Ukraine means enlargement is again the EU’s priority – but not for the reasons it claims

The European Union is using an old tool for a new purpose as it looks to its defence

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Enlargement is back. For the last decade or so, the European Union had made it clear that, while accession negotiations with several countries would continue, it did not expect any of them to actually join the bloc any time soon. 

After becoming European Commission president in 2014, Jean-Claude Juncker said that no further enlargement would take place during his five-year term. Although his successor, Ursula von der Leyen, promised a ‘geopolitical’ Commission when she took over in 2019, she did not immediately signal a greater openness to enlargement.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 changed all that. Enlargement is now not just back on the EU’s agenda but has become its highest priority. 

At the Munich Security Conference last week, von der Leyen said, as she has before, that Ukraine and the Western Balkans ‘belong to the European family.’ Indeed European diplomats and think tankers are now frantically debating not just enlargement itself, but how to reform the EU to make it possible for it to ‘absorb’ several new member states. 

Whereas central and eastern European countries want the EU to accelerate the accession process… others worry that enlargement without reform would make the EU dysfunctional – or even more so.

Whereas central and eastern European countries want the EU to accelerate the accession process, especially for Ukraine itself, others worry that enlargement without reform would make the EU dysfunctional – or even more so.

Confusion about a ‘geopolitical Europe’

Enlargement is now often framed as a ‘geopolitical imperative’ or a ‘geopolitical necessity’. The suggestion is that by integrating Ukraine in response to the Russian invasion, the EU would demonstrate that it has now become ‘geopolitical’, as von der Leyen promised it would. 

What is odd about this, however, is that enlargement is the EU’s oldest foreign policy tool. In fact, enlargement was its substitute for a foreign policy at a time when, we are told, it was not geopolitical. In other words, the EU is using an old tool for a new purpose.

These debates illustrate the deep confusion about the idea of a ‘geopolitical Europe’. While the term ‘geopolitics’ has become ubiquitous in foreign policy debates during the last decade, few who use it seem to have reflected on what it means or what the implications of using the term are. 

Sometimes it is used as a straightforward synonym for international politics. But more often it is meant to signify something stronger, whether that is an emphasis on military power or a realist approach to foreign policy.

Instead of thinking about the current renewed drive for enlargement as ‘geopolitical’, a better way of thinking about it – and what makes it different from previous waves of enlargement – is that it is defensive.

Defensive enlargement

In the 2000s, when the last big wave of enlargement took place, the EU was in an expansive, optimistic mode.  Many of its supporters imagined it could keep enlarging almost indefinitely and form the basis for global governance. But that optimistic period came to an abrupt end with the beginning of the euro crisis in 2010. 

The EU has increasingly come to see itself as being surrounded by threats and has gone into a more defensive mode – European leaders now think more about protection than transformation.

Since then, the EU has increasingly come to see itself as being surrounded by threats and has gone into a more defensive mode – European leaders now think more about protection than transformation.

The return to enlargement has taken place in the context of this new defensiveness. Thus although the EU has reverted to its oldest reflex, it has done so in a new context – enlargement is now a defensive strategy. 

This is reflected in the idea of enlargement as a ‘geopolitical necessity’ – in other words, that the EU has no choice but to enlarge. Ironically, given that is taking place in response to Russian aggression, this recalls a famous dictum attributed to Catherine the Great: ‘I have no way to defend my borders but to extend them.’

In the 2000s, enlargement was open-ended. Ten countries – eight of them from central and eastern Europe – joined the EU in 2004. But this was not meant to be the end of it. Rather, there was a sense that the EU would continue to enlarge beyond these countries. Some even imagined that Russia might one day join the EU or, even if it did not formally join, would be brought within its system of rules.

This time, however, it is different. Enlargement is not so much a way of blurring or softening the EU’s borders, as it was in the 2000s, but of defining them more clearly or hardening them. 

Article second half

This defensive enlargement of the EU is also taking place along civilizational lines. It is striking that although most discussions of enlargement focus above all on Ukraine, and also usually include Georgia and Moldova and even the countries of the western Balkans, Turkey – a candidate country since 1999 – is almost never mentioned. 

It is easy to argue that this is because of political developments in Turkey itself, especially since 2013. But France and Germany were always opposed to Turkish membership and various European leaders, both in and out of office, have hinted at or spoken explicitly about their reluctance for a large Muslim country to join the EU.

The EU’s return to enlargement in response to the invasion of Ukraine reflects how it has failed to develop a new set of foreign policy tools since the 2000s.

The EU’s return to enlargement in response to the invasion of Ukraine thus reflects both how it has failed to develop a new set of foreign policy tools since the 2000s and also how the way it thinks about itself and its place in the world has changed since then. 

The EU claims it is increasingly ‘geopolitical’, and that its commitment to integrate Ukraine is an illustration of this. But the more meaningful and significant shift underway is that the EU is becoming clearer about who belongs to the European ‘community’– or ‘family’ as von der Leyen put it – and who doesn’t.