Enlargement is a logical step forward for democracy in Europe

Oliver Röpke, President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Milojko Spajić, Prime Minister of Montenegro

Edi Rama, Prime Minister of Albania


For those aspiring to join the European Union, 2023 was an important year. It was a year in which momentum picked up for the first time after years of stagnation. ‘Completing our Union is the call of history’ said Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, in her 2023 State of the Union Speech, ‘It is the natural horizon of the European Union’. There was a glimmer of hope in her words for citizens in the countries that are awaiting membership.

In reality, the enlargement process can be arduous and time-consuming. Especially because an enlarged EU with 30 or more members will require thorough preparation from both candidate countries and the EU. As the European Commission is working on its pre-enlargement reform plan, to be presented later this month, a number of important questions remain, such as how the EU institutions will function or how the budget will be financed. But if policy is to be future-proof and reform a success, old and future members alike must contribute.

For the citizens of candidate countries, patience has been tested time and again. The message from the Commission President was reassuring in this regard. Meeting the accession criteria will not happen overnight, but there are so many things we can and should do together in the meantime.

The recent initiative by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) - an advisory body to the European Union - is a case in point. As of today, 15 February 2024, candidate countries can send delegates to the EESC. This will be the first official forum where candidate countries will have a voice. It is an excellent example of gradual integration, which the EESC is championing. Newly appointed enlargement candidate members will be able to share ideas with their colleagues about policies that matter to everyone, such as promoting social and civil dialogue, creating jobs and decent housing, boosting a competitive industry, or even the future of agriculture.

These exchanges with candidate countries will be just as important for current EU Member States, offering a valuable experience. Consider Montenegro, which enshrined an ‘ecological state’ in its constitution, or Albania’s judicial reforms, which include strict vetting for judges. There is a great deal to learn about one another before the official accession of candidate countries to the EU.

Gradual integration begins at the root, much like nurturing a sapling to grow. The EESC believes organised civil society to be our roots: employers, trade unions and civil society organisations as a whole. They are often overlooked in the accession handbook, but they shouldn’t be. A vibrant civil society and strong social dialogue are indispensable for well-functioning democracies. Gradually integrating civil society from candidate countries into the EU will give them the ability to become as strong as they should be by the time of accession.

2024 will be a year of political change in Europe. People will be casting their votes for the European Parliament and in national elections in a third of EU Member States and in many candidate countries. Those citizens need to know that their opinions matter now more than ever before. They also need to know that the institutions in which they place their trust will work for them beyond the ballot box. As the voice of civil society in the European Union, the EESC tirelessly strives to accomplish this every single day. Welcoming candidate countries is a positive and logical step forward for democracy in Europe.

Published by Euractiv on 15/02/2024: Enlargement is a logical step forward for democracy in Europe – Euractiv

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