Europe will soon be a dwarf lacking the leverage to weigh in world affairs. It is in the European interest to work on a long-term membership deal for the three, now associated, countries south of Russia, writes Eberhard Rhein.

Eberhard Rhein is the former chief of staff for external relations at the European Commission. He blogs on climate and energy issues on EurActiv's platform

After very long, extensive and complicated negotiations, the EU has finally signed the association and free trade agreements with three countries south of Russia, on 27 June. All three consider this signature a step toward their final goal: joining the European Union.

Their desire is perfectly logical. Experience tells them that only EU membership - and, even better, NATO membership - might give them enough protection against pressures from a powerful Russia.

Even if many people in Europe understand these fears, the EU as such is presently more preoccupied with internal consolidation and the challenge of integrating six potential candidate countries from the Western Balkans, to which it had offered an accession perspective years ago. It is therefore not prepared to do the same to the newly associated three countries in the East which do not need it anyhow, as article 49 of the EUT clearly specifies their right to join the EU.

Even a political membership perspective would not guarantee their rapid accession, as Turkey demonstrates, which continues to be far from membership despite the perspective inserted into the 1964 Association Agreement.

The EU is anything but prepared for a major enlargement in the coming 10 to 20 years. Citizens do not want it, opinion polls clearly show.

The EU governance has also reached its limits with 28 member states. Operating an EU with close to 40 member states effectively and democratically with the present constitutional rules seems very difficult to imagine.

But in a long-term perspective, a bigger Union is clearly in the European interest. By the middle of the century, Europe will account for less than 5% of the global population. Even jointly, it will be a dwarf lacking the leverage to weigh in world affairs, unless it organises itself much more effectively.

The the EU, therefore, cannot simply reject the desire of the newly associated countries to join the EU as soon as possible. As European countries, they are entitled to membership provided they respect basic values like human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and rule of law.

The EU should, above all, assist them in their efforts to make internal reforms. That is what it has started to do. The faster the newly associated countries succeed in implementing EU standards, the faster their desire for membership will become credible. As the EU has learned from the “premature membership” of Bulgaria and Romania which had not been sufficiently prepared in 2007, nothing would be worse for the EU than co-habitation with member countries that are not fully respecting EU values.

In parallel, the parties must work hard to reduce the huge prosperity and welfare gap. Prosperity differentials of 10 to 1 between the average and the poorest members are hardly compatible in a “Union of Equals”.

All thissaid, the likelihood of another Eastern enlargement has risen since June 27th 2014. The EU and the three associated countries should discreetly start preparing for it. For the EU, this implies elaborating functioning governance structures for almost 40 member states. Without major constitutional revisions prepared beforehand, another big enlargement is hardly conceivable.