How EU enlargement can impact social stability in the bloc

Employment and Social Affairs

Estimated time of reading: ~ 3 minutes

Recent protests of farmers across almost the whole European Union, with violent displays of anger over the environmental regulations, were also motivated by the cheap imports of grain and other products from countries outside the bloc, first of all Ukraine. Such a dynamic highlighted one of the main issues related to the EU enlargement process: how to manage the current economic imbalances within the European Union with the scenario of new, poorer countries gaining membership and thus millions of new citizens and hundred billions of euros in product entering the EU economic space? Officers in Brussels are deeply aware of the social consequences of the EU enlargement agenda, as integrating countries with lower GDPs could exacerbate tensions among member states and among workers, as the farmer protests already showed in relation to the imports of Ukrainian grain. The free movement of labour represents one of the core EU principles, but the enlargement of the European Union to the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe might lead to an outflow of skilled workers from accession countries. This could lead to social tensions in the nations that would receive immigrants and, at the same time, further hinder the economic development in the countries of origin.

Economic disparity and internal migration represent another potential problem: the risk of strain on the EU welfare systems and promoting intolerance on the social and political side, a dynamic that is not new in the European Union. The EU enlargement could also increase public anxieties and resentment about migrants and cultural differences, giving the far-right parties more arguments in a yet polarised political context. The last group of European nations to enter the EU was constituted by Romania and Bulgaria, in 2007, with a total of less than 30 million people becoming EU citizens. Plus, the two countries are still waiting to receive the green light to become members of the Schengen Economic Space, due to the veto posed by Austria in recent months. A potential scenario in which countries from the Western Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova, and perhaps Georgia gain full membership in the EU would have a different impact on the bloc’s social stability. In this perspective, a few days ago, the EU Commission adopted a Communication on pre-enlargement reforms and policy reviews which tackles some of the issues mentioned above. As the EU Commission stated, “while reforms were necessary before, with enlargement they become indispensable”. The document looks at the implications of a larger EU in four main areas – values, policies, budget, and governance – laying the groundwork for the pre-enlargement policy reviews announced by President von der Leyen in her 2023 State of the Union address. Looking at the potential social issues related to the EU enlargement agenda, the Communication observes the importance of “creating the conditions for social, economic, and territorial convergence and at the same time delivering strong security commitments, migration, and border management.”

“Enlargement is a geostrategic investment, increasing the EU’s political and economic weight on the global stage”,  but “to fully seize the opportunities of this geopolitical investment, both the EU and future Member States must be well-prepared”,  in the words of the Vice-President of the EU Commission, Maroš Šefčovič. As the document shows, stricter pre-accession criteria, focusing on social and economic readiness alongside political reforms, could ensure smoother integration for the new member states. This could also prevent disillusionment among the citizens of the aspiring EU countries in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe, which are waiting for years – if not decades – to become citizens of the European Union.

Written by: Francesco Marino

Related Articles

Back to Top