The EU’s Eastern Enlargement and Differentiated Democracy Support – Carnegie Europe

This article is part of SHAPEDEM-EU, an EU-funded project that aims to rethink and reshape EU democracy support policies in its eastern and southern neighborhoods.

Russia’s war against Ukraine has brought the EU enlargement question back to the top of the union’s agenda, adding three more countries to the pool of membership hopefuls. The EU’s approach has been guided primarily by geopolitics, shortening the normal time frame for their accession procedures. The tragedy of the Ukraine war reinvigorated member states’ commitment to enlargement, perceived as a gesture of solidarity toward Ukraine and those facing Russia as a common threat.

The decision to respond positively to Moldova, Ukraine, and—with qualifiers—Georgia’s membership applications also sparked larger debates on the EU’s absorption capacity and the future of enlargement. Adding new member states could lead to a union of thirty-six countries, impacting its integration and decisionmaking capacities, which are already under strain. There is much talk of gradual or staged accession. The current approach risks repeating the experience of the Western Balkan candidate countries, for which the accession process has been effectively frozen due to the EU’s division and the candidates’ inabilities to meet the accession criteria.

Irakli Sirbiladze

Irakli Sirbiladze is a ReThink.CEE fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a visiting lecturer at Tbilisi State University.

The challenge of democratic reform is particularly complicated. Its progress reviews for Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine show that, if the accession process is to bear fruit in this regard, the EU needs a differentiated approach based on the political dynamics of each state and to design democracy-support strategies accordingly.

While war-torn Ukraine has made substantial progress on delivering different reforms, its democracy still requires nurturing, including when it comes to the rule of law and the judiciary’s independence, tackling corruption, and supporting civil society. In Moldova, EU conditionality has spurred reforms, but the challenges of limited administrative capacity and corruption loom large, and further progress in democratization depends on the current pro-European government remaining in office. Georgia’s progress is stymied by a party system in which the dominant, ruling Georgian Dream party fears that full compliance with EU conditionality would reduce its hold on power.

Ukraine: Supporting Democracy on the Front Line

Ukraine’s democratization progress has been erratic. Despite the gains made following the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, the country was still not classified as a stable and consolidated democracy when Russia launched its full invasion in February 2022.

In June 2022, the European Commission set seven conditions for Ukraine to fulfill before accession negotiations could be opened. EU conditionality has prompted reforms as the country recognized that the benefits of compliance outweighed the costs. According to the most recent EU assessment in June 2023, Ukraine has satisfied two out of the seven conditions and has made some or good progress on the others.

Nonetheless, the EU has recently refrained from leveraging strict conditionality and compromised on its conditions in an effort to support Ukraine as it fights off Russia. This is exemplified by the EU’s response to progress under the first condition, which calls for the establishment of an advisory group of experts to assess candidates for the Constitutional Court. The legislature’s current, relevant draft law falls short of the goal of depoliticizing the selection process and may instead contribute to increased political influence over the judiciary. The EU’s review on Ukraine notes “good progress” on this priority while remaining vague on the specific terms of the draft law.

The European Commission has also repeatedly stated that Ukraine should comply with recommendations issued by the Venice Commission on the first condition. However, the Venice Commission has been vague and, at times, ambiguous in this regard, reflecting the willingness of international actors to compromise on their standards in an effort to support Ukraine.

The EU should continue to leverage strict conditionality and provide benefits to Ukraine when progress is made. The European Commission has to perform a delicate balancing act. It needs to take into account Ukraine’s challenges in enacting democratic reforms while the country is also fighting to protect its territorial integrity. At the same time, the EU’s willingness to compromise on key rule of law and judiciary reforms could in the long term hinder democratization in Ukraine and weaken the leverage of accession, not only for Ukraine itself but also for other candidate countries.

The people of Ukraine support such reforms. In a survey published in January, 73 percent of respondents said they were in favor of the reforms the EU calls for. Therefore, watering down its conditions would be a disservice to the EU and to the Ukrainian people, especially when conditionality seems to be working.

The EU must support a deeper socialization of democratic norms and values in Ukraine, which goes beyond box-ticking in the accession process. War can drive political and social transformation, but whether these changes will favor Ukraine’s integration into the EU will mostly depend on the outcome of the war. Given the uncertainties surrounding how the war might end, the EU’s enlargement strategy in Ukraine should be based on a truly inclusive process, with active participation of not only the country’s political leadership but also the population and its civil society representatives. In light of the multitude of challenges faced by the government, it is necessary to equip Ukraine’s people and particularly its civil society with the right tools to support reforms and drive the democratization process.

