EU Enlargement in the 21st Century: New Stage and Challenges

China International Studies | 作者: Xing Hua | 时间: 2014-09-23 | 责编: Li Xiaoyu
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by Xing Hua


Internal reform and the external enlargement are two key areas being discussed in EU integration. Since the sudden changes in Eastern Europe after the Cold War more than 20 years ago, the EU has been making tireless efforts on its eastern expansion project. That said, the attempt to include Ukraine as a member state recently triggered chaos in Europe that has not been seen in decades, flaring up a serious struggle between Russia and Western countries. Currently, EU enlargement faces a more complicated situation and is in urgent need of new measures.


An Ambitious Eastern Enlargement Project


EU enlargement refers to the efforts by the EU to develop new members in Eastern Europe, the area of the former Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, expanding beyond the traditional Western domain after allowing three neutral states – Austria, Sweden and Finland – to accede in the post Cold War era. By July 2013, the EU had thoroughly developed from its precursor, the European Economic Community, which had six original countries including France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg, to a full Union with 28 member states.

The eastward expansion by the EU after the Cold War created a new scale and degree of difficulty for the organization. On the one hand, the numbers of new members surpassed the summation of the previous four enlargements, earning the name “big bang expansion.” But on the other hand, the overall development levels and thinking of the new applicants were far from those of the traditional EU, and the integration of new members became much more difficult than it had previously been. To facilitate the success of the enlargement process, the EU adopted the following measures:

First, the EU applied PHARE economic assistance to Eastern European countries, helping them finish their political transformations with an aim to get over economic plight and initiate reform.

Second, the EU signed the Association Agreement with prospective EU member countries in order to help them meet the standard by enhancing institutional communication in a comprehensive manner with the ultimate goal of EU accession.

Third, the EU officially ascertained criteria for the EU accession of the Eastern European countries at the 1993 Copenhagen summit. It was determined that countries must have politically stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities; economically, countries must have a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with EU competition and market forces. In addition, countries must have the ability to take on the obligations of membership, including adherence to the political, economic and monetary aims of the Union. Since then, the above criteria have been refined and replenished. Up until now, the EU has controlled the measurement of the standard for candidate member states, and candidates have clarified the efforts for direction. Through systematic and periodic reviews, the EU can monitor the progress of candidates in a more regulated and balanced approach and carry out the cultivation and development of new members in a steady manner.

Finally, the EU has selected prospective members through its association partners and worked for chances to negotiate with mature ones to determine the steps and timing for countries to accept rules and policies. After successful negotiations, candidate states sign a draft agreement and then the formal accession treaty with the EU. It should be noted that all EU members are required to participate in accession negotiations, and accession agreements must be approved by all EU member states.

Of the thirteen candidate countries, six were chosen by the EU as negotiation objectives. However, aiming at strengthening its role in global affairs under the background of dramatic changes in the international situation at the turn of century, the EU expanded its enlargement objects, lowered the bar for accession and sped up the enlargement process. In 2002, the EU reached an agreement with the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia, and it postponed the accession of Romania and Bulgaria until 2007. In 2003, those ten countries formally signed the treaty and joined the EU. In 2007, Romania and Bulgaria acceded into the EU according to schedule. Croatia followed step in 2013. For Turkey, which obtained candidate status in 1999 and began negotiations in 2005, it has only met 13 of the 35 preconditions put forth by the EU. The EU committee delivered an annual report regarding Turkey’s accession process in October 2013 and suggested restarting negotiations over Turkey’s accession. In addition, the EU strengthened relations with western Balkan countries and provided assistance for their membership.

In order to embrace new members, the EU has conducted customized internal reform and member states have reached a preliminary agreement on the redistribution of quotas and voting rights in decision-making mechanisms through the consultations at the Nice summit in France.

From its pivot to the West in the 1990s to successful accession into the EU, Eastern European countries have made unremitting efforts to reform and adjust domestic institutions, rules and legislation so as to meet the standards of the EU. Sometimes, applicants need to reform or even make sacrifices that may be unwelcome in their own countries.[1]


Root Causes of EU Enlargement


There are several considerations underlying the EU’s push to expand. First, it is hoping to avoid the replay of a European Cold War. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union collapsed successively, and new Russia was relatively crippled both in terms of its strength and international status. At the same time, the attractiveness of development produced by the EU integration process was significantly improved. Eastern European countries went upside down to change their political orientations and get closer to Europe. This provided the EU with an unprecedented opportunity to integrate all of Europe and realize peace and stability on the European continent based on its values and political and economic institutions.

