8 November, 2023
The 2023 EU Enlargement Package: Implications for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia
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Today, the European Commission (EC) published its annual enlargement package, which includes evaluations of the progress of all countries aspiring for EU membership. The EC recommended that EU Member States proceed to the next stage in their path towards the EU by opening accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, which were granted candidate status in June 2022. Additionally, the EC recommended that Georgia, which was not granted candidate status last summer but instead a “membership perspective,” be given candidate status. The next vital question is whether the European Council in December will follow the EC’s recommendations.
Hugo von Essen
The EC’s assessment reflects the excellent progress Ukraine and Moldova have made in addressing their respective steps (7 for Ukraine and 9 for Moldova) as a presumed condition for proceeding to this next phase. Opening accession negotiations is a fundamental milestone in their long journey towards EU membership, which started with their Association Agreements in 2014. It also represents a major confirmation and key political signal from the EU to the Ukrainian and Moldovan governments, civil societies, and populations that their countries are moving in the right direction and that their tough reform struggles are being rewarded. None of this would have happened without Ukraine’s ongoing defence of Europe.
However, the real challenges lie ahead in the many years to come, for the opening of accession negotiations is merely the beginning of a long and difficult political process that will require much of the EU and even more of Ukraine and Moldova. Whether the enlargement process and even the EU itself will look the same once we reach the other side is a related but an even more complicated question.
With the EC recommendation, along with strong and continued EU unity and resolve on supporting Ukraine (and thereby also Moldova) and an increasing sense in EU capitals of the geopolitical urgency and stakes of successful enlargement, the most likely outcome is that the European Council in December will follow the EC’s recommendation.
The European Commission’s decision to recommend that Georgia be granted candidate status reflects their adequate progress on the twelve priorities to be implemented before they are granted candidate status, as well as the will of the overwhelming majority of the Georgian public who are in support of the country’s EU accession. The decision serves perhaps most prominently as a signal to the Georgian public that their dream of membership in the EU is being listened to, among fears that Georgia is experiencing democratic backsliding and that further delay in the EU-accession process would cause fatigue and disillusionment in the accession process.
In EU debates leading up to the decision, a sense of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” has been a defining factor: a decision to grant Georgia candidate status might reduce the urgency to implement reforms and reward the ruling party for inadequate reform efforts and increasingly Eurosceptic rhetoric; a decision to not grant Georgia candidate status might cause them to turn further away from the EU (and towards Russia).
The candidate country status is granted on the understanding that several steps are taken, among them steps to alleviate political polarization, fight disinformation and foreign information manipulation, improve their current action plan for de-oligarchisation, and, notably, guarantee free and fair parliamentary elections in 2024. These steps are needed to ensure that the democratic backsliding in Georgia is halted and that what will be a long and painful political process to secure Georgia’s European and democratic future, is started.