The pros and cons of EU expansion

The bloc has come under pressure to begin admitting new members by 2030

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There are major concerns over the EU's capacity to integrate new members in its current guise
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The European Union requires significant reforms to a number of its institutions and policies before it is able to accept new member states, a report jointly authored by France and Germany has said.

Twelve experts from the two leading member states said "tighter rules on rule of law, new voting procedures in the European Council, and a bigger EU budget" may all be necessary if it is to expand significantly, said Euronews. The report comes as the debate around EU expansion "intensifies", with the bloc under pressure to begin admitting new members by 2030.

There are major concerns over the EU's "capacity to integrate" new members in its current guise, said Euronews, and reforms need to be made to ensure decisions can be made "swiftly and effectively" with more members.

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Here are the key pros and cons of European Union enlargement.

Pro: strengthens defences

The "potential wave of expansion" could help the EU and its member countries "stand up to" Vladimir Putin, said French Europe Minister Laurence Boone at Politico. Potential new members including Ukraine, Moldova and other Western Balkan countries are "prime targets" for Russian "influence campaigns" that work to "weaken support" for the bloc and stop these states from joining.

EU membership would also "build resilient and sustainable societies in the region", wrote Finland's minister for foreign affairs Pekka Haavisto at Euractiv. Some candidate members have already "fully aligned themselves with EU's sanctions against Russia", which sends a "clear message" against Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Con: drawn-out process

Although the EU is often quick to hand out candidate status to potential members, this "should not distract" from the fact becoming a member "usually takes around a decade", Félix Krawatzek, senior researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies, said at Carnegie Europe.

The EU's current relationship with the Western Balkans is "characterised by broken promises, inertia, and stalemate", added John O’Brennan, professor and Jean Monnet Chair of European Integration at Maynooth University. It creates an "increasing mistrust" between the EU and "outsiders", and at the moment there is no "incentive for implementing the reforms" mandated by the EU to candidate nations as they do not believe "this will be rewarded with progress in their accession".

The "interfering" of member nations has become the biggest obstacle, he added, and EU members need to be "serious about the process" of enlargement and "lead rather than obstruct" accessions.

Pro: economic growth

The journey to a larger EU will "take time", but every expansion thus far has "been beneficial and led to economic growth and enhanced welfare for the whole union", wrote Cecilia Malmström at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The "initial cost" will be high, she added, and the "EU budget must be reformed" before enlargement goes ahead, but the prospect of "political stability and a stronger democracy" in the candidate countries will "benefit the whole continent". 

The road to reach that point will be "long and bumpy", Malmström wrote, "but it is absolutely necessary to take it".

Con: members unrest

The addition of prospective new member states and their respective economic strengths and weaknesses is already causing discontent among some EU members. The bloc has had ongoing struggles with Poland and Hungary's concerning "attitude towards the domestic rule of law, including fair elections and an independent judiciary", said Alan Beattie in the Financial Times. Their "antics" have "shaken the traditional belief" that a path to liberal democracy is a given with EU membership, he added.

The two member states, along with Slovakia, have since "blatantly" disregarded "EU single market and external trade commitments" in their blocking of Ukraine's grain exports into the bloc, a benefit of Ukraine's candidate status. Poland, Hungary and Slovakia argue it is in order to protect "worried farmers", but it remains the "biggest challenge to the EU's credibility in decades" which has lacked a "coherent and rule-bound response".

Pro: speed up decisions

On a variety of matters, from foreign policy to taxes, the EU currently "requires unanimous decisions" from all 27 member states – something that has been accused of "substantially slowing or even blocking the EU's development" in recent years, said Reuters.

A further expansion from 2030 would require unanimous decision-making to be dropped, the report from France and Germany suggested, with decisions made "by a qualified majority" on all matters. This would undoubtedly speed up the development of policies, however, a sticking point remains the "long and difficult process" to change the rule, which itself would "require unanimity".

Con: constitutional issues

An expansion in the near future is almost certainly going to require reforms and treaty changes. In "convening a constitutional convention", as had been suggested by the European Commission and Parliament if more members join, the EU is taking on a "high-risk strategy", wrote Michael Leigh of Johns Hopkins University at GIS Reports Online.

Treaty changes would "provide opportunities for eurosceptic leaders to make demands", he said, in turn weakening the EU by "transferring powers to the national level" on issues such as "law, migration and human rights". Some changes would "require referendums in some countries" and those would inevitably be "fought on domestic issues". If changes are rejected by a cluster of member states, it could end up leaving the EU in a "constitutional crisis".

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