Second, European countries were seeking to consolidate and amplify the fruits of the Cold War by containing Russia. The arrangement of Russia in the post-Cold War era became a core issue for European affairs and turned into a serious concern for the EU and United States. By taking advantage of Russia’s breathing spell, the EU snatched Eastern Europe, the original sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, into its domain, thus impairing the influence of Russia in Europe and preventing the resurrection of the Russian Empire. As stated by an EU policy paper, “EU enlargement has helped respond to major changes such as the fall of dictatorship and the collapse of communism. It has consolidated democracy, human rights and stability across the continent.”[2]

Third, countries were seeking to eliminate unstable factors in southeastern Europe and realize eternal peace and stability for Europe. With the end of the Cold War, ethnic conflicts and political contradictions in the Balkans erupted with the breakup of Yugoslavia, posing a severe threat to European security. The EU stepped up its efforts to intervene in southeastern European affairs by proposing to sign the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, and hooking the related countries into the European integration process. The prerequisite for regional countries to establish relations with the EU was that they live in peace with neighboring countries, refrain from creating chaos and participate actively in regional cooperation. The Association Agreement, the first stage agreement signed by EU candidates, was also defined by the keyword stability.

Fourth, countries were seeking to echo the eastward expansion of NATO and enhance the role of the EU in European security affairs. The EU and NATO are enlarging their memberships with the same target. What is more, NATO’s eastward expansion provided an incentive for EU enlargement. In effect, thanks to its determination to build a Europe led by Europeans, the EU is eager to keep up with the NATO expansion process and it spares no efforts to expand its own security and defense functions, which remain weak compared with other functions.

Lastly, countries were seeking to enhance the EU’s economic power by exploiting the new market. Rapid globalization convinced the EU that it was urgent to cultivate broader activity and improve competitiveness. Long-term economic motivations ultimately under-pin eastern enlargement.

Based on the above considerations, eastward expansion was endowed with important meaning by the EU – a historical chance and priority for the EU in the new century.


Achievements and Shortfalls of Enlargement


In December 2006, the EU summit meeting adopted the “Enlarge-ment Strategy” in the belief that enlargement has been a success story for the European Union.[3] The enlargement has gained four achievements: It has helped overcome the division of Europe and contributed to the peace and stability of the continent. It has inspired reforms and consolidated the common principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms and rule of law, as well as the market economy. Its wider internal market and economic cooperation have increased the prosperity and competitiveness of the EU, enabling it to respond better to the challenges posed by globalization. The enlargement has also enhanced the EU’s global weight and made it a stronger international player.

The political and diplomatic components of these four achieve-ments are even more significant. The EU went from being a Western European organization to being a pan European group stretching over the Atlantic Ocean and Caspian Sea with a total population of 500 million people and a very powerful economy. More importantly, the EU has harvested its dominance over European affairs through peaceful means, a fact that is regarded by the European public as a success of the EU model. Meanwhile, due to the expansion of its boundaries, EU enlargement has had a direct impact on surrounding countries, and its international status benefits a lot from expansion. The integration of new member states into the political and economic system of the EU is conducive with the development and stability of the entire region.

EU enlargement also brings economic benefits for old and new members. In accordance with relevant statistics, the trade volume between fifteen old members of the EU and twelve new members who joined between 2004 and 2007 was 17.5 billion Euros, and this amount surged to 50 billion in 2007. From 1999 to 2003, the average GDP growth of new EU members was 3.5 percent, and it reached 5.5 percent in 2008. When joining the EU in 2004, the per capita GDP of some new member states only occupied 40 percent of that of the old members. This proportion grew to 52 percent in 2008. In addition, after their countries’ entrance into the EU, citizens of new member states enjoy much better social governance and educational and employment opportunities.

On the flip side, enlargement is an arduous and new task for the EU, and a series of challenges have popped up alongside the abundant accomplishments of EU expansion.

