Given the stakes, EU enlargement requires more debate

Copyright: By Marsuli111 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Today, the European Commission is presenting proposals to change the way how the EU admits new members. The idea is that instead of the current all-or-nothing approach, the Commission aims to gradually allow Ukraine and others entry into the EU. Thereby, it envisions gradual access into the single market, thereby basing itself upon a proposal from France, Germany and Portugal. At the same time, it is being stressed that single market rights and obligations “cannot be à la carte” — as EU leaders will need to discuss which degrees or steps of access should come with what obligations.

Despite the official talk that non-EU member states can not get selected access to the EU’s single market, this is in effect already the case for Switzerland since the 1990s, and for the United Kingdom, to a degree, since it has left the EU. It is therefore refreshing to see a new approach towards enlargement, which basically accepts that the EU is all about “pick and choose”, both for non-members and for members (with Schengen and the Eurozone as the most well-know optional aspects of EU membership).

Less refreshing is how the European Commission document, obtained by Politico, setting out the proposal reportedly also floats qualified majority voting “with appropriate and proportionate safeguards to accommodate such strategic national interests.” True to form, the EU Commission thereby also suggests to use the so-called “passerelle” clauses in the EU Treaty to change voting rules, through a unanimous vote. The Lisbon Treaty introduced this novelty back in 2009, and opponents of the Treaty then warned for its abuse.

Tomorrow, another EU Summit is taking place in Brussels, but EU leaders are reportedly keen to avoid talking much about it, as the latest draft of EU Council conclusions merely sets out that they will “take stock” of what needs to be done.

Preparing EU enlargement internally

Earlier, it emerged that Ukrainian accession to the EU would mean that the country would receive a whopping €186 billion in EU funds over seven years, according to an internal EU Council note last fall.

This would logically mean that current EU member states “will have to pay more and receive less,”, according to the document, which also spelled out that preparations for the eventual accession of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and six Western Balkan countries should be carried out internally, not in the public eye. Very much in line with the house style of the EU, unfortunately.

One EU official quoted about the subject puts it even more bluntly:

“Let’s be honest: nobody wants to talk about this [enlargement] before the European elections. (…) Talking about less subsidies for European farmers is not something you’d want to put on your campaign slogans — or give as electoral ammunition for the far right.”


The elephant in the room here is that EU candidate countries like Ukraine suffer from endemic corruption levels. Last fall, the EU Commission stated that Ukraine still needed to implement a number of key reforms. That included raising the legal cap on the number of staff in Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau, and providing the country’s National Agency on Corruption Prevention more powers to verify the assets of public officials. That was after EU Commission President von der Leyen had praised the progress made by Ukraine when it comes to corruption as “amazing”, as the country was “implementing these reforms despite the war.”

It is probably both true that Ukraine has made some progress and that it still has lots of corruption. An indication are the ongoing reports about Ukrainian corruption, for example about politically connected companies using the war to enrich themselves at the expense of competitors and about an investment banker who complained about corruption being detained.

In the past, attempts have failed to improve corruption in Ukraine by means of applying the successful recipe of Georgia in the 2000s, where President Mikheil Saakashvili and his Economy Minister Kakha Bendukidze managed to book impressive progress in the fight against corruption – confirmed by international rankings – by simply taking the state out the economy. Perhaps the EU should suggest this approach, now that it still has leverage, instead of already waving with an envelope of 186 billion euro. Injecting such sums into the current Ukrainian system is bound to only worsen the challenge. Friends of Ukraine should be upfront about this towards its friend.

Human rights and the rule of law

Another challenge in EU candidate countries is human rights and the rule of law. Moldova, for example, which has just announced a referendum on EU accession, is a democracy, but with some profound shortcomings that cannot just be excused by the fact that Russia’s shadow is looming large over it, not least because Russia still occupies a part of its territory.

Just like its fellow non-EU member states Ukraine and Serbia – Moldova does score rather poor on corruption perception indices, which is equally the case for EU member states Bulgaria and Romania, it should be added.

Problematic is also the media situation. “Reporters Without Borders” has complained that “major media, such as TV6, NTV Moldova and Prime TV, are in the hands of political leaders”, thereby also noting the suspension of the licences of six TV channels deemed “pro-Russian”.

Recently, also a prominent political party, deemed “pro-Russian”, was banned. The Constitutional Court of the Republic of Moldova ruled to declare the SOR party, which is a prominent opposition party, unconstitutional.

A case was opened against this with the European Court of Human Rights, which will now review this. This is quite remarkable, as  a considerable majority of applications to the ECtHR are usually dismissed without substantive examination. For example, in 2020, 95% of cases were declared inadmissible or struck out, as only 2,000 reached the level of a court review. Marina Tauber, former vice-chair of the banned party, stated in response that “Open and fair elections are a key pillar in any democracy, and the Moldovan government’s ban on the party last year undermined those rights. We welcome the Court’s decision to approve the application and to hear the case.”

In a democracy, also unwelcome opinions need to be heard. It would be unwise for the EU to look the other way when assessing whether candidate member states are welcome in the EU, where they will enjoy the right to co-decide legislation, and enjoy transfers from EU taxpayers. Certainly EU taxpayers do not think this is a luxury, when looking at opinion polls.

An opinion poll at the end of 2023, commissioned by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in Austria, Germany, France and Denmark, showed there is no clear majority support for any of the current candidate countries, even if there is a slight relative majority to the accession of Ukraine, Moldova and Montenegro. Perhaps EU leaders should discuss this all a bit more in detail when they are meeting in Brussels tomorrow.