Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Union (EU) has, at an unprecedented pace, offered to open accession negotiations. Now, enlargement is primarily viewed as a tool to fulfil the EU’s geopolitical goals, rather than to promote democratic and human rights values. Although the geopolitical and values-based approaches to enlargement may be seen as dichotomy, Giselle Bosse argues that both factors can drive and impede enlargement. This article thoroughly examines the geopolitical and values-based dynamics that influenced the enlargement to central and eastern European countries between 2004 and 2013, as well as recent accession negotiations with the western Balkans, Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia.

Two decades after its enlargement to central and eastern Europe (CEE), and in response to Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, enlargement is back at the top of the EU’s political agenda. Not only has the EU reinvigorated the accession process for the six western Balkan countries (WB6), but it has also offered, with unprecedented speed, to open accession negotiations with Moldova and Ukraine and granted EU candidate country status to Georgia.

There is a widespread perception that the EU’s recent push towards enlargement is motivated predominantly by geopolitical concerns. These are broadly understood by the EU in its 2022 Strategic Compass in terms of the pursuit of its strategic interests in response to Russia’s actions, which “severely and directly threaten the European security order”. EU policymakers and analysts across the EU have framed enlargement as distinctly “geopolitical”, a way to respond to “geopolitical reality”, or a “geopolitical imperative”.

Enlargement is now seen primarily as a tool to achieve the EU’s geopolitical goals, rather than an instrument to promote or protect democratic standards and human rights for their own sake. Unsurprisingly, then, the premium placed on enlargement as a geopolitical imperative has raised concerns that the EU is going soft on democracy, human rights, and rule-of-law standards and that geopolitical enlargement comes at the expense of democracy in partner countries.

Dr. Giselle Bosse

Much of this debate derives from an assumption that the geopolitical and values-based logics in EU enlargement are inherently contradictory and that the EU’s pursuit of one logic necessarily comes at the expense of the other. Another implicit assumption is that the geopolitical logic is a push factor of enlargement, while a focus on democratic standards mostly relates to a slower, more cumbersome enlargement process. In other words, the emerging picture is of EU enlargement caught in a dilemma of competing geopolitical and values-based logics, or a geonormative paradox, which is hard to resolve.

In this Spotlight, I argue that the perceived tension between the geopolitical and normative approaches at the heart of EU enlargement policy is a crucial but not the only way to conceive of the relationship between geopolitics and values in EU enlargement over the past two decades. Geopolitics and values-based considerations can both drive and impede enlargement. Geopolitical dynamics can not only contradict but also give new impetus to the EU’s democracy support agenda. Rather than a paradox, geopolitical and values-based logics can best be understood as forming a continuum, which plays out differently across and within enlargement processes. Moreover, it is perhaps not geopolitics that poses the biggest risk to democratic transformation in the enlargement partner countries. Rather it is the domestic politics of EU member states that are most likely to derail the process.

Geopolitics and values in the EU’ ‘big bang’ CEE enlargement

At first sight, all of the EU’s enlargements after the end of the Cold War had a strong geopolitical dimension. Finland and Sweden, which joined the EU in 1995, aimed to firmly anchor their countries in the west. In a similar vein, the EU’s so-called big bang enlargement to a total of 11 countries in central and eastern Europe between 2004 and 2013 was geopolitical, as all of these countries shared the foreign policy objective of “returning to Europe” and integrating into the west’s security architecture to seek protection from Russia.

Existing EU member states, too, pushed for enlargement in the pursuit of geopolitical interests. Because of their close geographical proximity to CEE countries, Austria and Germany were highly supportive of enlargement, with an eye on stability in their immediate neighbourhood. For the same reason, Denmark and Sweden pushed for enlargement to the Baltic states, while Greece and Italy favoured the accession of Bulgaria and Romania.

Concerns over regional instability in CEE, namely declining support for political and economic reforms in CEE in 1992 and 1993, and the realisation that membership could help prevent nationalist conflicts of the kind seen following the break-up of former Yugoslavia, are seen as key factors that helped nudge those member states still skeptical of enlargement to eventually support it at the 1993 Copenhagen Council. The 1999 Kosovo war in particular led the then EU15 to agree on opening accession negotiations with all ten, instead of the initial five, CEE candidates.

