EU Enlargement: Big Steps Forward at December Summit

by Kirsty Hughes

This article was first published at https://kirstyhughes.substack.com/p/eu-enlargement-big-steps-forward.

Enlargement was at the heart of the EU’s 14th and 15th December summit. The European Council took the crucial – and historic – decision to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, gave Georgia candidate status, and will open talks with Bosnia-Herzegovina once it shows fuller compliance with key accession criteria.

Many were concerned that the summit would fail to take the decision on Ukraine due to Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán’s, threats – made for weeks ahead of the summit – to veto the move. But with a certain degree of manoeuvring and pressure, and via German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz’s, suggestion that Orbán left the room briefly, the EU 26 moved ahead, leaving, as Politico put it: “Orbán’s image as the EU’s chief Grinch…deflated.”

It’s worth pausing to take stock of this decision. The EU has made a major political commitment and signal. It’s a big strategic decision, and push forward, that could result in nine new member states joining the EU, and the EU’s borders shifting to the east and southeast in ways that will affect both internal and external political, economic and security dynamics.

It is also, crucially, a substantial signal of political support to Ukraine as the war with Russia continues on.

How the process will unfold next is, inevitably, full of uncertainty mainly because of Russia’s war. And, beyond the different scenarios for how the war may develop next, enlargements always have their own political dynamics, with different member states more or less positive about the process, or with their own more or less favourite candidate countries, as we saw in the 1990s.

The EU summit did, though, hit another roadblock on funding for Ukraine. The EU’s proposed €50 billion, four-year funding package did not go through as Orbán did veto that. At a moment when the US congress failed to approve a $60 billion support package, this looks like western backing seriously faltering. But as the Centre for European Reform’s Ian Bond told the Financial Times: “The veto on the €50bn tells you less about faltering western resolve than it does about Viktor Orbán.”

EU leaders, and European Council president Charles Michel, were quick to insist a way through would be found on the funding – which is urgently needed by Ukraine – and will return to the issue in January. Whether amendments will be found that overcome the Hungarian veto, or whether the 26 will find ways to go ahead without Hungary, January will now be the vital moment for the EU to show it is not struggling on the funding as the US is. But the expectation is that the EU funds will be forthcoming. In his post-summit remarks, Michel insisted: “I would like to repeat again that I am extremely confident and optimistic that we will be in a position to fulfil our promises to support Ukraine with financial means in the weeks to come.”

Orbán and his spokesman were quick to attempt to cover for his backing off from his threatened veto, by making a new set of threats on the Ukraine accession process. Yes, the EU accession process moves forward on the basis of unanimity to agree a negotiating framework and to open and close the 36 negotiating chapters. And yet, in a way, this is reminiscent of some of the sustained bluster from Boris Johnson in the different context of his threats of a ‘no deal’ Brexit two years’ running. Certainly, Orbán could still create upset but, in the end, the crucial question here is whether the EU 26 remain committed to this renewed, big enlargement process, not how they deal with a recalcitrant, grand-standing Hungarian prime minister looking to his own national politics back home.

Some others do, though, fear a deteriorating EU-Hungary stand-off could create a much bigger roadblock (see for example this Twitter/X thread by expert Mujtaba Rahman). But the EU has means to exert substantial political pressure – and Hungary did back-off its threatened veto – all reasons to be cautious in predicting an enlargement stalemate.

The EU must too step up its pressure, not back off, on rule of law questions, where its unfreezing of €10 billion in cohesion funds for Hungary the day before the summit, raises some questions albeit, importantly, another €21 billion remains frozen. Yet the return of Poland’s Donald Tusk to the European Council promises a more positive dynamic ahead for Poland accessing its frozen funds as new reforms undo the years of rule of law harm.

The bigger political question for the EU, on enlargement, on the budget including support for Ukraine, on climate change (the COP28 conclusions were welcomed in the EU summit conclusions), on migration, is the EU’s overall political dynamics across all the member states. And the question of how well or not the far right does in the upcoming European Parliament elections next June is hanging over much of this too.

Beyond EU elections lies the big unknown of the US presidential election. A Trump victory will change all political calculations. But, as Phillips O’Brien argued in his substack this weekend, such a development doesn’t mean, at all in his view, Ukraine would automatically lose. O’Brien argues the EU – with its cumulatively high financial support for Ukraine – would then face big questions on how to step up and keep supporting Ukraine in 2025.

Separately, on the urgent question of Israel’s unceasing bombardment of Gaza, where, significantly, a majority of EU member states do now support an immediate ceasefire, the European Council failed to come to an agreed statement at all. The Council conclusions simply state: “The European Council held an in-depth strategic debate on the Middle East.” This doesn’t look or sound like the EU as an important or active foreign policy player. But equally, as Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, put it (reported by RTE’s Tony Connelly): “It was my view and the view of others that if we couldn’t get unanimity on calling for a ceasefire, there was no point in coming up with some sort of interim language, [such as] rolling truces or on/off pauses.”

European and global challenges will not let up as we head into 2024. But on its enlargement agenda, the EU has, for now, taken a big step forward.

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