Will the EU get new members soon? Here’s what you need to know.

It was never the intention to stay twenty-seven forever. On Wednesday, the European Commission recommended that the EU Council open talks with Ukraine to join the European Union, which is currently three shy of thirty members. Might Moldova and Georgia, which also saw their long-running bids to join the EU boosted by the Commission, join with Ukraine to make up the difference? And what about the several Western Balkans countries that now appear stalled in their decades-long efforts to join? Below, Atlantic Council experts answer important questions about where EU enlargement stands now.

1. What did the European Commission recommend and what effect will it have?

Politically and symbolically, Wednesday’s European Commission recommendations are major milestones for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. But the path to full EU membership for all three countries remains a long and laborious one. The call for the opening of accession talks with Kyiv and Chisinau, as well as candidacy status for Tbilisi, are conditional upon fulfillment of further rule of law and anti-corruption measures. That is in line with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s tightrope walk on expectations management in recent months. Von der Leyen has sought to provide Kyiv in particular with a real EU perspective while stressing that the enlargement process will remain merit-based—both to maintain leverage in the process and to assuage concerns among EU members. 

Jörn Fleck is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.

2. What are the next steps for the EU?

The Commission’s recommendations shared on Wednesday are a key step, albeit one that is quite early in the accession process, toward these countries’ EU ambitions. But these recommendations do not, themselves, start negotiations. That can only happen once EU member states vote (unanimously) on the Commission’s suggestions at the European Council meeting this December. The vote is expected to pass as the Council traditionally follows the recommendation of the Commission, but before a unanimous “yes” there will likely be robust debate about the budgetary reform and the common agriculture policy reform that will largely define the way that enlargement will work.

Once aspiring new members receive unanimous support to be given candidate status (Georgia) and then to open accession negotiations (Ukraine, Moldova, and Bosnia and Herzegovina), the real work begins. Once a negotiating framework is established, aspiring members work through more than thirty negotiating chapters organized into six thematic clusters to prepare countries to implement EU laws and standards (acquis). And, again, member states must agree unanimously that all requirements have been met. Only then can there be the final round of Commission recommendations, member state votes, and European Parliament sign-off that precedes the ratification of an accession treaty which finalizes the process.

Needless to say, the process is long and technical. And a recurring complicating factor is the need for unanimous member state approval at numerous intervals throughout. With European Parliament elections coming up in June 2024, and a number of national elections in the same time period, the composition of the Parliament, and the priorities of member states toward enlargement (and, relatedly, EU reform) may shift significantly during the same timeframe these aspiring members are working through negotiations.

Despite a consensus in Brussels that enlargement has significant geopolitical momentum, the historic scope of this ten-country enlargement package will necessitate EU reform negotiations to happen in parallel, and it is not yet clear how these reforms will shake out.

Lisa Homel is an assistant director of the Europe Center.

3. What does this mean for Ukraine?

The European Commission’s recommendation that the bloc open accession talks with Ukraine is a significant step toward the country’s eventual membership. Russia initially attacked Ukraine in 2014 in part because Ukrainians wanted closer ties with Brussels, rather than Moscow, which rankled Russia President Vladimir Putin’s imperial view of Ukraine as “Little Russia.” Kyiv’s dogged determination to continue its Euro-Atlantic trajectory in the face of Russia’s full-scale invasion is impressive and was repeatedly noted in the Commission’s recommendation report card.

Indeed, Ukraine’s post-2014 reforms have helped the country fight back more effectively against Russia and helped push the country further down the path toward EU membership. Decentralization reform, privatization initiatives, digitalization of state services, and improved anti-corruption efforts have all made Ukrainian society more resilient and brought the country more in line with EU standards.