Yet, geopolitical considerations did not always square up in favour of enlargement. The French government was initially against expansion because it suspected that it would increase Germany’s power economically and politically, as CEE countries could side with Germany in EU decision-making. Southern EU member states feared that attention would shift from the Mediterranean to the eastern neighbourhood. Another concern was that CEE countries were likely to push for a harder stance against Russia and jeopardise the existing member states’ goal of strengthening economic and political relations with Moscow.

For that reason, many analyses have underlined that CEE enlargement cannot be explained sufficiently by the national security and economic preferences of the EU’s 15 pre-2004 members. Instead, values and norms are seen as important determinants of CEE enlargement, because applicant states were European and adhered to the EU’s liberal-democratic foundations. From this perspective, democratic values are always an integral part of enlargement because of the EU’s self-perceived identity and because they are vital to the EU’s legitimacy as an international actor. In summary, CEE enlargement was as much driven by geopolitics as it was motivated by values-based considerations, and in this particular case, normative considerations played an important role in overcoming the geopolitical concerns of some member states against CEE enlargement.

As with EU enlargement today, the CEEs’ accession was also criticised for proceeding too quickly. Initially, the European Commission had recommended pursuing accession with five CEE countries but delaying negotiations with Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia until their political and economic transitions were further advanced. In 1997, however, the EU decided to open negotiations with all ten countries, mostly with an eye on continued conflict in the western Balkans and stability in south-east Europe as a whole.

There was also criticism of member states’ blindness towards remaining democratic deficits in CEE countries shortly before their accession. For example, while the European Commission underlined in 2003 that corruption would still require a sustained effort by the acceding countries in the coming years, the member states nevertheless concluded that all countries would be ready for membership from the beginning of 2004. This was well-founded, justified criticism. Yet, evidence clearly suggests that the CEE countries have significantly improved their democracy and rule-of-law standards over the past 20 years.

In practice, geopolitical enlargement has also led to the introduction of several new measures to support and protect democracy in the EU’s enlargement and foreign policies and within the EU. For example, the 1993 European Council meeting in Copenhagen codified the conditions of accession and the requirement for candidate countries to have stable institutions that guarantee democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Since then, the so-called Copenhagen criteria have become a central part of the commission’s assessment of candidate countries’ progress.

In terms of EU foreign policy, the geopolitically motivated decision by the EU to conclude Association Agreements with Bulgaria and Romania in 1993 prompted the member states to include a novel human rights clause to allow them to retain leverage to encourage political reforms. Since then, all agreements between the EU and third countries have contained a clause that allows the union to suspend the accords if human rights and democratic principles are not respected.

Within the EU, concerns over CEE countries’ continued adherence to fundamental democratic values after accession led to the inclusion of normative principles in the Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties. These stated that the EU would respect fundamental rights and established the commitment to democratic principles and human rights as a core characteristic of the EU. Likewise, the EU’s geopolitically motivated enlargement to Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 led to the instalment of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism to monitor new member states’ adherence to democracy and human rights standards after their accession.

These examples show that geopolitical enlargement does not always contradict or constrain EU democracy support but can also lead to the introduction of new provisions and instruments to strengthen it.

The EU and the western Balkans: Few geopolitical or normative imperatives

Unlike the EU’s relatively swift enlargement to the CEE countries, the enlargement process to the western Balkans lacked political momentum and efficacy up until the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, resulting in the entrenchment of autocratic tendencies in the region. Domestic developments and a lack of political will in the six countries were significant factors in stalling the process, but so too were the EU’s policies, which lacked both a sense of geopolitical urgency and strong normative motivations to push forward enlargement.

Geopolitical considerations certainly played an important role in the EU’s relations with the western Balkans and were primarily related to EU efforts at peace building and fostering stability in the region. Yet, these moves largely ran counter not only to the EU’s democracy support efforts in the western Balkans but also to the enlargement process as such. Many analysts have pointed out that the EU has predominantly linked progress in the accession process to compliance with the conditions associated with peace building.

North Macedonia, for example, was granted EU candidate country status in 2005 as a reward for the peaceful resolution of interethnic conflict in the country. EU relations with Kosovo and Serbia were upgraded in 2012 after Serbia fulfilled the conditions of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, including the arrest and extradition of former leaders charged with war crimes, and the first agreement was concluded between the two countries.

