IEMed Mediterranean Yearbook 2024





Syria’s Uncertain Future

Growing Public Discontent in Turkey: A Breaking Point for Autocracy?

Kais Saied’s Tunisia: A “New Republic” with Old Authoritarian Tactics

Libya 2023: A State of Chronic Impasse

Energy and Maritime Borders in the Eastern Mediterranean

Electoral Processes and Change in Mauritania: From the Institutional to the Informal

Lebanon’s Tipping Crises Converge

The Mediterranean in the Face of the Climate Emergency and the Increase in Extreme Weather Events

Corruption in the Western Balkans: An Unresolved Issue for the Accession Candidates

Serbia: The Dilemma between European Accession and Alliance with Russia

The West Fast Losing Influence in the Sahel

New Twists and Turns in the Sahel Security Conundrum: Rural Jihadist Insurgencies, Military Coups, Urban Patriotism and the Turn towards Russia

Mediterranean Port Hubs: Connectivity in Today’s Agitated Waters

Economic Impact of the Gaza War

Investing in the Mediterranean: Strategies for Infrastructure Development

Tourism Challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean: Overtourism, Geopolitical Conflicts and Sustainability

Sport and the Gulf: When Saudi Arabia Leads the Way

The BRICS+ Takes All? Not Yet, But Maybe Soon

The European Pact on Asylum and Migration: An Existential Challenge?

What Does the EU’s Future Eastward Enlargement Mean for its Relations with Mediterranean Countries?

Digital Cooperation in the Mediterranean: Opportunities, Challenges and the Future

Algeria: Taking Stock of Abdelmadjid Tebboune’s First Term

The Arab-Israeli Conflict from Oslo to the Gaza War

The US’ Role Since 7 October and the Implications for US-Middle East Relations

Russia and China in the Gaza Crisis: Trying to Beat Washington at Its Own Game

North Africa and the European Union: Between Economic (Inter) Dependence and Diversification of Alliances

Morocco and the Management of Pending Challenges


What Does the EU’s Future Eastward Enlargement Mean for its Relations with Mediterranean Countries?

John O’Rourke

Associate senior fellow
European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed)

Enlargement and the Neighbourhood

In the wake of its “Big Bang” enlargement of 2004-2007, the EU attempted to put its relations with neighbouring countries that were not candidates for membership on a new and more ambitious footing, to create a “ring of friends” in the words of then Commission President Romano Prodi. Flushed with the recent success of its soft power in inducing societal transformation and reform in the acceding countries, the EU developed the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), through which it invited partner countries to pursue political convergence and economic integration with the EU. Russia rejected outright the offer to participate in the ENP; several other neighbouring countries – including Belarus, Libya, Syria and, at least initially, Algeria – were sceptical as to its objectives and openly dismissive as to the process by which these were to be pursued. In parallel to the ENP, a further enlargement process was continued with Turkey and the Western Balkans, but it stalled after the accession of Croatia in 2013, due to “enlargement fatigue” within the EU and the growing disenchantment of some candidate countries, notably Turkey and Serbia, with the European model.

The same offer was made to all ENP partner countries, and EU Member States carefully monitored the allocation of funds to ensure a 1/3 – 2/3 distribution between eastern and southern partners. Nevertheless, from the outset, there was an ambiguity regarding the finality of the ENP: for European partner countries, it could be seen as a waiting room for inclusion in a future enlargement process; for non-European partners, it was presented rather as an alternative to membership, with the perspective of a privileged association with the EU and participation in some of its policies. This approach did not satisfy either group of neighbours.

Few of the southern neighbours had any real interest in approximating the European socio-political model. Reforms in this direction were not seen as an end in themselves but rather as concessions to the European partner, and the incentives offered by the EU were insufficient. The popular movements that came to be known as the Arab Spring revealed that Islamism – and opposition to it -, rather than the pursuit of liberal-democratic values, dominated politics. Tunisia, with unparalleled financial and political support from the EU, pursued a transition to multi-party democracy for nearly ten years, but, following the election of President Kais Saied in 2019, embarked on a different trajectory. Israel, ever more influenced by populist politics, pursued its colonization of the West Bank (thereby establishing a de facto apartheid regime in the occupied Palestinian territory), rather than convergence with the EU. 

