EU enlargement: How wrong blueprints spoil good policy


Picture of Darius Žeruolis
Darius Žeruolis

Picture of Klaudijus Maniokas
Klaudijus Maniokas

The limitations of the EU’s enlargement policy are becoming increasingly obvious. On the plus side there’s progress in Montenegro, with Lithuania’s Presidency of the EU Council opening another five chapters, including those that relate to fundamental rights and the judiciary. It also tested for the first time the so-called “New Approach” in accession negotiations which frontloads the most difficult issues. Serbia formally began accession negotiations this year on January 21, and these can reasonably be expected to advance rapidly. In addition to this, the opening of the chapter on regional policy and co-ordination of structural instruments last November meant that accession negotiations with Turkey have now resumed after a more than three-year break. Last but not least, the EU also began negotiations on its Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo.

But on the minus side, some EU member states are becoming increasingly hostile to the EU’s enlargement policy. A consequence of this has been that the decision to grant EU candidacy status to Albania has once again been postponed, despite the European Commission’s positive recommendation. Albania‘s case clearly demonstrates the EU’s limited ability to induce change. Regrettably, Brussels lacked the tools to stop Albania’s new government from a politically motivated programme of lay-offs of civil servants. These negative features of the EU’s enlargement policy have wider implications for the EU foreign policy in general.

In the first place, it is a policy that has little or no impact on would-be members of the Union. EU policymakers tend to overestimate the EU’s power of attraction, and they have unfortunately become accustomed to thinking that a closer relationship with the EU, or even the upgrading of their status, is enough for the EU to make a lasting impact on the neighbouring countries. It’s an assumption that is increasingly incorrect because there are more and more external players in the game with more divergent, competing incentives on offer to the aspiring countries. There are also more divergent internal incentives in the aspiring countries to be reckoned with.

This is obvious in Western Balkans, and even more so in the EU’s eastern neighbourhood. The EU stance towards Ukraine was a case in point; while the EU was right in refusing to engage in a bidding contest with Russia, a more active EU stance towards Ukraine and other eastern partners is clearly necessary. It was not enough to offer the prospect of an association and free trade deal; it is important to offset Russia‘s influence and to help solve the main development problems of the region. This includes, inter alia, a reassessment of the cost and benefits of the current association agreements. They should be commensurate to the socio-economic development issues faced today by the south-eastern and eastern neighbourhood and should also be made lighter in terms of their regulatory burden.

The Eastern Partnership’s positive impact has so far mostly been in shifting the relationship between the EU and the EaP countries beyond trade and diplomacy. It is about a visa-free regime and mobility in general, and it is also about infrastructure projects, economic relations and civil society. The problem is, however, that isn’t greatly impacting the influence of the EU in these countries. The Ukrainian crisis has highlighted the weaknesses of the EU‘s neighbourhood policy, and the EU is failing to properly address Russia as well. There seems a consensus that Russia is playing an increasingly negative role in the region, but as with the whole Eastern Partnership policy, this so far has not been translated into clearer policies and actions. Obviously, the EU has only limited tools to address Russia and its influence in the region, but nor is it trying to create them.

There are many factors behind the reluctance of the EU to engage more actively, including the past successes of an enlargement policy based on soft power. Not engaging in a fight has been the more comfortable option. But, tools that are already at the disposal of the EU include the association agreements, and part of the problem in dealing with the former Yanukovych regime in Ukraine was the unfavourable cost-benefit ratio of the proposed EU deal.

The new generation of the EU’s association agreements, with the so called ‘deep and comprehensive’ free trade agreements at their core, was supposed to be a major (if not the main) tool of the Eastern Partnership policy. The promise of these agreements is meant to encourage the Eastern Partnership countries to reform by offering a liberalised trade regime and gradual convergence with EU standards of the regulatory regimes in aspiring countries. The regulatory scope, ambition and detail goes far beyond existing association agreements of the European Union, and that initialled with Ukraine is almost a thousand pages long and included annexes referencing to EU legal acts and their provisions. Implementation of the agreement was meant to create a stable and EU-like regulatory regime to boost investors’ confidence.

To sign this kind of agreement would seem logical for countries aiming at EU membership, notably the Western Balkan states. But for countries like Ukraine, EU regulatory standards have hardly been goals in themselves. This shouldn’t be surprising, as the EU regulatory framework was never intended to serve as a development framework. The EU’s acquis communautaire reflects the preferences of rich consumer societies that are willing to pay for health, safety, and environmental protection.

For enlargement and eastern neighbourhood policies to become effective, the EU should abandon its current theory of change, which is based purely on the EU’s own attractiveness. Brussels should develop a more nuanced paradigm, especially for Western Balkan laggards and Eastern partnership countries. Moving away from the acquis, the EU should emphasise issues related to state building, the fundamentals of a market economy and investment promotion. The EU already started to change the emphasis during its the visa liberalisation negotiations with western Balkan countries and eastern partners, and by frontloading chapters covering the rule of law, judiciary and fundamental rights, and justice, freedom and security in accession negotiations. This is welcome, but in many countries it won’t be enough to ensure stability and lasting reforms.

In both candidate and Eastern partnership countries, elections are still influenced by winner-takes-it-all thinking. The EU should do more to change this situation by ensuring fair legal process and by vigorously protecting people in public administrations from unjustified dismissal. This is partly to protect the European taxpayers’ investments through technical assistance and twinning, and it’s also about limiting states’ ability to abuse power. And for the EU to be successful in dealing with weaker countries, the European Commission should not only be the sole arbiter of progress on the Copenhagen criteria, but also become an engineer of changes on the ground.

For EU technical and financial assistance to be really effective, Brussels needs to plan in the long-term its support for agents of change. There is much to be learned from USAID and also the Nordic development agencies. To ensure the public availability of expertise after the projects have ended, EU delegations should make all materials freely available.  And while it would be difficult to change agreements already negotiated with Moldova and Georgia, their implementation could nevertheless be geared towards development aims by specifying priorities.

Such a focus on socio-economic fundamentals would be relevant to western Balkan countries too, especially Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, where fiscal sustainability and economic governance issues urgently need to be addressed to make these countries less reliant on foreign aid.

Although the EU cannot promise membership to any third country that it may wish to influence, the passive approach resulting from the seeming success of the EU’s enlargement policy could yet turn out to be counterproductive by leading to disillusionment with the EU. Soft power should now be matched by the harder power of persuasion and dissuasion.

Authors’ note: This article was written just before the ousting of the Yanukovych regime and Russian intervention in Crimea. These dramatic developments highlight the main thesis of this article, which is that the EU is relying too much on its passive soft power and that a more active stance and redefinition of the main policy tools are necessary. Moreover, while the change of the EU approach along the proposed lines may have been enough in the Western Balkans, Russian aggression in Crimea demonstrates that in the Eastern neighbourhood, the EU’s soft power is confronted with the hard power of Russia. Therefore, redefinition of the soft policy will clearly not be sufficient.  The EU’s role in security matters has to be redefined from its core.

Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo