From François Mitterrand’s halfway policy to Jacques Chirac’s infamous comments or to Emmanuel Macron’s questionable positions on the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, France has lost much credibility in Central and Eastern Europe. France has a lot to do in order to wash away the great frustrations it has created in the region and embrace history in the making. More than a simple charm offensive, the French President’s recent speech at GLOBSEC marks, to a degree, a substantial turn – at least when it comes to future EU enlargement.
Until 24 February 2022, the European Union had been in strategic denial regarding the geopolitical significance of its policy towards Ukraine. Indeed, the EU was reluctant to get involved in the Ukraine-Russia conflict and – while increasing support for Ukraine’s reforms – did not give the country an accession perspective. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine, however, was a wake-up call, which directly led to granting candidate status to Ukraine, and Moldova.
In this new geopolitical reality, member states saw their role in the enlargement process growing. France has long been criticised for its lukewarm stance on EU enlargement, as well as for its naive policy towards Russia. Many in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) – and especially in Ukraine – can recall some clumsy and strategically weak stances held by Emmanuel Macron in the first year of the full-scale invasion. Sometimes falling into Kremlin’s discourse trap, he was hesitant to characterise the ongoing events as genocide, for ahistorical reasons. He appeared to believe that reaching peace would ultimately entail negotiations with Vladimir Putin and that Russia should be provided with security guarantees.
Albeit late, Macron’s visit to Ukraine on 16 June 2022 paved the way for Ukraine to be granted candidate status (whereas France was still disinclined to do so back in February). At the time, one could wonder whether it was only a symbolic gesture. However, in his speech at GLOBSEC in Bratislava on 31 May 2023, President Macron claimed that the EU needed to enlarge and “be rethought very extensively with regard to its governance and its aims.” According to him, “It is the only way to meet the legitimate expectation of the Western Balkans, Moldova and Ukraine, which should become part of the European Union.” One must, therefore, wonder what changed – and what perhaps did not change – in the French position on EU enlargement.
France and EU enlargement: from wariness…
For a long time, France has been wary about EU enlargement but a staunch supporter of deepening the EU. Already in the 1990s, François Mitterrand proposed a halfway policy to integrate CEE countries, which was viewed with suspicion. Paris then shifted its policy towards a “rationalised enlargement,” having been pressured by French business interests, the adoption of the Copenhagen criteria, and the desire to prevent German domination in the region.
Until the full-scale invasion, this attitude, nevertheless, remained prevalent. France was worried about the equilibrium between the internal market and the welfare system, which was best illustrated by the narrative about a “Polish plumber” who would come and take French people’s jobs. Paris was similarly concerned about the functioning of EU decision-making hampered by the ever-growing number of member states. In 2005, it even introduced a referendum for all new accessions after Croatia in 2013. France’s enlargement fatigue reached its paroxysm in 2019 when Emmanuel Macron closed the door to Albania and North Macedonia, invoking the need for internal reforms, with many observers calling it a historic mistake.
… to full embracement?
Since the launch of the full-scale invasion, the French stance on enlargement – although still ambiguous at times – moved towards a more favourable position. It was further clarified throughout the course of the year, but many details are yet to be defined.
French government representatives have repeatedly stressed that Ukraine will – one day – join the EU. This is the case of Clément Beaune (ex-Secretary of State for European Affairs, incumbent until Macron’s re-election) and Minister of Foreign Affairs Catherine Colonna, who believes that “Ukraine will be stronger and Europe will be strengthened by Ukraine” and is positive about improvements in Ukraine. Thus, for the current government, Ukraine’s accession to the EU is not a question. As Secretary of State for European Affairs Laurence Boone has recently highlighted, EU Member States agree: the question is not about “if” but “how” and “when.”
These positions suggest that France has acknowledged the geopolitical necessity of EU enlargement. In Bratislava, Emmanuel Macron emphasised that this was a critical moment “of theoretical and geopolitical clarification of our European Union.” He went even further, saying that the EU enlargement must be done “the faster the better” and thus indicating that France finally begins to understand the sense of urgency that Russia’s neighbours have long felt.
French position and the EU stalemate
While having warmed up to the idea of enlargement, France and Germany continue to insist on internal reforms, such as adopting the qualified majority voting (QMV) in the fields of foreign policy and taxation. Behind it is a shared fear of a dilution of the European project extended to 36 countries.
On this point, France’s position has not changed. For instance, Laurence Boone believes that it is necessary to think about a “differentiated” integration. Moreover, the question of whether enlargement needs to be preceded by an amendment to the Treaty on European Union (TEU) has not been settled.
In January 2023, a German-French expert group was launched to work on EU institutional reforms, which implied that the topic of enlargement was high on the agenda in Western Europe. However, internal reforms remain a divisive issue inside the Union. For example, Poland and the Baltic States are reluctant to abandon the unanimity on foreign policy and taxation issues. Whereas changes to the Treaty might not be required to switch to QMV on questions of foreign and security policy, France’s position is yet to be articulated. Germany, among others, wants to bypass the Treaty change on this issue and advocates other avenues (such as constructive abstention – in article 31 (1) TEU – or the passerelle clause to expand QMV – in article 31 (3) TEU). Member States’ vital interests would not be jeopardised as the “emergency break” in article 31 (2) TEU would be reinforced with what they describe as a “safety net mechanism”.
A way forward
France is currently trying to seize this watershed moment and champion both enlargement and internal reform. France’s positions on the latter (pertaining to seats redistribution in the European Parliament; voting weight redesign at the European Council; Common Agricultural Policy’s and Cohesion Policy’s inevitable reassessment) are yet to be established. Additionally, France should clarify which reforms condition the opening of negotiations and which condition the accession of new members. Even though France has supported a “staged accession” for a long time, it might still have to specify some details and assume the initiative on the issue.
Openly stating its positions – and thus bringing the much-needed clarity – will greatly benefit France, the EU as a whole, and the enlargement process itself. It might be a way to alleviate fears, prove dedication to the process, regain credit vis-à-vis CEE states, and keep the momentum going, which is an existential matter for Ukraine today. France cannot afford to take the enlargement process hostage once again. The balance between enlargement and reforms must be found, and France can be at the forefront of this process by taking the initiative on both issues and seeking to build consensus in a manner that grasps this historic and geopolitical upheaval.
This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).
 Natasha Wunsch 2017’s article gives interesting insights when it comes to historical French position on enlargement.
 The 2005’s constitutional change did not concern Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia. Since the 2008’s constitutional change the referendum is not automatic anymore, as the Parliament can bypass it.
 Michael Emerson and Steven Blockmans highlight the cost and multiple dangers of not enlarging the EU.