The Forthcoming Enlargement, or The European Revolution In The Making

The Forthcoming Enlargement, or The European Revolution In The Making


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The Forthcoming Enlargement, or The European Revolution In The Making

This essay appeared in French, Spanish and Italian in Grand Continent as part of the Journal special issue on Enlargement.

In the next five, ten, or fifteen years, the European Union will have undergone significant changes, both geographically and politically. The path is not yet clear, nor is the destination, but this is our continent’s next — existential — shift that is unfolding. Indeed, the member states made a clear political choice in June 2022: that of granting European Union candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova.  Voting unanimously, the 27 confirmed that these two countries, like the Western Balkan candidate countries, were destined to join the European project. The question today is therefore no longer whether we should enlarge the European Union, nor even when we should do it — we want to do it as soon as possible — but rather how we should do it.

The question of “how” can be viewed from several angles: a historical angle, a geopolitical angle and, more fundamentally, a political angle.

First and foremost, the historical context in which this new enlargement will take place is completely different from the last large wave of enlargement that happened in 2004 when ten countries joined the European Union. Twenty years ago, the post-communist era had led us to believe that democracy had prevailed once and for all and that war had become impossible on our continent. It was also believed, more broadly, that with economic development, a wave of enlightenment, of informed democracy, would prevail over a certain obscurantism that went hand in hand with autocratic regimes. We were living through what was being called the End of History.

The question today is therefore no longer whether we should enlarge the European Union, nor even when we should do it — we want to do it as soon as possible — but rather how we should do it.

Laurence Boone

Today, we are living in a completely different geopolitical configuration. This is the world of the polycrisis and the interregnum, to use the term coined by le Grand Continent. Global tensions and aggression are steadily increasing, and military budgets are rapidly growing. In Israel, the Arctic, Syria, Libya, Armenia, and of course in Ukraine, conflict zones are multiplying. And so, the next EU enlargement will take place in a geopolitical context that is far removed from the End of History and much closer to the fear of mounting conflicts, the return of antisemitic and religious hatred, intolerance, and the rise of autocracies. The fact that this could involve countries with unresolved territorial disputes, such as Kosovo and Serbia, also raises concerns.

Above all, enlargement invites us to reflect on the very nature of the European Union and to define its political objective. Historically, the Community’s mission has been founded on the principle of an “ever closer union”, which is now enshrined in Article 1 of the Treaty on European Union. The discourse of Europe’s early architects always looked to the future as a source of further integration. European construction therefore developed through a process of deepening ties with a long-term federal objective. But times have changed. How many of the 27 still make this their guiding principle? Voices are already being raised concerning the scope of powers transferred to the European Union. And what was conceivable with 6, 12, or 15 members is less and less so with each successive enlargement. This is why we must reflect on the nature of the future union. As Alexandre Adam pointed out in a recent paper, enlargement is a moment of “clarification” that should encourage us to reflect on the European project’s ultimate purpose.

With this enlargement, the nature of the European Union will change. Unlike in 2004, it is no longer simply a question of joining an internal market, meaning an economic union that would be the first step towards classic federalism. This new enlargement will create a union with a greater diversity of countries, cultures, standards of living, and geopolitical ambitions, and therefore is different from federalism. It will be a union that is unique in its purpose and organization. In order to be successful in this transformation, we must first and foremost clarify what we expect from enlargement by defining our objectives. This requires asking ourselves three types of questions on political objectives, governance, and budget.

How enlargement must help us consider the nature of the future union

The work that lies ahead of us is to build the foundations of this transformed European Union. We cannot do this without asking ourselves the question of how enlargement contributes to this. With this in mind, I will identify three main contributions: security, economic and digital power, and economic and social cohesion.

Contributing to the European continent’s security

One of the primary objectives of enlargement is guaranteeing the European continent’s security. All indications point to the international landscape remaining characterized by the rise of authoritarian and nationalist movements while the European landscape will continue to be affected by war and persistent, low-level territorial disputes. To avoid foreign interference stoking these disputes and attempting to destabilize our borders, we need to offer these countries better economic and security prospects.

However, this will not be enough and Europe must develop its defensive capabilities. Russia’s aggression has prompted us to strengthen our collective deterrents in order to secure our borders and build a strong diplomatic capability able to weigh on world affairs.

With this in mind, Europeans must make a greater contribution to their collective defense. To achieve this, member states must increase investment in their defense capabilities and operational equipment. Real progress has been made in this area, and the Union now has a strategic compass. Member states are all reinvesting in their defense and are aware of their vulnerability faced with the threat of American withdrawal. We must go further, particularly by bolstering our cooperation in the defense, cyber, digital and space industries, as well as in terms of strategy and interoperability.

Russia’s aggression has prompted us to strengthen our collective deterrents in order to secure our borders and build a strong diplomatic capability.

Laurence Boone

Too often in these areas, the European response is lacking. This is why we must work more specifically on a packet of objectives for an enlarged Europe: security guarantees for Ukraine and other non-NATO candidate countries, capability objectives that reserve European support for European equipment, interoperability and strategic culture objectives, and strengthened dialogue on missile and air defense issues. For all this, we must revisit the mandate and functions of the European Defence Agency.

Develop economic and digital power

There is no geopolitical power, no capacity to exert influence, without economic and digital power. Let us be clear: our future diplomacy will be based on our means. That is why enlargement must contribute to building the European Union’s economic and digital power.