First, institutional reform has been delayed. The EU, originally only six members, began to feel strained with fifteen member states, not to mention its later expansion to 28 nations. Although the EU was prepared for enlargement, it has still been difficult to handle the overload and maintain the quality and efficiency of EU decision-making in the midst of rapid expansion.

Second, enlargement brought shockwaves to internal relations within the EU. The influx of new nations into the EU complicated interests and diversified views, and there is still a long way to go to fully align old and new members. New member states dislike being regarded as secondary members after their entries, and they are reluctant to accept the authority of the core nations. During negotiations over the accession to and amendment of the Lisbon Treaty, Poland, the major power among new members, went against the EU and Germany. The old members demanded a review of the implementation of commitments made by new members. Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary were thus criticized by other members of the EU for their domestic problems, and France and Germany prohibited those three countries from joining the Schengen Agreement due to a lack of management.

Ad hoc group formation within the EU has increased. Small groups often side together to promote their own interests, which has turned into an obstacle hindering the European integration process. For instance, the United Kingdom unilaterally invited the Nordic group and the Baltic countries to have a meeting, acting quite the opposite of the EU.

Third, economic interest conflicts have increased. EU enlargement benefited the Union as a whole, but it also brought many new costs for the EU. According to some sources, the EU spent more than 10 billion euros on applicant states in the 1990s, but from 2000 to 2006, it allocated funds of 22 billion euros to applicant countries before their entry into the EU, and another 57 billion euros after accession. However, with the end of the supportive policy and complementary appropriation, divergences on issues like mutual funds, budget operations and agricultural subsidies between the old and new members have been revealed. Recently, Germany, France and the United Kingdom, along with eight old members, delivered a joint statement opposing the application of budget quota by the European Commission on the construction of roads and bridges in Eastern European countries.


Fluctuations in the Enlargement Process


The EU has never been entirely united on the issue of enlargement, and there has always criticism and suspicion on the scale, speed and the results of enlargement. Some politicians and scholars point out that the cost to assimilate new members is too high, the alliance has been exhausted by expansion and internal stability is suffering. The consequence of enlargement is that the group becomes more complex, which then necessitates more interference from the EU, which causes more burdens. Some experts have argued that the EU should be a small but unified alliance, rather than a large but loose alliance. Others have even tried to illustrate efforts to enlarge as an adventure into the abyss.

From a geopolitical perspective, Poland, Sweden and other coun-tries established the Eastern Partnership with three Southern Caucasus countries, which alarmed Russia. Germany and France disagreed with that attempt, wanting to limit new frictions with Russia.

The divergence over enlargement has resulted in disputes on the starting point of EU construction. One side argues that the EU should place its focus on internal construction rather than enlargement. The other side believes that enlargement significant to the integration process, and that it should be pushed forward by any means. Countries suspicious of the EU, led by the United Kingdom, are opposed to the integration process and prefer that the EU remain a huge, enlarging market. This is interpreted as a tactic to dilute the integration process through enlargement.

Enlargement has been far from smooth sailing, and there is always hesitation and introspection from the EU during the expansion process. Faced with problems during the enlargement process and disputes within the alliance, the EU modified its guidelines for enlargement during the 2006 summit by putting forward the so-called “3C principle”: consolidation, conditionality and communication,[4] through which the EU narrowed down the scope of enlargement and refrained from making excessive promises to integrate new members, while keeping the door open for enlargement. Meanwhile, the EU made clear that member candidates’ abilities to fulfill obligations should be juxtaposed against the EU’s assimilation capabilities as an indispensible prerequisite for EU enlargement. In addition, the EU decided to control the speed and quality of enlargement and refrained from setting up a timetable in advance of the accession of new members. Entry into the EU should be judged by the practical results of domestic reform and negotiations with the EU, and every step of the negotiations should be carried out in a strict, regimented manner, following an individual rule instead of a collective way. Finally, the EU pointed out that better communication is necessary in order to gain wide-ranging and stable support for enlargement.

The hasty expansion of the EU has sacrificed the quality of enlargement. The recruitments in 2004 loosened the conditions for accession, and the qualifications of some new members were called into question, bring new difficulties in the relationship between old and new members. For instance, with Cyprus, the EU made some flexible arrangements for Turkish ethnic self-governance, which in effect bypassed the most divisive issue in Cyprus.