Some of the eastern neighbours wanted, on the other hand, to proceed more quickly on the path of European integration and to be given a clearer path to EU membership. Their demands became more pressing when it became clear that Russia intended to keep them in its sphere of influence, by force if necessary, as the occupation of Abkhazia in August 2008 demonstrated. In response, the EU developed the Eastern Partnership, which proposed an accelerated reform agenda, leading to deeper integration. This possibility was welcomed, notably by Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, and provided the backdrop to the Maidan Revolution and the Russian decision to seize Crimea and parts of the Donbas in 2014. Russia’s further aggression on Ukraine, in February 2022, revealed the existential nature of the choices facing the former Soviet republics. The EU therefore officially recognized the European perspective of the three aforementioned countries and granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. This effectively spells the end of the ENP in the East. 

Russia’s resurgent hegemonistic
ambitions have breathed new
life into the enlargement process

A Different Path to Enlargement

Russia’s resurgent hegemonistic ambitions have thus breathed new life into the enlargement process, and the way enlargement is taken forward will need to factor in not only the experience of previous enlargements, but also the new context of geopolitical confrontation with Russia. The impact of EU enlargement on third countries, such as those of the Mediterranean, cannot be dissociated from the impact of this confrontation (which is therefore considered as integral to the enlargement process in this article).

The pace at which eastward enlargement proceeds remains to be defined, inter alia, by the level of political consensus that emerges following the European elections of June 2024 and how this will impact the ambition of the next Multiannual Financial Framework (2028-2034). Considering the time necessary for countries to prepare and negotiate their accession and for the Accession Treaty to be ratified, it is very unlikely that any candidate, save Montenegro, which has made good progress in the negotiations, will join the EU during the mandate of the next Commission (2024-2029). Montenegro’s accession will nevertheless be an important demonstration that the EU means business – a signal to the other candidates as well as to Russia.

More fundamentally, Europe is faced with a dilemma. The experience of countries such as Hungary and Poland demonstrates that political convergence is not a given, and that despite meticulous efforts to build up democratic institutions during the pre-accession period, these may remain fragile. Institutional reforms require time to be consolidated.  The experience of Cyprus’ accession also points to the imperative of ensuring that candidates have resolved any territorial issues prior to their accession, but today’s candidates and prospective candidates are plagued by such issues, inherited from the break-up of Yugoslavia or created by Russian meddling, aggression and occupation (Serbia-Kosovo relations; Crimea and the Donbas in Ukraine; Transnistria in Moldova; Abkhazia in Georgia). This also suggests the need to avoid a hurried enlargement that would import territorial conflicts.

At the same time, drawing out the accession process indefinitely (as has been the case of the Western Balkans) implies that the incentives to join become too distant to mobilize support for reform efforts, while the siren calls of less principled players such as Russia and China become more alluring. Politicians who must implement such reforms think in electoral time scales, while real political convergence takes place on generational time scales.

A possible approach to conciliating these competing time scales may be a form of step-wise accession,[1] based on full participation in – and benefits of – certain EU policies, such as the Internal Market, Cohesion Policy or the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) when appropriate benchmarks have been met, but without full participation in the institutions (for example, the possibility to veto decisions that require the unanimity of Member States). During the intermediate steps of accession, the status of candidates would be analogous to those of EFTA countries. This would give the EU the possibility to suspend or expel candidates that go back on their commitments while giving them, upfront, some of the benefits of membership. Such an approach implies front-loading much of the cost of accession. 

Budget and Associated Policy Adaptations

Whether such a gradual accession is pursued or not, the further eastward enlargement will inevitably put pressure on the EU budget. Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe. Prior to Russia’s aggression in 2014 it had a population (45 million) dwarfing that of all the other candidate countries.[2] The cost of its accession will be considerable (estimates range between €110 and 186 billion[3]) and will create pressure to reform the EU budget.

Ukraine is a food producer of global importance and the cost of its participation in the CAP in its current form, estimated at €85 billion, will be particularly problematic. It is possible that this will incite the EU to reform the CAP in order to limit the subsidies paid to large agricultural holdings, a move which could favour agricultural imports from the southern Mediterranean, since these would become more competitive if subsidies are reduced.

