In her annual address on the state of the European Union, Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has given her strongest signal yet of the intention to add Ukraine and other nations as member states. Her speech was the latest sign that Brussels is thinking completely differently about EU enlargement since the start of the war in Ukraine.
The way in which von der Leyen has changed her tone on the addition of new EU member states also reflects the shift away from emphasising only the economic or legal roles of the EU. Replicating the practices of more established democracies, the annual state of the union speeches, which began in 2010, have increasingly invoked notions of the EU as a state-like, federal entity.
In her first years as president of the Commission, von der Leyen said little in her annual speeches about adding new members. This reflected a certain accession fatigue that came following the admittance of a large number of eastern European states that ended up being the net beneficiaries of the EU budget after the 2007/2008 economic crash.
There was also reticence about renegotiating the Lisbon Treaty, which forms the constitutional basis of the EU. That would be a protracted and politically difficult process requiring unanimity among member states. Such a change might be necessary to bring in new member states.
Von der Leyen signalled her “strong commitment” to adding new members in the past but this only pertained to the potential membership of Albania and North Macedonia. And she certainly did not frame this commitment as paramount to European democracy or unity. Nor was there any explicit reference to the accession of post-Soviet states.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 brought a change. That same year, von der Leyen spoke of the conflict as a showdown between “autocracy and democracy”. She explicitly stated that the western Balkans, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are “part of our family” and that their “future is in our union”.
Even then, however, the emphasis was on economic support and access to the single market and its perks, such as EU roaming. This is in line with the policies and rhetoric of most EU leaders through the 2010s, many of whom advocated for a multi-speed EU and promised these countries everything but EU membership.
A geopolitical union
Now, in 2023, even further change is afoot. Von der Leyen is overtly presenting the EU as a geopolitical union that will take a proactive approach to adding new members rather than allowing debates to rattle on without direction.
The “merit-based” principle of EU accession will continue to apply but there is a key shift in perspective. Von der Leyen is now positioning further enlargement as a “catalyst for success” for the EU itself, rather than focusing on the benefit it brings to new member states. She now envisions a “union complete with over 500 million people living in a free, democratic and prosperous” EU.
Von der Leyen has a long-term ambition to move away from the idea that bringing in more member states must come at a cost to the depth of integration between nations. In this year’s state of the union she drew parallels to the 2004 big boom enlargement, which brought in 10 new member states at once, including Poland and Slovenia.
She reminded her audience that this had been called the “European Day of Welcome” and called on them to look ahead to the next set of of such days. She even insisted that the bloc cannot afford to wait for EU treaty change to become a “team” of more than 30 nations, urging her audience to think about how enlargement can be achieved without this lengthy process being fully completed.
Signalling Europe’s readiness to “once again think big and write our own destiny”, she introduced a “series of pre-enlargement policy reviews” – a significant shift from previous practice.
It is also worth noting how this discussion is now playing out in far more emotional terms than it has in the past. This was perhaps most apparent in von der Leyen’s articulation of her vision itself but was evident in the run up to her speech, which saw much excitement build around what she might have to say on enlargement.
In May 2023, she had talked of the EU taking “responsibility to bring the aspiring members … closer”. And now, in September, she invoked the personal story of Victoria Amelina, a Ukrainian author killed in an airstrike. This highly charged moment created a sense of European ethos and became the zenith of her speech, triggering a standing ovation by members of the European Parliament.
A sea change
The war in Ukraine has prompted a re-evaluation of von der Leyen’s original approach to EU enlargement. During the course of 2022, Ukraine, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Moldova have all become EU candidates, and negotiations about accession began with Albania and North Macedonia at a pace that was unimaginable prior to the outbreak of the conflict.
This year’s state of the union is another significant step in this respect. It was the first to frame Ukraine as a genuine candidate country for membership. Enlargement is no longer framed as a secondary, distant and primarily economic objective but an urgent political act of justice and solidarity and a necessary step to restore the security of the EU and even that of Europe more broadly.
Others have made moves to present the EU as a political rather than economic union in the past but have met with limited success. Von der Leyen’s words on the “call of history” to expand the EU due to geopolitical imperatives were met this time with applause rather than scepticism.
After years of effective hiatus, enlargement policy is back on the EU’s agenda. The addition of new member states is no longer a distant dream but a salient and current aspiration.