Yet Kyiv still has many ways it can improve its case for EU accession. As the Commission noted, Ukraine still needs to implement comprehensive judicial reform to root out shady judges and improve oversight. Ukraine’s anti-corruption authorities have made strides in combating graft, but they need to be truly independent to fully uphold their mandates. Both of these will make the Ukrainian economy more competitive and resilient and improve its attractiveness to foreign investors, all of which are key to mitigating some of the structural deficiencies the Commission noted in its report. 

The recommendation for opening accession talks with Ukraine is a win for Kyiv and for its partners that want to see the country defeat Russia and formalize its integration with the European Union.

Andrew D’Anieri is a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.

The start of accession negotiations—if approved by the twenty-seven EU leaders in December—is a major step for Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has clearly infused the EU enlargement process with some much-needed geopolitical meaning and urgency. Combined, the geopolitical moment and Kyiv’s impressive progress on domestic reforms while fighting a war have led to a promising change in Ukraine’s accession prospects over the long term. 

But the transformations required on both sides—within the EU and for Ukraine—are too complex to allow for any more fast-tracking in the process. Ukrainian policymakers will have to sustain ambition and public support in the demanding process of aligning with EU standards. This ranges from judicial and public sector changes to deep economic, tax, and budgetary reforms across more than thirty so-called chapters, organized into six thematic clusters. Meanwhile, the EU and its member states will have to not only navigate contentious reforms of some of the pillars of the union but also find creative ways to offer Ukraine some quick wins and visible progress to maintain momentum for reforms on the path to full membership.

—Jörn Fleck

4. Where does this leave Moldova and Georgia?

The Commission’s recommendation to open accession talks with Moldova is another notch in President Maia Sandu’s sterling record of furthering her country’s aspirations for European integration. Chisinau and Kyiv are now in very similar places on their EU accession path, having made significant progress since gaining candidate status in July 2022 but with discrete reform priorities left to fulfill in the coming months. For Moldova, that means taking comprehensive measures to clean up its judicial system, continue to fight the oligarchs that preside over an entrenched system of high-level graft and organized crime, and make further progress on strengthening the country’s democracy and human rights protections. The stakes are high: Fugitive oligarch Ilan Shor and pro-Russian cadres reportedly met with Kremlin officials in Istanbul immediately after the Commission’s decision, as Moscow-oriented opposition parties in Moldova prepare to challenge Sandu in next fall’s presidential election.

The European Commission’s recommendation of candidate status for Georgia comes roughly eighteen months after Moldova and Ukraine officially became EU candidates. Tbilisi has fallen behind Chisinau and Kyiv on the path to EU membership largely because it can’t seem to get out of its own way. The ruling Georgian Dream party, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, has poisoned the country’s politics over the past several years by consolidating power, harassing civil society leaders, and playing footsie with Moscow while Russia continues to occupy 20 percent of the country’s territory and is conducting a major war of aggression against Ukraine. These policies have deeply polarized Georgia. Even so, 83 percent of Georgians want to join the EU, which the Commission noted in its report, but they are held hostage by political infighting in the capital and the government’s counterproductive policies.

Andrew D’Anieri 

5. What about Western Balkans countries?

The Commission report paints a mixed picture for the countries of the Western Balkans, some of which have been in the EU’s anteroom for two decades. Frustration among some in the region that Ukraine appears to have been fast-tracked by the EU for political reasons compares with Commission assessments of modest progress in reforms, at best, even among the most forward-leaning countries. If Albania and North Macedonia meet further EU demands and previous commitments, the Commission suggests opening negotiations on the first cluster of so-called “fundamentals” relating to public sector, judicial, and fundamental rights reforms. Self-proclaimed accession frontrunner Montenegro and the surprise winner of candidacy status last year, Bosnia and Herzegovina, have been left largely empty-handed after what Brussels considers limited progress.     

—Jörn Fleck

Further reading

Related Experts: Jörn Fleck, Andrew D’Anieri, and Lisa Homel

Image: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks as she holds a press conference with European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi in Brussels, Belgium November 8, 2023. REUTERS/Yves Herman