geopolitical environment, the EU cannot afford to toss aside the technical mechanisms and requirements of the accession process and its underlying principles. Ordinary Ukrainians want external support and validation for government reforms. This would be well in line with the EU’s own traditional model of geopolitics, which is not top-heavy power politics but bottom-up transformation – mobilizing public support, both abroad and at home, to provide real power of attraction to its political model.

The Need to Make Enlargement Openly (Geo)political

During the first half of Ursula von der Leyen’s presidency, there was a flurry of technical ideas from EU member states and analysts to revamp the enlargement procedure, notably from enlargement-skeptic Paris. But these ideas all skirted around the real sticking points: creating political will and modifying the requirement for unanimity among EU members. Removing unanimity from the entire accession process and replacing it with qualified majority voting in the intermediary phases would be daring. But the EU is faced with a situation that needs bold action. It now falls to the European Commission and the French Presidency of the European Council to mobilize political will among member states, offering both new applicants and the Western Balkan countries more predictable and clearer rewards for progress.

That means insulating the existing conditionality benchmarks from political influence and bilateral blocking and giving EU geopolitics their rightful place in the process. At present, the geopolitical interests of individual member states hide behind the technicalities of the enlargement process. North Macedonia has been stalled from further progress in its EU accession process because of the individual interests of member states not the official Copenhagen criteria. And elites in Serbia know that cold feet in the EU mean they can pick and choose their patrons from the likes of Russia and China. The EU needs to underpin its reform conditionality with supportive politics rather than a covert desire to keep these countries out. It needs to offer more opportunities to those countries that demonstrate a greater strategic willingness to align with the EU.

In all this, there is no debating the crucial role of rule of law, justice reform, democratic governance, and a free market for the sustainability of Europeanization – nor indeed the need to provide an antidote to top-heavy geopolitics. This means that the EU needs to support the actual agents of change in these countries, including civil society and local elites. Consequently, it should also avoid working mostly with governments that often turn out to be opportunistic, resulting in a loss of legitimacy for the EU with local constituencies that drags pro-EU sentiment down with it. At a time when locally promoting democratic values has become geopolitical, the current EU expansion process is in fact undermining them.

Rethinking the “European Perspective”

As Ukraine’s President Zelenskiy has pointed out, his country has been through a popular revolution, territorial annexation and separatism, continued conflict on its territory, and now outright war for just one reason: to be able to make the sovereign choice of being a part of Europe. This story of sacrifice and commitment is now a familiar one. North Macedonia also made historic concessions for the same ideal. Together, North Macedonia and Greece have most eminently showcased the European model of peaceful conflict resolution in a region that had been plagued with conflict for decades – and they have done so with little to no help from the EU.

Yet the EU is still debating in technical terms whether to offer Ukraine and its neighbors a “European perspective.” In fact, the EU needs to gain a sense of perspective itself, ideally as early as June when it is due to respond to the applications. Doing so with at least a minimum of clarity of purpose requires very little by way of self-sacrifice. The EU must acknowledge how fundamentally the world has changed with Russia’s war on Ukraine and what immense responsibility it has to itself by making choices that are right and resolute at this time.

Bibliographic data

Nechev, Zoran, and Oana Popescu-Zamfir . “Time to Recognize Ukraine as European and Shake Up the EU Enlargement Process.” May 2022.

This DGAP Online Commentary was originally published on May 4, 2022.