On this subject, major progress has recently been made and European momentum is strong, driven by a sense of urgency stemming from a growing US-China rivalry, the war in Ukraine, and, the recent accelerated development of AI. I will not get into the list of measures, as there are too many, but I believe we can recognize major doctrinal shifts towards industrial policy, ideas of economic security, and the acceleration of the energy transition, with a view to both transition and security. That being said, we will have to finish building the single energy market and ramp up our efforts in the digital sector, where we are not strong enough. This could be the subject of a second Single European Act. The reports by Enrico Letta and Mario Draghi on the single market and European competitiveness will allow us to progress on this subject. Our fundamental objective must be to become more competitive against the United States and China. We must also be more strategic in our trade and investment deals with Africa, Latin and South America, and the Indo-Pacific. The Global Gateway was the first lever of action, but it does not go far enough.

Strengthen economic and social cohesion

Finally, in order for everyone to fully feel like a European citizen, we must work on economic and social cohesion, for the long-term security of this new Union will depend on the support of its citizens. It must be said that in this area, enlargement could weaken the European Union’s cohesion if Europeans fail to put policies in place allowing new members to catch up to older ones, or if such policies come at exceedingly high cost for the latter. Indeed, except in times of major crisis, the momentum of solidarity between member states quickly falters.

Cohesion is also essential for avoiding movements of population to the detriment of countries preparing to enter the European Union. Albania is a striking example. In just a few decades, a third of its population left the country; in Moldova, it was half.

The long-term security of this new Union will depend on the support of its citizens.

Laurence Boone

Furthermore, the social cultures between our countries are very different. We need to clearly address the issue of social cohesion and certain elements of fiscal policy in a context of the free movement of people and capital. The disparities between countries are too great to ignore this issue which is, quite frankly, a difficult one.

A forthcoming revolution in European policies, its budget, and — in fine — EU governance

In all reality, we are preparing a European revolution. The work of the Franco-German working group has made it possible to initiate the discussion at the level of the ministers for Europe by highlighting the cost of a lack of reform and proposing a menu of options aimed at strengthening the capacity of an enlarged Union to act. 1 This work is inspiring. When beginning this overview, we can clearly see that it is the scope and depth of existing policies that must be considered as part of the European Union’s reform. We must have a debate on the content and scope of European policies. These policies must be revisited in light of geopolitical tensions and the EU’s transformational objectives.

The Commission’s policy review planned for March may bring some initial answers. The question of adherence to new policies will also be raised: the euro, like the Schengen area, shows us that it is possible to progress at different speeds, without difficulties, depending on the will and capacities of each party.

Such a revolution will shake up the European Union’s budgetary policy. We must step back from current trends of expressing policy choices at the EU level primarily through spending and subsidies, without paying serious attention to their financing. We must build a true budgetary policy for the Union, which will require us to consider the question of sustainable revenues, which are not levies but own resources. The Union has not worked hard enough on this, and can no longer afford to overlook this issue.

For all these policies, as well as to meet the European public’s great thirst for democratic participation, we also need to reflect on possible reforms to the Union’s governance. For which policies do we want more Community involvement? Where is more intergovernmental action justified? And while we’re on the subject of democracy, how can we involve the public in the debate on enlargement, or rather in shaping the Union of tomorrow? We cannot allow the burden of the “failed” 2005 Convention to hold us back; we need to work with parliaments, with civil society, and invent the process that will enable us to move forward.

Europe cannot be built in chambers; it is by engaging citizens and parliaments that we will succeed, together, in building the new Union. A solid majority of French people now support Ukraine’s accession. But this proportion is waning. According to IFOP, 58% of French people supported membership in June 2023, compared with 63% in March 2022. Much of this is due to fears that are often unfounded or which go back to the previous enlargement. The fact remains, however, that we will have to respond to these fears.

Adopting the appropriate method to ensure that candidate countries succeed on the road to EU membership

Lastly, if enlargement is to be successful, there is the question of method. In the short term, we need to provide a coherent, balanced and credible response to the aspirations of candidate countries. For all of them, we need to encourage further reform and manage enlargement fatigue, particularly in the Western Balkans, by giving substance to the new accession methodology. The Commission’s proposals, set out in its Enlargement Package of November 8th, are a step in the right direction. In December, it will be a question of providing impetus to the process, encouraging countries to negotiate as well as to make the necessary policy changes.

A solid majority of French people now support Ukraine’s accession. But this proportion is waning.

Laurence Boone

I firmly believe that “gradual integration” is the right way to reward progress and encourage candidate countries to increase the pace of reform. This is a promising approach that needs to be put into practice, with clear conditionality for candidate countries as soon as possible.

These are the primary areas of work that I would emphasize with regard to enlargement of the European Union. Policy, governance, budget, and working methods all combine to produce unprecedented ambition for our Europe. It is also a unique opportunity to build a European Union worthy of its geopolitical ambitions.

In order to make this new undertaking a success, we will need the support of experts and the mobilization of civil society. The upcoming European elections in June are an opportunity we cannot afford to miss if we are to raise public awareness of this crucial issue.


  1. Read the Report “Sailing on High Seas: Reforming and Enlarging the EU for the 21st Century” in French and English
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Laurence Boone, The Forthcoming Enlargement, or The European Revolution In The Making, Dec 2023,

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