Moldova: From Oligarchy to Opportunity

By the time the reformist and pro-European Maia Sandu was elected president in 2020, Moldova had experienced both a significant constitutional crisis, which caused unprecedented political instability, and almost a decade of oligarchic rule, as the business tycoon Vlad Plahotniuc achieved a near-monopoly power. His power was entirely informal as he did not hold any official position. Moldova’s legacy as a former Soviet republic, including a heritage of citizen apathy, enabled this oligarchic rule as well as widespread corruption.

Moldova has recently showed clear signs of democratization. In its 2023 report, the Varieties of Democracy Project recognized it as “one of the top 10 democratizers in the last three years” and highlighted it as one of eight countries that had succeeded in taking steps to reverse autocratization. The Party of Action and Solidarity’s electoral successes ensured that, for the first time, the president, parliament, and government have a common ambition and vision to enact democratic reforms, including a necessary anti-corruption agenda.

The people of Moldova and the current government have expressed a clear willingness to counter the oligarchic rule and pervasive corruption that have long hindered democratic reforms, but significant problems remain. The European Commission identified nine sets of conditions that Moldova needs to fulfill before pre-accession negotiations can begin, including deoligarchization. According to an evaluation by Moldovan and EU civil society groups in April, only around a quarter of the measures envisioned have been implemented without deficiencies. In a more positive assessment, the EU found that Moldova had satisfied three of the nine sets of conditions. But the country still needs to take serious steps to address corruption comprehensively. The vagueness of the EU’s anti-corruption condition, which lacks actionable recommendations, leaves room for deviation.

Despite its willingness, Moldova does not have the necessary technical and administrative capacities to ensure a swift and comprehensive implementation of all the EU conditions. The Ministry for Foreign Affairs and European Integration announced it would hire up to twenty more people specialized in EU affairs, but this is far from enough to build on recent momentum and ensure that Moldova remains on track to accession. Hence, it is crucial that the EU’s enlargement strategy toward Moldova includes the provision of adequate tools and support to effectively enact reforms.

Moldova satisfying the EU’s conditions depends greatly upon the continuation in office of the current government. As the 2024 presidential election and the 2025 parliamentary elections loom, approval ratings for Sandu and the Party of Action and Solidarity have declined. A poll conducted in late 2022 indicates widespread dissatisfaction with the president and even more with the government. This is mainly a result of soaring energy bills and the resulting precarious economic situation. A change in government, especially to an anti-European one, would undermine the implementation of democratic reforms, which remain at a preliminary stage.

Many uncertainties linger regarding Moldova’s future—starting with whether its pro-European and reformist political leadership will stay in power. In order to establish a sustainable path of democratization, the EU’s strategy toward Moldova should include a well-defined framework that promotes citizen participation and engagement in enlargement and other related decisionmaking processes. Engaging civil society representatives will ensure a solid foundation for democratization in the country and empower citizens to demand and work for democratic reforms even if there is a change in political leadership.

Georgia: Trapped in a Dominant-Party System

Georgia’s democratic development had ups and downs, improving after the Rose Revolution in 2003 and the first electoral transfer of power in 2012 but declining after 2007, when the government grew more undemocratic, and again after 2016 with the government’s supermajority in Parliament that gradually led to the shrinking of space for opposition, media, and civil society. Today the country is stuck in the “electoral democracy” category.

Increasing ties with the EU helped Georgia progress on some aspects of democratic development, particularly in the Georgian Dream party’s first term in office. Having secured a parliamentary supermajority in 2016 and subsequently near-total control of all democratic institutions, Georgian Dream has consolidated its hold on power. Since the 2018 presidential election and, particularly, the 2019 protests, Georgia has been in a political crisis. The EU’s mediation in 2021 helped defuse it temporarily, but the EU’s goal of reducing political polarization and improving power-sharing in the parliament has not been achieved.

There has been progress in letter but not in spirit on the twelve priorities the EU laid out for Georgia to address before candidate status is granted. The government pledged to make the required reforms and then declared itself content with the progress achieved while pointing to the opposition’s absence from the process. However, the EU’s assessment in June found Georgia had met three easy priorities, made some progress on the most fundamental seven priorities, made limited progress on deoligarchization, and made no progress on media freedom.

