The European Commission has advanced the enlargement process by recommending opening accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova while offering candidate status to Georgia. Announced on November 8, this marks significant progress from the June 2022 opinions. Now member states have pivotal role in decision-making. The move defers leveraging political conditionality to incentivise reforms. To ensure positive outcomes, the EU must implement a more nuanced conditionality, synchronise EU reform with staged accession, and develop a broader approach to democracy support beyond formal criteria.

The Commission has moved the enlargement process forward decisively with the so-called trio of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. Its recommendation that the EU opens negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova was widely predicted; its call for Georgia to be offered candidate status was more in doubt. These opinions published on 8 November open the door to major steps forward in the accession process.

In contrast with the Commission opinion of June 2022, this new evaluation signifies a marked leap forward for all three countries, conferring the much-sought candidate status upon Georgia and signalling readiness to start the accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova. The Commission has reaffirmed its commitment to Eastern enlargement and showcased a strong political resolve to address the geopolitical implications stemming from Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Elene Panchulidze

Now member states will have to decide whether or not to back these recommendations. Indeed, the Commission has fudged some parts of its assessments in order to make it clear that national governments will need to make the key decisions. To some degree, the recommendations are still contingent on additional reforms in the three countries, leaving political wiggle room.

From the point of view of democratic reforms in the three eastern applicants, if member states give their consent to the Commission’s recommendations, it is now that really crucial tactical choices will come into play. The Commission has effectively decided to push back the leveraging of political conditionality. It has argued that it is best to move the accession process forward now and use this to incentivise reforms.

The Commission has to juggle the right balance between keeping accession moving forward on the one hand, and using political conditionality to leverage reform, on the other hand. It has made largely sound judgments in its reports. Critics pointed to the inconsistencies: governments in Ukraine and Moldova have shown a willingness to reform and are rewarded for doing so, while Georgia, with lukewarm commitment to the democratic reform agenda and delivering only on three out of twelve priorities, has also been rewarded. Yet, applicants’ very different domestic political situations and geopolitical factors will require this kind of differentiated reward-pressure balance. The unwavering dedication of the Georgian public to democratic values has strongly resonated in European capitals.

In the next phase, the EU will need to do three things if this week’s recommendations are to prove positive and useful for democracy support.

First, the EU will need to design and implement a more strongly modulated conditionality. It will need to offer stronger, quicker and more tangible rewards for reforms to Eastern partners, which will in turn allow it to more critically pull back cooperation where governments fail to reform.

Second, segmented EU reform. The process of EU reform is now deeply entwined with accession, after a spate of recent reports and meetings on this issue. This reform is needed but without the EU or member states overloading reform aspirations. An overly far-reaching reform agenda will make it more difficult to modulate conditionality in relation to democratic reform progress. The EU should consider staged accession alongside a staged EU reform process: the reforms most necessary to helping enlargement move forward should be expedited quickly, with a wider reform process to address longer-term issues well beyond enlargement coming later and building in participation of the applicant states.

And third, the EU must keep building a wider approach to supporting democracy in the three candidates, quite separate from the accession criteria. The set criteria are quite formal and institutional, while good quality democracy requires many things not quantified in EU entry criteria. It may be time to redefine and perhaps rename the Copenhagen criteria, as these are both too much (being regulation heavy) and too narrow in leaving out a lot of the more qualitative aspects of democratic reform.


Elene Panchulidze is the Research Coordinator at European Partnership for Democracy (EPD) where she oversees global research on democracy and leads the European Democracy Hub initiative. Panchulidze is also an Associate Fellow at PMC Research Center and Affiliated Policy Analyst at the Georgian Institute of Politics. She has a decade of professional experience in research and policy analysis, and has led many international research projects on EU foreign policy, democracy, civil society and gender. Prior to joining EPD, Panchulidze worked at the European Endowment for Democracy, College of Europe in Bruges, EU Delegation to Georgia, and at the OSCE/ODIHR Election Observation Mission to Georgia.