EU members must work on “completing” the union, with its enlargement to aspiring members from Southeast and Eastern Europe, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in her state of the union speech to the European Parliament on September 13.
Von der Leyen argued that “history is calling us” to expand the bloc from the current 27 to more than 30 members. Aspiring members include the Western Balkans countries, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. However, she also spoke in practical terms about the steps the EU must take to prepare to admit new members.
“In a world where some are trying to pick off countries one by one, we cannot afford to leave our fellow Europeans behind,” the European Commission president said.
“In a world where size and weight matters, it is clearly in Europe's strategic and security interests to complete our union,” she added.
Von der Leyen talked of setting out a vision for a successful enlargement, “with over 500mn people living in a free, democratic and prosperous Union.”
Speaking almost 20 years after the accession of the first wave of countries from Central and Southeast Europe in 2004, von der Leyen commented on the need to consider how to prepare for an expanded EU.
“We need to move past old, binary debates about enlargement. This is not a question of deepening integration or widening the union,” she said. We can and we must do both. To give us the geopolitical weight and the capacity to act.”
She argued that the EU must not wait for a Treaty change to move ahead with enlargement, but acknowledged that steps must be taken by the EU to prepare to admit a new wave of members.
“A union fit for enlargement can be achieved faster. That means answering practical questions about how a union of over 30 countries will work in practice … we need to look closer at each policy and see how they would be affected by a larger union."
The European Commission plans to work on a series of pre-enlargement policy reviews to see how each area may need to be adapted.
“We will need to think about how our institutions would work – how the Parliament and the Commission would look,” von der Leyen told MEPs.
“We need to discuss the future of our budget – in terms of what it finances, how it finances it, and how it is financed. And we need to understand how to ensure credible security commitments in a world where deterrence matters more than ever. These are questions we must address today if we want to be ready for tomorrow.”
Von der Leyen’s speech follows calls from other top EU officials to accelerate the enlargement process.
European Council President Charles Michel said on August 28 that the EU and the Western Balkans should be fully prepared for enlargement by 2030.
Like von der Leyen, Michel also emphasised the need for the EU to ready itself for enlargement. "Let’s be honest: we have sometimes used the lack of progress of future member states to avoid facing our own preparedness. We must now take a serious look at the EU's capacity to absorb new members," he said.
Enlargement has moved up the political agenda within the EU since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine starkly demonstrated the importance of European unity in the face of external security threats. Not only did the EU speedily offer candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova – something other countries such as Albania waited years to achieve – it also took the long-awaited step of greenlighting accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.
The danger that long-drawn out accession processes lead to a waning of enthusiasm for EU accession in potential member states, which in turn opens the way for Russia and other third parties to expand their influence.