Obstructions Ahead for Enlargement


On August 2013, an official document released by the EU described the agenda for enlargement,[5] stating that the EU’s accession nego-tiations are ongoing with Montenegro and Turkey, and that Serbia will follow suit by January 2014 at the latest. The European Commission also recommended the opening of accession negotiations for the Republic of Macedonia. Accession negotiations with Iceland were put on hold in 2013 at the request of the country itself. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are also potential candidates. The Commission has recommended to the Council that candidate status be granted to Albania, with certain conditions.

The EU signed the political section of the Association Agreement with Ukraine in March 2014. Afterwards, the EU and Ukraine signed the economic and trade agreement, marking the completion of the formal agreement. At the same time, Moldova and Georgia also signed the Association Agreement.

Taking in Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania will just be a matter of time, while Ukraine, Serbia and Turkey are the most important accession targets for the EU. But those candidate countries are either lost in a split, or apart from the standards of accession.

Confronted with double pressure from NATO and EU expansion, Russia chose to focus its resistance on NATO and to some extent tolerate the EU’s enlargement. However, Ukraine is very important to Russian strategic interests, and Russia is determined to safeguard its traditional domain, refusing to give Ukraine away to NATO and the EU. When Ukraine tabled the option of becoming a NATO member for the time being, the EU became a protagonist for the struggle of Ukraine with Russia. Since the Eastern Partnership in 2009, the EU has been trying to put its nose into Russia’s backyard in an attempt to develop Ukraine and six countries into a tight rope to tie up Russia.

Russia will not fold its hands in defeat, and thus took counter-measures by providing favorable treatment for Ukraine at the end of 2013. It did so in an effort to slow the pace of Ukrainian President Yanukovich’s commitment to sign an AA with the EU. This tactic worked and Yanukovich decided to postpone the signing, which gave rise to pro-EU street protests. Influenced by outside forces, Ukraine found itself struggling to maintain the balance between the EU and Russia, and to align with Russia or side with the EU has become a troublesome decision, with the difference between the two turning out to be violent and confrontational. Pro-EU groups overturned the Yanukovich government through street demonstrations, while pro-Russia groups initiated an independence movement and even resorted to the military action against the new regime.

The United States, the EU and Russia stepped onto the front stage and ignited the game. Russia took back Crimea and the EU and the United States imposed economic sanctions against Russia and even threatened to apply more severe punishments. NATO also took actions and strengthened the collective defense military deployment in a high-profile manner, declaring that it would deploy troops on former Soviet Union soil in disregard of commitments to Russia.

The new president of Ukraine stated his pro-EU sentiments, but the result has been hard to predict due to the complexity of the Ukraine issue. Even if the EU signs the AA with Ukraine, the next step would be uncertain, considering that it may be hard for the EU to handle such a contentious new member.

Serbia is a big country in the Western Balkans, and the EU attaches great importance to the accession of Serbia. The willingness of the Serbian government to accede to the European integration process is strong, and Serbia has also stated its commitment to peaceful coexistence with Kosovo, but it also declared that it would never negotiate on the Kosovo issue. The EU has already listed Kosovo as a candidate country and asked Serbia to normalize its relations with Kosovo before joining the EU.

At present, 106 countries including the United States and most EU countries recognize the independence of Kosovo, and Serbia plans to finish the accession negotiation in 2018 and enter the EU by 2020. During that period, the divergence between Serbia and the EU will not be resolved. If the two sides fail to find a way out, it is unknown how Serbia will enter the EU. Moldova and Georgia are divided respectively, which means that they will be met with similar questions to Serbia. As a non-European country, signing an accession treaty between the EU and Georgia may create a controversial example.

Turkey is located at the boundary of Europe and Asia, and it is in an important geopolitical position as a bridge between the Middle East and Western Asia, which has attracted EU attention. Turkey is intent to hedge its bets between Asia and Europe in order to enhance its national status.

