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Will the EU uphold the ‘enlargement momentum’?

Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine irrevocably linked the European Union (EU) enlargement to European security. As a result, after a near-decade of ‘no news’, the grant of candidacy to Ukraine and Moldova and a ‘European perspective’ to Georgia in June 2022 signalled a new geopolitical ‘enlargement momentum’. This momentum has further been upheld by a series of decisions, including the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia in July 2022; the candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina in December 2022; and the confirmation of Georgia’s candidacy in December 2023. The EU used the attraction of membership for security-building in the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries exposed to Russian military aggression. The ‘enlargement momentum’ has also become important for stabilising the Western Balkan (WB) states. Will it keep going?


To enlarge or not, that is (not) the question

The linkage of European security with future membership had initially garnered broad support among the EU public. Nearly two-thirds of Europeans supported the grant of candidacy to Ukraine. While the impetus for deploying the enlargement toolbox ‘before enlargement’ has received substantive endorsement, discussions on admitting new members seem to be more divisive among the EU public. Polls reveal a clear difference between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ member states, as well as a manifest East – West divide. Western European citizens oppose enlargement in principle, while the idea of an even wider Europe is more acceptable in countries with a recent experience of membership.


The main reason for such a rift is the fact that matters related to accepting new member states are very much linked to the questions of what the EU will look like in the future and what its role will be in the world. Two decades after the ‘Big Bang’ enlargement, the European integration project is moving at different speeds, with only a selection of countries being full members of the Schengen and the Eurozone. This idea of ‘differentiated integration’ has most recently been extended as one of the modalities to bring candidate countries into a range of EU policies ahead of eventual membership. It has been discussed alongside the slow-paced ‘traditional’ and the fast ‘geopolitical’ enlargement decision-making, as the option that might be acceptable to a broad range of stakeholders.


Fears and futures

Often described as the EU’s most successful policy tool, enlargement has had several substantive setbacks over the past two decades. The democratic backsliding in several member states that joined the EU in the 2004 cohort has shown the limits of the appeal of membership to bring about democracy. At the same time, after welcoming ten new members, the EU experienced a manifest ‘enlargement fatigue’, especially after the entry of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. Since 2010, there has been no separate ‘Enlargement’ portfolio in the Commission. Rather, it had been placed under ‘Neighbourhood and Enlargement’, which sent an important symbolic message to countries seeking membership: admitting new countries was no longer a top priority for the EU. The pace of the enlargement policy slowed down substantively as a consequence. Croatia was the last country to enter the EU in 2013, and the line of candidates in the Western Balkans had seen little to no progress in their aspiration to join the Union. Frustration with the staggering process in these contested and substantively captured states is a major risk for democracy and the rule of law. As a result, enlargement policy has received considerable criticism for its inability to ensure democracy and prosperity in the EU’s neighbourhood.


With nine countries actively seeking membership, a democratic and prosperous EU neighbourhood becomes an important issue at stake for European policymakers and the public. It is intrinsically connected to what the EU will look like and how it will function in the next ten to fifteen years. The next European Parliament will have an important role in both steering the politics of enlargement towards the Eastern Partnership countries and the Western Balkans, and in the debates on the future of Europe and its citizens. It will be the key actor in a number of policy debates related to EU sovereignty, including enlargement and post-conflict reconstruction of Ukraine. The outcome of the European Parliament elections will, therefore, not only reflect the current state of affairs among the European public. It will also shape the ways in which the future unfolds whenever domestic concerns spill over onto the workings of institutions and affect the pace, mode or prospect for a new EU enlargement.


Jelena Džankić is Part-Time Professor, Director of GGP Southeastern Europe and Co-Director of GLOBALCIT. She is the author of the Global Market for Investor Citizenship (Palgrave 2019), a leading study in the field of wealth-based citizenship acquisition. Her earlier works include Citizenship in Bosnia Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro. Effects of Statehood and Identity Challenges (Routledge, 2015), and the edited volumes A year later : war in Ukraine and Western Balkan (geo)politics (2023, with S. Kacarska and S. Keil),Europeanisation of the Western Balkans: A failure of EU Conditionality (2018, with S. Keil and M. Kmezic), and The Europeanisation of Citizenship Governance in South-East Europe (2016, with S. Kacarska and N. Pantic).