The legislative changes cannot on their own be a measure of meaningful progress, given Georgia’s dominant-party system. The government has followed legalistic procedures and consulted the Venice Commission on key priorities but ultimately refused to address the latter’s recommendations that threatened its hold on power. On deoligarchization, while pausing the draft law’s adoption, the government rejected the Venice Commission’s suggestions to take a systemic approach, opting instead for a personal one that risks targeting the opposition and undermining the rule of law and political pluralism. Legislative changes regarding the judiciary do not fully address the concerns expressed by the Venice Commission, and the broader vision for judicial reform was not the product of the cross-party consultations. Furthermore, Georgian Dream’s refusal to investigate the allegations of corruption in the judiciary amid the latest U.S. travel restrictions on current and former Georgian judges shows that the legislative changes will not have a substantial impact in the current political configuration.

Georgian Dream rejects consensual politics and sharing power with the opposition. The ruling party saw the 2021 EU-mediated agreement—which aimed at reducing political polarization through power-sharing in Parliament—not only as an “anomaly” but also as an attempt to change the government. Georgian Dream has also refused to elect the chairperson of the Central Election Commission with a two-thirds majority in Parliament as proposed by the agreement. Furthermore, the ruling party did not consider changes to the voting procedure in the High Council of Justice, changes that would balance the decisionmaking powers of its judge and non-judge members. While it has undertaken limited cooperation with opposition parties, particularly on electoral reforms, Georgian Dream prefers not to embrace consensual politics.

In Georgia, the EU faces a government that sees full compliance with its conditionality as reducing its power.

First, to maintain its leverage and credibility, the EU should not overlook the support for EU integration among Georgia’s citizens and should consider granting it candidate status. Doing so would send the right geopolitical message and disarm Georgian Dream’s persistent attempts to throw the issue onto the terrain of “us versus them” nationalism. In light of the breakdown in political representation, as a result of which the public lacks institutional means to impact Georgian Dream’s policy direction between elections, the EU must reward democracy activism and keep the public as its ally in advancing democracy.  

Second, as high support for EU integration among the public pushes the government to show compliance with EU conditions, the EU must issue more specific conditionality requirements that are rooted in the local context and necessitate cross-party cooperation on key reforms, particularly to make the electoral playing level.

Finally, as civil society organizations and activist grassroots movements tend to convey public preferences, creatively supporting them must be an EU priority especially amid the ruling party’s attempts to limit their impact.


Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has pushed the EU to overcome its enlargement fatigue. This has increased talk of the EU reforming the process to address frustration in the Western Balkans and to encourage the three new applicants on their membership path while sticking to fundamental values and maintaining the EU’s integration capacity.

If geopolitics makes Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine distinct, they are no different from other candidates in terms of structural problems when it comes to the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, corruption, and democratic institutions. Ukraine is bent on democratizing even amid the war, yet significant work remains, primarily regarding corruption and judiciary independence. Moldova is pursuing strong reforms to lay the groundwork for the independent and capable institutions that are needed to secure democracy, even if there is an anti-EU government in the future. Georgia’s no-compromise politics is eroding the institutional strength that it had built and stands in the way of progress to the next stages of EU accession.

The EU faces the dilemma of whether being strict or flexible on political conditions is better for incentivizing democratic reform. Strict conditionality can be helpful in some contexts, but it can backfire in other ones. This fact calls for differentiated strategies in how enlargement is used as a tool for democracy support. For conditionality to have an effective role in the democratization of these three countries, the EU must adopt strategies tailored to each one.

Moldova and Ukraine came to see the benefits of meeting conditionality—such as the start of the accession negotiations and EU financial assistance—as outweighing the costs of compliance. Nonetheless, Moldova lacks administrative capacity to meet all dimensions of EU conditionality while questions of democracy consolidation loom large in war-torn Ukraine. In Georgia, the ruling party shows reluctance in implementing necessary reforms, although public pressure forces it to show at least superficial compliance with EU conditionality. Balancing challenges in enacting democratic reforms while leveraging strict conditionality will prove key for Ukraine’s democratization, increasing administrative capacity will strengthen Moldova’s resolve, and dismantling the dominant-party system will help Georgia progress on its accession path. And in all three countries, support for civil society and activist groups must be the sine qua non.

Irakli Sirbiladze is a ReThink.CEE fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a visiting lecturer at Tbilisi State University.

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