Pre-accession assistance to the Western Balkans, notably through the Reform and Growth Facility (as well as funding for Ukraine under the Ukraine Facility) is provided as a blend of grants, loans and guarantees, with strict benchmarks for disbursement. This approach ensures a much greater impact for EU grant funding. In line with the EU’s objective of front-loading the costs of accession, it has also allowed pre-accession financing to reach levels commensurate with the benefits that accrue to Member States under the EU’s Cohesion Policy. Its success means that it is likely to become the preferred model for EU financing of large infrastructure projects, including the Global Gateway flagship projects in the countries of the southern Mediterranean.

Streamlining Decision-Making

It is widely recognized that one of the risks of a further enlargement is that the mechanisms to arrive at EU-level decisions and to ensure their application are already insufficient and will become even more so as the number of Member States increases. EU public opinion will not support enlargement unless adequate guardrails are put in place to prevent blockages and confrontations such as those experienced in recent years with Poland and Hungary.

EU public opinion will not support enlargement
unless adequate guardrails are put in place to
prevent blockages and confrontations such as
those experienced in recent years with Poland and Hungary

An institutional reform of the EU itself is therefore on the cards. This could be pursued along one of two, largely exclusive, tracks. The first is to grant Member States opt-outs from participation in specific policies. Experience shows, however, that opt-outs lead to ever more divergent interests among Member States, so that internal cohesion is weakened, and decision-making ultimately becomes more, not less, difficult.[4] A second track of EU reform is to streamline decision-making in policy areas that are recognized as being essential for the EU’s effective operation. In practice this means the adoption of decisions by Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) rather than by unanimity. By reducing bureaucracy and speeding up decisions, the wider use of QMV would also help to make the EU a more credible partner in international forums.  

A Higher Military and Security Profile

Even as consensus politics needs to be buttressed by majority rule within the EU, so, at a time when the rules-based international order is being challenged, the EU’s vaunted “soft power” needs to be supplemented with harder forms of power, if it is to withstand external threats. While efforts in this direction have been underway for at least two decades, they have been given new urgency by Russia’s war on a candidate country, as well as increasingly frequent hybrid attacks on Member States.

This implies not only tighter coordination of national armed forces and security services, but also joint investment in the development of the European arms industry as well as infrastructure (for example, mobility projects to support the transport of troops and equipment along the trans-European transport network).

Some southern partners might see military
cooperation with the EU as an alternative
to cooperation with individual Member States
with which they have more complex post-colonial relations

Enlargement of the EU will also exacerbate concerns regarding the security of the Schengen Area. Somewhat belatedly, the EU Member States have come to the realization that the removal of the EU’s internal borders needs to be accompanied by much greater efforts to ensure the effective management of its external border.[5] This issue has been at the forefront of the European elections of June 2024, and has given a boost to hard-right parties across the continent.  

The implications of a heightened EU military profile for the southern neighbours are diverse. It is very improbable that it could be perceived as a threat, given the clearly defensive character of this development. Indeed, some southern partners might see military cooperation with the EU as an alternative to cooperation with individual Member States with which they have more complex post-colonial relations. The deleterious consequences of Russia’s presence in Libya and the Sahel and the US’ enduring alignment with Israel may also convince the Arab countries of the region that a European military dimension is to be welcomed.

On the other hand, the likely “securitization” of the migration issue will hardly be welcome news. Countries that have used irregular migration as a political lever to extract concessions and financial support (Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia) may find these tactics less effective in the future. More fundamentally, the hardening of EU borders will be perceived, not only by the authorities of the southern partner countries but also by their populations, as being largely directed against them. It will be incumbent on Europe’s centrist political forces to open up facilitated avenues of legal travel and migration for its Mediterranean neighbours, even as irregular migration is curtailed, if the perception of a Mediterranean divide is to be avoided.

An Accelerated Energy Transition

While the enlargement of the EU will not, of itself, significantly alter the Union’s energy posture,[6] the fact that this enlargement is contested by Russia reinforces the logic of a rapid transition away from fossil fuels, of which Russia has historically been the EU’s principal supplier. Already more than half of the EU’s electricity is generated from renewable sources.

