EU Faces Tough Choices on Expansion as Russia Threat Looms

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is expected on Wednesday to underscore just how fundamentally Russia’s war in Ukraine has altered the European Union when she delivers her state of the union address.

(Bloomberg) — European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is expected on Wednesday to underscore just how fundamentally Russia’s war in Ukraine has altered the European Union when she delivers her state of the union address.

Von der Leyen told EU ambassadors earlier this month that the bloc needs to expand its borders to acknowledge the new geopolitical realities, according to people familiar with talks. She said Ukraine and Moldova will need to be granted accession to prevent them from coming under the influence of countries that don’t share the bloc’s values.

Those two nations as well as others that have applied to join the EU – including five of the Western Balkan countries that are candidates – need to accelerate reforms to align with the bloc’s rules to take advantage of the political support that exists to add new members, said the people who asked not to be identified because the discussion was private.  

For the 65-year-old bloc, the debate means drilling down to its core identity, as member states confront fears about a years-long war in Ukraine and competing with China and the US economically and technologically, even as many start to fret about Donald Trump’s possible comeback.

The commission, the EU’s executive arm, is expected to announce in October whether it will recommend launching formal negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova to become EU members.

In the coming months, the 27 member states will wrestle with some other big questions, including whether they should work more closely on defense and military issues, how to finance their common goals and whether they should become more agile in their decision-making process, EU officials and diplomats said.

Some countries fear that absorbing war-battered Ukraine would spread limited EU resources too thinly, with European competitiveness already lagging behind the US and China. The bloc would also have to accommodate certain applicants, where concerns about corruption and political inclinations persist. 

Read more: Michel Calls for EU to Be Ready for New Members by 2030

Defenders of Ukraine’s membership insist the budget impact of accepting Kyiv is over—hyped. Even though some countries would see their EU funds reduced, only Spain would move from being a net receiver of EU funds to becoming net payer to the common pot, according to the Center for European Policy, a Brussels-based think tank.

“The impact of its accession on the EU budget is exaggerated,” Steven Blockmans, director of research at CEPS, told Bloomberg News.

Kyiv’s net allowance of agricultural funds, cohesion money and transfers from other areas would be around €18 billion ($19.3 billion) annually, according to CEPS estimates. That compares with €12.5 billion that Ukraine would receive under the commission’s proposed aid package, Blockmans said. 

Multi-Speed Europe

The EU may also debate some new, interim steps for Ukraine, Moldova and countries in the Western Balkans. French President Emmanuel Macron said recently that the EU may need to consider a “multi-speed” Europe, with varying partnerships between different groups. 

Trump didn’t come up during von der Leyen’s meeting with the ambassadors, but some governments are also starting to prepare for a leadership change in Washington that could test the transatlantic bond even more than during his first term as president.

As speculation rises about von der Leyen seeking a second term as commissioner, EU leaders are starting to discuss new ways of using the EU budget and how to improve their decision-making process by reducing the number of actions that require unanimity.

“If the EU becomes bigger and bigger, with more and more countries, indeed there is this question of veto right for each country,” commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis said last week. “It becomes more and more complicated.”

Enlargement, as well as other long-standing challenges such as dealing with migrant influx, will be high on the agenda when EU leaders gather next month in Granada, Spain, even as the political parties start to prepare for European elections scheduled for June next year.

It’s still unclear who will be part of that race. The European People’s Party, the largest group in the European Parliament, is waiting for von der Leyen’s decision on whether she will pursue re-appointment, as many expect. Her name has also been floated to succeed Jens Stoltenberg as NATO chief, but it’s unclear if she would want the role.

Von der Leyen could well remain in power after the EU leaders sort out the top jobs following the European elections, diplomats said. But her second term would look very different compared with her first years at the EU helm.

She succeeded in keeping the EU afloat during one of the most challenging periods, while dramatically expanding the powers of her EU executive, senior EU officials and diplomats said.

–With assistance from Alberto Nardelli, Natalia Drozdiak, Ania Nussbaum and Zoe Schneeweiss.

More stories like this are available on

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.