In 1963, Turkey became a semi-member of the European Com-mission. But its relations with the EU have experienced ups and downs over the past ten years thanks to its domestic issues and disputes with Greece and Cyprus. Turkey, with deep Islamic roots, will become the second most populous country in the EU after its entry, and this will be a lingering concern for the EU. France, Germany and Austria are all against Turkey’s entry into the EU. In recent years, opposition to Turkey’s accession has been on the rise due to frequent social unrest caused by Turkish migrants.

In the meantime, social problems in Turkey are still fomenting, Prime Minister Erdogan is in a whirlpool of criticism and protest, and he threatened that Turkey and the EU are wasting time if the EU discriminates against Turkey’s religious beliefs. As a result, the EU and Turkey’s willingness to get closer is decreasing drastically. The protracted negotiations between the two sides have been portrayed by European media as “an endless game.”

Until now, the EU has taken initiative on enlargement efforts even though there have been frustrations. The EU adheres to its role as a leader, instructor and reformer in dealing with applicant countries. The EU clearly stated that rules are not negotiable, and that negotiations are essentially a matter of agreeing on how and when candidates will adopt and implement EU rules and procedures.[6] However, regarding hard cases like Ukraine, Serbia and Turkey, it is difficult for the EU to take such initiative, and the growing passivity and impotence of the EU on this matter may prompt new considerations and judgments inside the EU.

First, is the cost of continuous enlargement worth paying? The most recent European parliamentary election witnessed the rise of anti-European forces, a clear reflection of the concerns of the European people. The illegal migrant issue and suspicions over the hasty enlargement process were both prominent in fueling dissatisfaction. For the accession of Ukraine, Serbia and Turkey into the EU, there will be significant diplomatic, political and economic costs for the EU. And the EU also has to pay a lot for the accession of Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania, which do not face fundamental difficulties for entry. There is no consensus within the EU on whether it is worth paying the price for new members. The question is whether the EU has sufficient willingness and capacity to face the hardships based on the original procedures for enlargement.

Second, it is necessary to reach a unified recognition of the re-lations between enlargement and European overall development. European politicians called for a definition of the EU and its borders. Extending European values and standards to more countries, making Europe safer and more stable and enabling Europe to assume its role as a global player are clearly the goals of all EU members,[7] but relations with Russia are an inevitable issue for the EU to face in its enlargement.

In future enlargement actions, the EU will have to decide whether to continue its intensified geopolitical struggle with Russia or make a balanced and comprehensive consideration on this issue. Germany, France and others have different views from Poland and Sweden. In 2008, the NATO summit in Bucharest suspended the accession attempts of Ukraine and Georgia based on the recommendations of France and Germany. Throughout the recent Ukrainian crisis, Germany and France adopted tough stances against Russia, but they are also interested in engaging in dialogue to cooperate with Russia and find a solution to the crisis. This once again reveals how major EU countries engage in European affairs and endeavor to master their dominance over European affairs.

It is obvious that EU enlargement will be ongoing, but it is worth considering how the EU will adjust the scale, speed and approach of its expansion under new circumstances.


[1] “Qui a nécessité, de la part des pays candidats, de lourd sacrifices et des réformes souvent impopulaires.” Le Monde, 12 décembre 2002. 

[2] Communication from the commission to the European parliament and the council, COM (2006) 649, “EU enlargement has helped respond to major changes such as the fall of dictatorship and the collapse of communism. It has consolidated democracy, human rights and stability across the continent.” 

[3] “Enlargement has been a success story for the European Union and Europe as a whole,” Presidency conclusions, Council of the European Union 1687906, December 15, 2006.  

[4] “Enlargement has been a success story for the European Union and Europe as a whole,” Presidency conclusions, Council of the European Union 1687906, December 15, 2006. 

[5] Stefan Füle, “The European Union explained: Enlargement,” European commission, August 2013. 

[6] “The rules as such are not negotiable. Negotiations are essentially a matter of agreeing how and when the candidate will adopt and effectively implement EU rules and procedures.” Stefan Füle, “The European Union explained: Enlargement,” European commission, August 2013. 

[7] “Extending European values and standards to more countries,” “make Europe a safer and more stable place,” “enable us to assume our role as global player on the world stage”, Stefan Füle, “The European Union explained Enlargement,” European commissioner for enlargement, August 2013.