European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said the European Union must prepare to grow to more than 30 members, announcing a major series of policy reviews to ensure that the 27-nation bloc can still function properly as it invites in new members in coming years.
Pressure has been mounting on the bloc as more countries look to EU membership as Russia’s influence in the Western Balkans, especially in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, raises concerns.
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“History is now calling us to work on completing our union,” von der Leyen told EU lawmakers in Strasbourg on Wednesday. “In a world where size and weight matters, it [the enlargement] is clearly in Europe’s strategic interest.”
At the same time, she added, “We need to look closer at each policy and see how they would be affected.”
In the event of expansion, the EU chief executive said the commission’s reviews would examine how each policy sector in areas like the economy, energy, agriculture or migration would need to be adapted.
“We will need to think about how our institutions would work – how the [European] Parliament and the commission would look. We need to discuss the future of our budget – in terms of what finances, how it finances it, and how it is financed,” she added.
On Ukraine, which has repeatedly asked to join the bloc, she said Kyiv has made “great strides” towards membership since getting candidate status in 2022, but more must be done.
As the bloc debated whether to grant Kyiv a formal invitation to begin EU membership negotiations at a summit in December, von der Leyen told lawmakers: “We know this is not an easy road.”
“Accession is merit-based … it takes hard work and leadership. But there is already a lot of progress. We have seen the great strides Ukraine has already made.”
The debate to increase the number of members in the bloc will be at the top of its foreign policy agenda until the end of the year.
Previously, European Council President Charles Michel said the bloc needed to be ready to increase its numbers by 2030.
But that date was dismissed by those who want to increase the bloc, including Poland, the Baltics and Austria, and those more cautious, including the Netherlands and Denmark.
Ukraine, Moldova and the Western Balkan countries will need to meet strict criteria to join the alliance, including democratic track record and economic performance, to advance on their path to eventual membership, a complex process that takes years.
Any advancement must also gain the unanimous approval of all existing members.