A lot at stake as the EU prepares for historic expansion talks

A lot at stake as the EU prepares for historic expansion talks

A lot at stake as the EU prepares for historic expansion talks
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European Council meetings of the 27 leaders of EU member states can be technocratic and dull affairs. But this has changed since the start of the Ukraine conflict, with the “hand of history” hanging over their decisions more than ever.
During their next meeting, on Thursday and Friday this week, there will be big decisions to be made, and not only about the bloc’s approach to the war. There are also key decisions to take on the very future of Europe, including the potential enlargement of the EU in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion.
The European integration process began in the 1950s in an effort to prevent another large-scale war on the continent. The six founding members were Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
Since then, the EU has steadily expanded, aside from Brexit, while espousing the idea that economic and political integration among nations is the best way to promote general prosperity and peace. This approach paved the way for the creation of a common currency the euro in 1999, and for the accession in 2004 of 10 new member nations from formerly communist Central and Eastern Europe.
The revival this summer of the EU expansion process, which has largely been sidelined for years, is another example of how much is changing in Europe following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In recent years, the possible enlargement of the union to include Turkey and Western Balkan countries has proved much more of a challenge than was the case when the admission of Central and East European countries was being considered prior to 2004.
The EU has already opened membership negotiations with two Western Balkan states, Montenegro and Serbia, and with Turkey. It has also given the green light to accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, although they are still waiting for the process to start. Meanwhile Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo remain potential candidates.
The slow pace of the process reflects the so-called “enlargement fatigue” that followed the 2004 expansion. After the subsequent accession of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, and the eurozone crisis of 2009-10, Brussels set stricter conditions for the reforms required in candidate nations.
After the process stalled for years, the rejuvenation of the enlargement agenda has been driven by the war in Ukraine. Four months on from the Russian invasion, the European Council is expected this week to give its formal opinion on Ukraine’s EU membership bid, and potentially that of Moldova.

The EU enlargement process might appear unrelated to the rebuilding of Ukraine but the two are actually closely linked.

Andrew Hammond

On Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi visited Ukraine and vowed to back Kyiv’s bid to become an official candidate. Draghi described Ukraine’s EU candidacy as “a very profound” and “extraordinary step” and noted that the country would leapfrog Balkan nations if the status is granted.
Europe’s leaders therefore face a delicate balancing act: That of signaling to Ukraine that the EU’s door is open, while seeking to reassure other aspiring members they are not showing unprecedented favoritism to Kyiv.
EU accession is an open-ended process and does not guarantee membership if applicant countries fail to meet the Acquis Communautaire, in other words the requirements of EU law, or the bloc’s procedural expectations. While there is much momentum behind Kyiv’s bid in particular, EU enlargement is a lengthy process and Macron has warned it could take several decades for Ukraine to become a full member.
This is despite the fact that Ukraine has adopted a fair amount of the EU’s legal framework since agreeing to a trade and political partnership with the bloc about a decade ago.
With this process just beginning to play out, Ukraine’s immediate future is still about survival and, when the large-scale fighting ends, the reconstruction process. While the war might continue for a significant time yet, there is much thinking and preparation already underway about the reconstruction agenda. A wide range of international stakeholders, extending well beyond Europe, are involved in these discussions, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the G7, and a number of national governments.
The EU enlargement process might appear unrelated to the rebuilding of Ukraine but the two are actually closely linked in the eyes of many stakeholders, as the EU accession process is widely expected to occur in parallel with reconstruction efforts. In part, this is because of an acknowledgment of the need for wider political and institutional change in Ukraine following criticisms prior to the war, including concerns about corruption.
International discussions are already underway, centered around a three-stage plan for rebuilding: The so-called U-24 Ukraine Recovery Plan mooted by the Ukrainian government, which some observers estimate will cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
The first stage of this is ongoing: Local authorities are cleaning up and restoring destroyed facilities on a temporary basis. The second stage, which will probably begin immediately after the end of mass hostilities, will include the restoration of water and electricity supplies, as well as the provision of housing. The third stage, a full-fledged renewal of infrastructure and transport systems, will be the longest and most costly stage.
This is why this week’s European Council decision will be so important. While Ukraine becoming a full member of the EU is a longer-term aspiration, the decision will also be key to shaping the post-war reconstruction efforts once the fighting ends in the country.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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