The leak on the fifth floor, the noises from the second, or the complaints from the fourth. There are many complications that come with living in a residential block, including the integration of new members. Following the elections next June, the MEPs, the members of the Council, and the European Commission, who would be the administrators of this community, will have five years to reform the rules and ensure the governability of a potential European Union with 36 members.
The future expansion, which includes candidates such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and the Western Balkan, is undoubtedly one of the main political, economic, and social challenges that the European Union will face in the coming years. Due to its size, Ukraine’s entry would have the most significant impact.
It’s clear to everyone that this country, in addition to being at war with Russia, faces dire economic difficulties. Does this mean that its accession to the EU would be negative for the other EU members? The reality is that Ukraine’s economic strengths should not be underestimated. Its agricultural sector is one of the world’s largest grain exporters, which paradoxically constitutes one of the main hurdles for its integration into the EU. Furthermore, its population is well-educated in areas such as engineering and computer science, leading to up to 45 percent of Ukraine’s service exports being in ITC. The EU’s share of ITC over its service exports does not even reach 17 percent.
Wealth in natural resources is also crucial. Ukraine’s reserves would allow Europe to reduce its dependence on China for critical raw materials, especially titanium and tungsten (see Figure 3 of this paper if you want to get a sense of Europe’s dependency on China in some critical raw materials). Its arrival would also strengthen gas storage capabilities. The assurance of gas supply this winter is primarily due to Europe’s utilisation of Ukraine’s gas storage capacity. Access to this infrastructure, facilitated by its government, is another step of Ukraine’s integration into the European energy market and promotes the stabilisation of gas prices for Europe.
Alongside the single market and the monetary union, the successive enlargements of the Union constitute one of its most successful policies. It’s true that welcoming a new member, with its distinct economic and social realities, and in this case with the added difficulty of being a country at war, is a test of significant magnitude. Despite this, the EU has overcome similar challenges in the past. In 1986, the year Spain joined the EU, the Spanish economy accounted for 8 percent of the European Economic Community’s GDP, and nearly 13 percent of its population. Currently, Ukraine’s economic weight is close to 1 percent of the EU’s GDP, and its population represents 9 percent.
Analysis comparing Ukraine’s current economy and demography with the one from the Central and Eastern European Countries when they entered the EU offers a similar conclusion. From an economic standpoint, the challenge of Ukraine’s membership isn’t one that the EU has not already confronted and overcome.
A new enlargement will require adapting some of the EU’s rules before the arrival of new countries, such as expanding policies approved by qualified majority voting, including foreign and defence, and reforms of the common agricultural and cohesion policies. These are not easy reforms to undertake. Nor are the ones that candidate countries are implementing to meet the requirements that every future member state must fulfil.
It’s important to keep in mind that, in both cases, the benefits for European citizens, members or potential members of the EU, are tangible: faster economic growth, deeper social integration, and elevated democratic standards. Once part of the Union, candidate countries will have access to the single market and will benefit from public and private investments, with which they could accelerate their economic convergence towards levels of welfare similar to the European average.
Living together among neighbours is complex, and reaching agreements is difficult, but achieving this generates economic wealth and political strength. In the past, the European Union has successfully integrated countries that now form an integral part of this unique community and without which it would be much weaker. Let’s build an EU capable of attracting, growing, and improving with new members.
This blog post is largely based on an article published in El País on the 21st of January 2023 with Isabel Pérez del Puerto. The original article can be found here