The focus on stability also led the EU to prioritise state and institution building, such as through several Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions, which were framed as part of the accession process. The EU’s leader-oriented approach, however, resulted in support for so-called stabilitocracies rather than democratic development. The EU also did little, in practice, to call out or act on democratic backsliding across the region, for instance in Albania and Serbia, and engaged with political leaders rather than civil society, for example in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the EU-facilitated dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia.

The EU’s engagement with the western Balkans can therefore be seen as geopolitical with its focus on stability, which occasionally led to rewards in the accession process, but the geopolitics of stability did not result in any significant push towards enlargement. The values and norms of the European liberal community did not play a noticeable role in the EU’s relations with the western Balkan countries. Some analysts have shown that identity convergence between the EU and Croatia gave the country a significant advantage over other states in the region, but Croatia’s advanced position can also be explained by the fact that the country had fewer internal and external security issues than other countries in the region.

In the late 2010s, however, EU member states became increasingly concerned about democratic backsliding in the region, not necessarily because of normative considerations but because backsliding started to pose a risk to stability. As a response, the EU took measures to significantly strengthen political conditionality in the accession process. Ahead of Croatia’s accession, the European Commission developed a new modus operandi that placed the rule of law and democratic governance at the heart of the accession process. Negotiation were opened and closed with the chapters on fundamental rights, justice, freedom and security, pre-accession screening was intensified and monitored through interim benchmarks and implementation track records.

In 2020, the EU adopted a new enlargement methodology that strengthened the EU’s conditionality by emphasising the so-called fundamentals of the judiciary, fundamental rights, justice, freedom, and security (chapters 23 and 24). The EU also introduced new incentives, such as a phased approach to participation in EU individual policies and increased funding, as well as the principle of reversibility, which allowed negotiations to be put on hold or even suspended and closed chapters to be reopened in case of non-compliance with the accession criteria.

These developments were partly the result of a growing recognition among member states of enlargement as an important geopolitical tool to counter other actors’ increasing influence in the region. The European Commission stressed in 2020 that actors such as Russia, China, and Turkey had “heightened geopolitical competition”.

Still, member states remained deeply divided over further enlargement to the western Balkans. Despite the European Commission’s recommendation in 2019 to open accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, for example, France vetoed the move with both states, while Denmark and the Netherlands were against opening talks with Albania. This episode demonstrated that many member states prioritised domestic concerns over common geopolitical considerations or any normative imperative on fostering democracy in the the western Balkan countries, which brought uncertainty and delays into the enlargement process.

These problems were exacerbated by the introduction of intermediate veto points for member states at all stages of the accession negotiations. In practice, this allowed members to block progress because of bilateral issues that were unrelated to the accession criteria. A lack of common understanding among member states of reform progress and the overly technocratic character of EU support for democratic reforms only added to the uncertainty and delays.

In summary, both strong geopolitical interests and normative considerations related to the EU’s liberal-democratic identity were largely absent from the EU’s relations with the western Balkan countries before 2022. The EU’s geopolitics of stability often contradicted democratisation efforts, but when democratic backsliding became recognised as a source of instability in itself, the EU considerably strengthened political conditionality in the accession process. Yet, member states’ lack of strategic or normative vision meant that neither democratic reforms nor peace- and stability-building efforts would guarantee the western Balkan countries’ progress towards accession, thereby undermining the rationale of EU enlargement.

The reinvigoration of EU enlargement: The security-values nexus in a new context

There is a large consensus among analysts that the EU member states’ decisions since 2022 to grant candidate country status and then to open accession negotiations with Moldova and Ukraine were motivated by geopolitical concerns, as were the decisions to grant candidate country status to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Georgia and to launch accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is seen to have triggered the EU’s geopolitical awakening, with enlargement as a geopolitical necessity to respond to the Russian miliary threat to the European security order. Yet, there is some controversy over whether the EU has indeed become a geopolitical actor and what kind of geopolitics the EU is or should be pursuing.

