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Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies - European University Institute

Enlarging and deepening the Union: What is at stake for the EU and EU citizens

In April 2024 the European Parliament and the European University Institute held a conference in Brussels on the perspectives for the enlargement and deepening of the EU. Erik Jones, Director of the Robert Schuman Centre, provided relevant insights that we report here.

04 July 2024 | Policy dialogue - Research

European Parliament-EUI dialogue  Copyright: © European Union 2024

In his intervention, Erik Jones focused on five key messages:

Democracy is about people and not (just) institutions. The institutions of the United States have not changed in the last 75 years, but American democracy has. The only way to explain that is to look at the norms and values of the people engaged in politics. If those people do not want the institutions to work, then those institutions will not work. This raises an awkward question about why we focus so much attention in the criteria for enlargement on political institutional design. In an essay published in the latest edition of the Journal of Democracy, Veronica Anghel and I went back to the last enlargement to focus on what was happening in Hungary during the accession process. What we found was that there was ample evidence that Hungarian democracy was failing in the early 2000s, just as that country was accepted for membership. The problem is that the criteria for acceptance had little or nothing to do with the forces undermining Hungarian democracy.

Enlargement is about people and not just nation states. When you think about it that way, Europe has already enlarged to encompass millions of people from the Western Balkans. If you don’t believe me, just walk down the streets of Vienna. Europe has grown to encompass millions of Ukrainians as well. And what goes for people also goes for firms. Many of the firms based in countries in the Western Balkans or in Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are already doing business in the European Union. And many of those firms are challenging European firms for market share. The question is how to get those firms to operate according to European norms. If possible, it would also be good if we could make it more attractive for those recent migrants to return (and rebuild) their countries of origin. We can only do that through enlargement to new member states – because working in partnership with those governments is the key to managing both migration and market competition. In that sense, what we call ‘enlargement’ in the formal sense is the solution to a real, human-centred enlargement that has already taken place.

Enlargement is about security policy and not just foreign policy. Here it is important to remember that this historic enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe was not originally an ambitious project. The original plan was to focus on the gradual transformation of the countries in Central and Eastern Europe to democratic politics and liberal markets. That plan was meant to be slow. But suddenly the pace changed in 1999. What worked as a slow process started moving much more quickly. And what worked as a restricted process, where only those countries that qualified could begin, suddenly became a more inclusive process where all potential candidates received a prospect for membership. Veronica Anghel and I explored this dynamic in a 2022 essay in the Journal of European Public Policy. What we found is that the change in the tempo was a response to change in the strategic environment. The European Council wanted to use enlargement to stabilize the countries of Central and Eastern Europe then much as they do today. The difference is that the threat was internal to those countries then; today the threat comes from third parties like Russia and China. This is a more challenging threat to respond. And it forces us to change the way we think of membership. Membership in this context works more like the membership of a security community than some kind of club. Turkey can be in NATO through various cycles of democracy and dictatorship because Turkish participation is a security requirement for the alliance. The EU will have to begin to think that way as well. But this is consistent with a human-centred approach to enlargement. The goal when faced with ‘backsliding’ is not to punish the country but to convince the people to return to the norms and values of democracy.

Enlargement – understood in human terms (i.e. point 1) – will change the way the EU works, with or without a reform of the formal European institutions and with or without a formal expansion of membership. Again, remember that enlargement has already taken place through the movement of peoples and the access of firms from outside the European Union. That expansion (or access to Europe) is forcing the EU to adapt. Veronica Anghel and I explore that dynamic in a recent essay in West European Politics. What we show in that essay is how access to the European Union necessarily coincides with a change in the way the EU has to operate. Formal enlargement and institutional reform proceed in parallel. It is not necessarily a cause-and-effect relationship. And in that sense, there is no good reason to wait for institutional reform for enlargement to take place. That is not what happened in the early 2000s either. Instead, what we saw was an initial blocking of the European Constitutional Treaty (by Poland and Spain) followed by its rejection (by France and the Netherlands). The lesson is that we should expect this next round of enlargement to move alongside institutional adaptation as well.

This enlargement is going to be hard, but it is still better than the alternative. We should focus more attention on that alternative. If the Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and the countries of the Western Balkans are left out of Europe and undefended from third-party attempts at destabilization, the people in those countries will not become more democratic. If anything, they are likely to move in the opposite direction under foreign influence. At the same time, more and more of those people are going to have to seek refuge in the European Union. More and more of their firms will rely on access to Europe for their success, and those firms are going to be more and more resistant to European regulation or influence. Worse, the security conditions in those countries will deteriorate and that means European security will also diminish. Europe will face ever greater challenges along the way, and its institutions will have to adapt this the requirements for crisis management. Europe will change, but not for the better. Enlargement offers the chance for the European Union to get control over this situation. It will be hard, but it can become a model for stabilization and prosperity if Europeans work to make it a success. European integration was that model for the world in the past. It could be so again in the future.

More information on the work carried out by Erik Jones and Veronica Anghel can be found in the EU Enlargement Hub of the European Governance and Politics Programme.

Last update: 05 July 2024

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