This accelerated greening of the economy opens enormous possibilities for the countries of the southern Mediterranean, as these are well endowed with wind and especially solar energy potential, vast scarcely-inhabited spaces in which to deploy energy-generating installations and – at least in the case of Algeria – a pipeline infrastructure that can be adapted to carry green hydrogen to Europe. Indeed, it is surprising that the countries concerned have not made more effort to seize this opportunity, and could be overtaken by more dynamic, even if, geographically, not as well placed, competitors such as Saudi Arabia.

Nearshoring or Onshoring?

In the perspective of the green transition, a brewing geo-political confrontation with China and supply chain disruptions during the Covid-19 pandemic, much has been written about the merits of nearshoring.[7] For the EU, the countries of the southern Mediterranean are, almost by definition, the “near shore.” Unfortunately, the investments that would concretize near-shoring have been slow to take off, largely because of the relatively unfavourable investment climate in the countries concerned. The enlargement of the EU, if the spectre of a continued war with Russia is removed, is likely to further reduce their attractiveness. A similar logic led to an investment boom in the countries of central and eastern Europe prior to their accession in 2004/2007[8]: why locate investments at the borders of the EU, when they can be located in soon-to-be EU Member States, with the benefits of the Internal Markets and Cohesion Policy that this implies?

External Relations

In the foregoing sections, the impact on foreign relations of various internal EU developments (decision-making, budget, financial instruments, economic development and investments, agricultural policy, cohesion policy, energy policy, security) has been discussed. Overall, for the EU’s external relations, including its relations with its southern Neighbourhood this implies:

  1. An increased EU focus on its eastern flank;
  2. A more introverted approach, giving more priority to the internal reforms needed to carry out the next enlargement and less to the projection of EU policies, further afield; 
  3. More transactional, result-oriented external relations, giving greater emphasis to EU interests than to support for reforms, notably in the sphere of governance.


After nearly 20 years of attempting to put its relations with its nearest neighbours on a new footing, it has become abundantly clear that the EU needs to up its game. In the East an accelerated enlargement process has become an existential necessity, both for the EU and for the candidate countries. In the South, the paradigm of reform and alignment needs to be replaced by a more pragmatic approach that will be more effective in delivering tangible results both to the EU and its partners.

[1] Mirel, Pierre, “The European Union enlarged from 27 to 36 MEMBERS, Towards an ‘Agenda 2030.Schuman Paper N° 744, 9 April 2024. Fondation Robert Schuman.

[2] Following Russia’s aggression, the EU has received more than 4 million Ukrainian refugees; it is not known how many will return to Ukraine.

[3] Darvas, Z. et al., Ukraine’s path to European Union membership and its long-term implications. Bruegel 7 March, 2024.

[4] The opt-outs granted to the UK on participation in the Economic and Monetary Union or the Schengen arrangements probably exacerbated its divergence on other issues and thereby hastened rather than delayed its decision to exit the Union. It is also difficult to imagine that the EU decisions on the adoption of the Green Deal, the response to the Covid-19 pandemic or the welcome of more than 4 million Ukrainian refugees in the wake of Russia’s aggression would have been possible had the UK still been a Member State.

[5] While implementation of the Schengen Agreements, initially involving seven EU countries, began in 1995, a comprehensive response to irregular border crossings is still in preparation and the Entry-Exit system allowing the identification of Schengen visa overstayers is due to start in October 2024.

[6] The Western Balkans have significant hydroelectric resources, and Ukraine has four nuclear power plants.

[7] Rizzi, A. and Varvelli, A. “Opening the Global Gateway: Why the EU should invest more in the southern neighbourhood,European Council on Foreign Relations Policy Brief 14.03.2023.

[8] Jirasavetakul, L. and Rahman, J. “Foreign Direct Investment in New Member States of the EU and Western Balkans: Taking Stock and Assessing Prospects.” International Monetary Fund Working Paper WP/18/187, 2018.

Header photo: Aerial view of a large European flag deployed alongside the flags of the 10 countries that joined the European Union in 2004 © European Union, 2024, CC BY 4.0