European Western Balkans

Policy Brief: EU should provide proposals to convert support for enlargement among citizens into concrete policies

EP building in Brussels; Photo: European Parliament

VIENNA – It is the right time for decision-makers in Brussels to embark on a bold reform of EU enlargement policy in order to put this policy on a more effective and sustainable path, recommends Policy Brief titled “From EU ‘enlargement fatigue’ to ‘enlargement enthusiasm’”, published within the WB2EU network.

The authors stress that Eurobarometer trends show a ‘critical juncture’ in EU enlargement policy and have registered an unprecedentedly high number of EU citizens in favor of new EU enlargements.

“The long-term unfavorable trends toward the admission of new members have been reversed, with EU citizens in favor today being greater than those against. In the same fashion, as the 2004 enlargement was framed through the identity argument for the purpose of reuniting Europe after the end of the Cold War, the current war in Ukraine has changed the public’s perspective towards the Balkans and the Eastern Neighborhood countries, which are recognized as ‘one of us’ by the international European community”, Policy Brief states.

According to the Policy Brief, keeping public opinion in mind is of utmost importance, since mass attitudes, through their influence on political behavior, do play a crucial role in influencing EU enlargement policy.

The authors stress that understanding the links between public opinion and EU enlargement, as well as reforms in the EU more generally, is indispensable for assessing the EU integration capacity.

“Past experiences suggest that opinions on EU enlargement, both among the general public and political elites, are quite volatile and that the current consensus over enlargement might erode rather quickly. Hence, this window of opportunity for reforms of EU enlargement policy might close soon if the opportunity is not utilized in the right way”, the authors recommend.

It is explained that EU enlargements were, for a long time, largely ignored by European public opinion. This lack of interest, authors perceive, is the causation of little knowledge among Europeans about EC/EU policymaking in general and enlargement policy in particular, as well as, a lack of understanding of the significance of the latter for the future of the EU as a political system.

“At the same time, EU citizens have been marginally involved in public discussions about enlargement, while the admission of new members has never been subject to referenda in the EU member states – something that might have reduced public interest in the issue in comparison to other themes connected with EU integration and directly subjected to national campaigns”, the authors write.

They assess that the return of war in Europe and the ensuing membership applications by Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Kosovo represent dramatic turning points in recent European history, which has put the spotlight on EU enlargement policy as a key tool to pursue peace, democracy, and prosperity across Europe.

“The fact that the European political elites affirmatively replied to third countries’ demands for integration proves a positive momentum and new dynamism in this policy. Indeed, the European Council almost immediately granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova in June 2022 and opened accession perspectives for Georgia. Soon after, it also opened accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia and then gave EU candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina in December 2022”, Policy Brief recall.

They stress that the central issue is, however, not simply to establish for how long this momentum could last.

“The crucial question here is about what type of enlargement policy might come out of war and which characteristics it ought to have in order to overcome the significant shortcomings that emerged in the EU accession of the Western Balkans so far, which have been on the path from post-conflict reconstruction to EU membership already for more than 20 years”, it is stated in a Policy Brief published within WB2EU network.

The authors conclude that the crucial issue now for the ‘European bureaucracy’ is to provide concrete proposals to convert this consensus among the general public and political elites into concrete policies that will provide more effective, suitable, and sustainable than those in the past.

The Policy Brief is published in the framework of the WB2EU project. The project aims at the establishment of a network of renowned think-tanks, do-tanks, universities, higher education institutes and policy centres from the Western Balkans, neighbouring countries and EU member states that will be most decisive for the enlargement process and Europeanisation of the region in the upcoming years. The WB2EU project is co-funded by the European Commission under its Erasmus+ Jean Monnet programme.


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