Why Ukraine’s EU Accession May Be More Challenging

Thursday, 30 November 2023

The European Union often presents their reports on the progress from the positions of individual countries (especially France and Germany) or narratives of the "Brussels bubble" as the "EU's opinion."

A unique report by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) shows that the picture is much more diverse and interesting.

It sums up the discussion among member countries on issues defining the so-called "EU readiness to accept new members."

Read more about how prepared the EU is for enlargement in the article by Dmytro Shulga, the director of Europe and the World programme of the International Renaissance Foundation – Enlargement with Many Unknowns: Are EU Countries Ready to Accept New Members?

It is essential to emphasise again that this report, based on research into the positions of political leaders and the expert environment of all EU member countries, provides a broad picture across all member countries, not just individual ones.

So, the good news first: there is a consensus among all EU member countries (except Hungary) that EU enlargement is a geopolitical necessity.

There's a nuance – the consensus is not stable. Currently, the enlargement is supported by 54% of EU citizens, compared to 58% a year ago. In some member states (Austria, France, Germany), it is less than 50%.

According to ECFR experts, internal political processes in 12 member countries (including Austria, Germany, Italy, France) allow predicting the growth of anti-European sentiments and opposition to EU enlargement.

Principled decisions should be made now while there is still a moment.

Secondly, there is no consensus among member countries on how enlargement will happen. The discussion is just beginning.

Member countries do not have a specific vision of how to support their political declarations with real political steps.

France and Germany demonstrate the greatest interest in advancing the discussion on EU enlargement.

There are two questions in this decision-making discussion in the EU: whether reform is needed (narrowing the consensus and expanding the use of qualified majority) and, if so, how deep it should be – whether it should involve amendments to the EU treaties or not.

There is a broad consensus among member countries that changes in the EU's structure cannot entail amendments to the EU treaties.

The Lisbon Treaty theoretically allows for the possibility of making a unanimous decision on the enlargement procedure by a qualified majority in certain areas.

Smaller countries will insist on changing the number of votes of member countries for their calculation to strengthen their weight if such a proposal is agreed upon. Although it is unclear how to do it without amending the treaties...

In addition to the decision-making procedure reform, which attracts the most attention, there are three other complex issues determining the EU's capacity for enlargement: financial reform (impact on EU budget expenditures and revenues); institutional reform in terms of guarantees of compliance with the rule of law by member countries; the methodology of enlargement regarding the influence of bilateral relations with individual member countries that can block candidates for political reasons.

A significant problem is the possibility of blocking candidate countries by neighbouring member countries due to bilateral disputes.

The solution could be a transition to a qualified majority in matters of foreign and security policy. However, as mentioned above, there is currently no consensus, even a majority of votes from member countries for this.

So, a potential compromise could be to make relevant changes only to the enlargement methodology, i.e., decisions of member countries at various stages of the process, especially the opening and closing of individual negotiation chapters with the respective candidate country, would be made not by consensus (as now) but by a qualified majority.

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