Poll shows EU citizens open to Ukraine’s accession, cooler towards Western Balkans

Poll shows EU citizens open to Ukraine’s accession, cooler towards Western Balkans
New ECFR poll shows EU citizens have mixed feelings on enlargement, with less than a third backing accession for Western Balkan states. / ECFR
By bne IntelliNews December 12, 2023

A flash poll conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) finds that EU citizens are have mixed feelings about Ukraine’s accession to the bloc, and are even less enthusiastic about membership for long-standing aspirants from the Western Balkans. 

The poll was released shortly before this week’s EU Council meeting at which EU member states are due to consider whether to invite Ukraine and Moldova to start accession negotiations. The two countries were given candidate status last year after EU members responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with a reinvigoration of the enlargement process. 

The survey conducted among residents of six EU member states finds Europeans are divided on the benefits of EU enlargement, but Ukraine is viewed more favourably as a candidate than other would-be members, despite economic and security concerns. 

The largest share in favour of Ukraine’s entry to the bloc were in Denmark (50%) and Poland (47%). Opinions in Romania (32% support vs. 29% oppose), Germany (37% support vs. 39% oppose) and France (29% support vs. 35% oppose) are more evenly divided. 

Austria is an outlier, with a majority (52%) opposing Ukraine's accession and only 28% in favour.

By contrast, less than one third of respondents were in favour of accession for any of the Western Balkan states, several of which have been candidates for years. 

Support for these countries' admission to the EU is generally below 30%, with Kosovo facing the highest level of opposition — 37% of respondents against compared to just 20% in favour.

Respondents also looked less favourably at Albania, where 24% were in favour of the country joining and 35% against. For Serbia, 25% support joining, while 35% oppose. Georgia has 25% in favour and 31% against. North Macedonia has an almost equally divided opinion, with 26% supporting joining and 27% opposing, as does Bosnia & Herzegovina with 28% in favour and 29% against.

Turkey's potential accession to the EU faces widespread opposition, with 51% of respondents across the surveyed countries expressing disapproval. The level of support for Turkey's membership is very low, with fewer than one in five respondents (19%) favouring any progress on Turkish membership.

Even for Ukraine, respondents harbour concerns about potential economic and security risks associated with the country’s entry to the EU. 

A substantial portion of respondents (45%) believes that Ukraine joining the EU would have a negative impact on the security of the EU, with only 25% anticipating a positive impact. Similarly, 39% expect a negative impact on their country's security, contrasting with 24% anticipating a positive impact.

Opinions on the geopolitical implications of enlargement vary across member states. Poland and Denmark show optimism, with 43% and 35%, respectively believing that Ukraine's accession would positively impact the EU's political power globally. In contrast, a prevailing view in Austria (42%) and Germany (32%) is that Ukraine's accession would have a negative impact on the EU's political power. Opinions in France and Romania are split on this matter.

The survey highlights a clear divide between 'old' and 'new' EU member states concerning the timing of any potential enlargement. Countries like Austria, Germany and France are more likely to oppose immediate enlargement, with a majority in Austria (53%), Germany (50%) and France (44%) holding this view. In contrast, Romania (51%) and Poland (48%) lean towards supporting the idea of adding new member states.

The survey indicates varying perceptions regarding the economic benefits of enlargement, with Poland and Romania having more positive views. In contrast, Denmark and Austria demonstrate higher levels of skepticism, with 54% and 46% of respondents, respectively, believing that Ukraine's entry would have a negative impact on the EU's economy. 

It is currently unclear if Ukraine and Moldova will get the nod to start accession talks this week as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is trying to get the issue dropped from the EU Council agenda. The Hungarian leader, who has has retained closer ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin than any other EU leader, has called for a "strategic discussion" among EU heads of state and government on Europe's entire Ukraine policy. 

Progress by the Western Balkan candidate countries has also been patchy, with both Albania and North Macedonia seeing their progress stall amid bilateral disputes with neighbouring states. Kosovo is unable to even apply for candidate status as five EU members do not recognise it as an independent state. 

The report’s authors, ECFR senior fellows Piotr Buras and Engjellushe Morina, argue that while the geopolitical arguments in favour of enlargement are stronger today than they were 20 years ago, public opinion has not kept pace, the ECFR said in a press release. 

They urged EU leaders to “send a strong message at this week’s European Council summit, by giving the green light to accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova and setting out a roadmap for institutional reforms that will allay citizen concerns and start the process of enlargement for all candidate countries”.