There is ample evidence to suggest that the member states, with the notable exception of Hungary, found consensus on opening accession negotiations with Moldova and Ukraine based on geopolitical imperatives. At the same time, a compelling case can be made about the role of normative considerations in the EU’s unprecedented and unexpected decisions, based on solidarity, identity, and moral obligations towards fellow Europeans. This suggests that both geopolitical and normative factors have been driving the EU’s recent enlargement decisions, including inducing new political momentum to enlargement towards the western Balkan countries.

In its 2023 enlargement package, the European Commission provided a detailed assessment of the progress made by the three eastern European countries and the western Balkan countries. The commission noted Moldova’s and Ukraine’s progress on meeting the steps of the commission’s opinions on the two countries’ EU membership applications. The commission also noted that Georgia had taken steps to strengthen engagement with the EU and increased the pace of reform in recent months.

As for the WB6, the commission reported progress in most countries, including Serbia, which continued to implement EU accession–related reforms, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose new government had started to deliver on reforms. The commission noted that enlargement was a “geostrategic investment” and a “powerful tool to promote democracy, the rule of law and respect for fundamental values” and underlined that enlargement would “remain a merit-based process fully dependent on the objective progress achieved by each enlargement partner”. The so-called fundamentals, including the independence and functioning of the judiciary and fundamental rights, were defined as “cornerstones of the enlargement policy”.

This suggests that at least in theory, the EU has no intention of speeding up the enlargement process at the cost of democratic transformation. And indeed, there is widespread recognition that Russia’s war has not derailed democratic standards in Moldova or Ukraine. Yet, civil society has overall been less positive than the commission about democratic reform progress in the partner countries. Examples highlighted by non-governmental organisations include the need for additional reforms of Ukraine’s court system and the necessity to address blind spots in the EU’s monitoring of Moldova’s systemic problems in the areas of public administration, gender equality, and civil society consultation.

In Albania and North Macedonia, reforms have come to a standstill because of institutional corruption and a lack of the rule of law. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, in particular, media freedom has been in overall decline since the country was granted candidate status. And in Serbia, an international election observation mission found the December 2023 parliamentary election to have been marred by irregularities and “unjust conditions”.

The EU has partly acknowledged such signs of democratic backsliding over the past year. But it has not imposed any tangible sanctions, such as withholding financial assistance, or upheld the reversibility of negotiations. And in most instances, the EU has not publicly called out the political elites responsible for backsliding for fear of pushing the WB6, in particular, closer to Russia. Understandably, this has led to worries that the EU could, for geopolitical reasons, rush the accession screening of Moldova and Ukraine and continue the status quo of prioritising stability over democratisation in the WB6.

Indeed, some of these concerns appear to have been confirmed. While the screening process normally takes between one and two years, the screening for Moldova and Ukraine took less than three months. And the commission’s assessment of progress made by the two countries has been less critical than the assessments of leading civil society organisations.

The commission put forward proposals for draft negotiation frameworks for Moldova and Ukraine to the EU Council in March 2024. By early May, the council had still not adopted the frameworks, which require unanimity among the member states. It is clear, however, that the frameworks are based on the EU’s revised enlargement methodology and therefore emphasise that the overall pace of talks will depend on the two countries’ implementation of the fundamentals. With this, the EU has clearly chosen ‘gradual integration’ over a geopolical ‘accession through war’ approach.

Recent developments in EU enlargement to Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and the WB6 therefore suggest that geopolitical considerations have led to an accelerated process in terms of shorter timeframes for granting candidate country status, concluding screening, and opening negotiations. And there is also evidence that the EU assessed the partner countries’ progress towards accession more favourably for geopolitical reasons.

Yet, it is too early to draw conclusions on how geopolitical considerations will impact the accession negotiations or relations with the partners more broadly in the medium and longer term. The revised enlargement methodology should, in theory, guarantee that the rule of law and fundamental rights are put at the centre of the negotiations, and it provides the EU with the tools to exercise positive and negative conditionality. In the WB6, the EU appears to have shied away from negative conditionality in the past year, sending mixed signals for the enlargement trajectory as a whole. At the same time, geopolitical imperatives have ensured a political momentum to enlargement, which has long been absent from the process.

