Max Bergmann is director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served as a senior adviser in the U.S. State Department from 2011-2017.
For the European Union, granting Ukraine candidate status was, without question, a significant step. However, what Kyiv, as well as other Western Balkan capitals, should be worried about is the absence of any corresponding announcement to reform the EU itself.
Past EU enlargements have all been preceded by new EU treaties. And for the bloc to be serious about enlargement, it also needs to be serious about treaty reform. A deal must finally be struck between the pro-enlargement eastern members and the reticent western ones: enlargement for treaty reform.
The EU’s enlargement policy has been a success of world historical proportions. The bloc’s continental expansion in the 1990s and 2000s united and stabilized Europe, (largely) consolidated democracy, brought tremendous prosperity, and has given the EU the size and scale of a major global power.
But rapid expansion has also strained the EU’s ability to function. The need for consensus on big decisions and foreign policy, the disregard for democracy and rule of law by certain new members, and the outdated constraints on EU authority — such as in the areas of defense and fiscal policy — have led countries like France to resist future enlargement.
As such, for the last decade, enlargement has been put on pause, leaving the Western Balkans stuck on the outside. While the EU justifies this by pointing to a lack of reform, Western Balkans countries rightly note that some of them have made real progress and met the EU’s criteria, yet they are still not admitted.
This has now created a vicious cycle, where EU disinterest saps local political will to make hard reforms — why push EU reforms forward if there’s still no chance of membership? It has real costs for wider European security and prosperity too. The Balkans has stagnated, ethno-nationalist politicians have reemerged, and the region is becoming a point of focus for other major powers like Russia and China.
Unfortunately, a Balkans-style purgatory is the fate that awaits Ukraine as well — unless the enlargement process gets unstuck.
But Russia’s war of aggression and Ukraine’s fervent desire to join may yet jump start things.
Not only has the war in Ukraine put enlargement back on the agenda, it has also, crucially, raised the prospect of treaty reform: Both Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and French President Emmanuel Macron have been pushing for it. The EU’s Conference on the Future of Europe, made up of EU citizens, has put forward sensible reform ideas. And the European Parliament has called for a treaty reform process to start as well.
Unfortunately, this momentum got knocked back in May, when 13 EU countries, many in Eastern Europe — the strongest advocates of enlargement — wrote a joint letter opposing growing reform efforts. This is because Eastern European nations don’t want to lose unanimity, which would mean losing a national veto. Estonia, with its 1.3 million people, then wouldn’t be able to block action for 450 million people. And Poland and Hungary would be less able to brazenly undermine their democratic institutions or hold the EU hostage.
Ironically, then, it’s Eastern European countries, like Poland and the Baltics — Ukraine’s most ardent supporters — whose intransigence may stymie the country’s membership.
This is because it’s quite clear that without treaty reform, enlargement is currently a non-starter. While Ukraine received candidate status at the European Council summit in June, the Western Balkans got nothing. And Macron’s admission that Ukraine’s timeline to join could take “several decades,” as well as his proposal for a “European Political Community” involving non-EU members, shows little willingness to even contemplate enlarging the EU as currently structured.
Thus, igniting another round of enlargement will require another round of treaty reform. The two are linked and must be treated as such.
Linking the two also creates momentum for both: Eastern European countries that oppose treaty reform will have incentives to compromise, and they will be put under political pressure by Ukraine to do so. Meanwhile, enlargement opponents will get a better-functioning EU. Of course, some countries will oppose both, and it takes just one member to block either. So, this not only means overcoming autocratic-leaning Hungary, but a number of other countries will have legitimate concerns too.
Ratification will be full of pitfalls.
Thus, many savvy Brussels watchers will see this as a Quixote-like exercise. But the EU often finds a way of taking bold steps in response to crises. Also, now is the right time: Support for Ukraine is high across the union; additionally, strengthening the EU appears broadly popular — even traditionally euroskeptic Denmark just voted to join the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy by an overwhelming margin. Treaty reform for Ukraine could likely move voters, and while populist euroskepticism isn’t dead, it’s fallen off greatly since Brexit, with widespread support for the EU to work better.
A new round of enlargement could then start with Western Balkans countries like North Macedonia. And each new entrant into the EU will also create positive momentum for reform in Ukraine, as it will show that membership is, indeed, possible.
Ukraine’s future is in Europe. They’re fighting not just for their freedom but for their freedom to join Europe. It’s now up to EU leaders to pave the way for that to happen – to reform the EU and initiate a new round of enlargement.
It’s a deal that needs to get done.