Conclusion: Beyond the EU’s geonormative paradox

While the perceived tension between geopolitical and normative logics in EU enlargement policy is one essential way to depict the relationship between geopolitics and values in EU enlargement, it is not the only interpretation. The EU’s enlargement to the CEE countries was strongly motivated by both geopolitical and normative considerations, and to offset the negative consequences of some geopolitical choices, the EU created new instruments and mechanisms to monitor and enforce democratic reforms. In the case of the WB6, the EU further expanded its democracy support toolbox as part of its revised enlargement methodology.

Yet, the enlargement process stalled partly because the EU prioritised stability over democracy support. Aside from partner countries’ slow progress in reforming, it was the lack of geopolitical and normative motivations among member states that delayed enlargement, leading political elites and populations in the WB6 to no longer regard EU membership as a realistic prospect. Meanwhile, geopolitics and values-based considerations have driven the EU’s unprecedented move to offer a membership prospect to Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, and geopolitical motives have helped reinvigorate enlargement to the WB6. While there is some evidence to suggest that geopolitics has come at the cost of a focus on democratic developments, it appears too early to declare the failure of the EU’s new enlargement methodology before accession negotiations have even started.

With this in mind, one may perhaps question whether the geonormative paradox – the dichotomy between geopolitical and values-based approaches to enlargement – is indeed the most pertinent problem. The case of the WB6 has shown that member states’ domestic politics, rather than geopolitics, have been a major cause of the derailment of enlargement, creating uncertainty for transition processes and causing instability.

Arguably, the same domestic politics now pose a major risk to current enlargement. All council decisions during the process require unanimity and therefore provide member states with the option to veto proceedings at any time, even for reasons not related to the countries’ reform efforts. In the past, the member states have done just that: Greece and Bulgaria vetoed North-Macedonia’s accession negotiations due to domestic politics, Hungary has already built a track-record in vetoing EU support for Ukraine, and the recent delay in the council’s decision to adopt the negotiation frameworks due to the EU’s parliamentary elections clearly point to the role of domestic politics. Several member states also push for EU reform before taking on any new members, or place a high emphasis on democratic reforms. While demanding reforms are required for a very good reason, member states that are critical of enlargement have in practice used their national veto for their own ends.

Another question is just how committed the member states really are to acting geopolitically. It is self-evident that the EU cannot rely on enlargement alone to contribute to the security of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. For now, NATO and the US are the only guarantors of hard security, with the role of the US becoming increasingly unpredictable ahead of the November 2024 presidential election. This requires the EU not only to significantly increase member states’ national defence budgets but to also expand the CSDP in areas such as defence capabilities, joint procurement, defence industry cooperation, and interoperability.

Then there is the question of how the EU approaches democracy support through enlargement. The revised enlargement methodology is generally praised for its deeper focus on the rule of law and democratic governance. At the same time, EU support is still seen as too technocratic, providing financial and technical assistance for partner countries to transpose the EU acquis – the body of EU law – on paper without tackling the political dynamics of corruption and clientelism. There is also a lack of clarity when it comes to the nature and scope of rule of law and media freedom criteria, and a paucity of indicators and monitoring benchmarks gives governments ample discretion over how they choose to present their reform achievements.

Finally, in the specific case of Ukraine, it is still unclear how the EU will adapt its enlargement methodology to a candidate that is fighting a war for its survival and, depending on the outcome of the conflict, may face a permanent security threat on its border. This does not require a less rigorous approach to democratic reforms but one that is sensitive to Ukraine’s essential security needs and open to the input of the country’s parliament and civil society on democratic reforms. Considering legislatures and civil society not only as watchdogs but also as actors in shaping accession negotiations and related reforms is key in this process.


Dr Giselle Bosse is Associate Professor and Jean Monnet Chair in EU International Relations at Maastricht University. Her research focuses on EU democracy promotion and civil society support through the Eastern Partnership, with an emphasis on the role of values in EU foreign policy. She is work-package leader in two EU Horizon-funded projects, EMBRACE and INVIGORATE, which examine EU democracy promotion in the European neighbourhood. Bosse has published her research in many international journals and books and has contributed to several commissioned studies for EU institutions. She is co-director of the Centre for European Research in Maastricht, and visiting professor at the College of Europe and the Diplomatic School of Armenia.


This publication was produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.