Enlargement is the European Union’s biggest geopolitical instrument, Austria’s Federal Minister for European and International Affairs Alexander Schallenberg told a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos on May 25.
This instrument has been used effectively in the past to support new democracies in Southern and Central Europe and encourage reforms, but the engagement process has flagged in the last decade, leaving most of the Western Balkan states with little hope of joining in the foreseeable future. Three more states – Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine – have applied to join in the months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The ability of the EU states to use what Schallenberg described as its main geopolitical tool will be put to the test in June. At the June 23-24 Council meeting, EU member states will decide not only on the three former Soviet states’ candidacy applications, but also on whether two long-standing candidates, Albania and North Macedonia, will be allowed to progress to starting accession negotiations. They will thus have the power to either give hope to the EU’s near neighbours or take it away.
Belief in EU values
The prime ministers of Georgia and Moldova spoke at the same World Economic Forum panel, Rethinking the EU's Partnership with its Neighbourhood, and both passionately stressed their countries’ commitments to EU values and the European project.
“We think Moldova should be firmly anchored in this community of values because we believe in democratic institutions, rule of law, respect for human rights,” said Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilița.
“We believe now there is this standoff between the values of democracy, rule of law – the European values – and the values of autocracy, dictatorship … people need to know that if they get through the reforms they will be welcome in the family of European states.”
Her Georgian counterpart Irakli Garibashvili said his country has been trying to be a “member of civilised Europe” for centuries. “Georgia been a very reliable and loyal partner to the EU. This is a choice of our people not only the government … this is a civilisational choice.”
There are already signs that not all of the EU member states may favour giving candidate status to the three new applicants. Ukraine’s candidacy was enthusiastically championed by a number of political leaders from the eastern EU member states, which have consistently been the biggest proponents of enlargement. However, recent statements from French President Emmanuel Macron indicate Paris is seeking to manage expectations ahead of the summit.
Shortly after President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced he had signed Ukraine’s application to join the EU, Georgia and Moldova also said they would file applications. Like Ukraine, both of the countries have parts of their territories occupied by pro-Russian separatists, though these conflicts are frozen, and are seen as highly vulnerable to potential Russian aggression in future.
However, the enthusiasm with which politicians in countries like Poland, the Baltic states and Slovenia welcomed Ukraine’s application has not been matched by all the EU members.
Macron and the country’s Minister for European Affairs Clement Beaune have talked down expectations of a speedy accession process for Ukraine, even with the tremendous goodwill towards the country.
Earlier in May, Macron proposed a new, informal grouping of like-minded European countries. Criteria for joining would be based on geography and a shared set of values, and the new union’s remit could include political co-ordination, collective security and energy, Macron told reporters.
At the World Economic Forum panel, both Gavrilița and Garibashvili stressed that while they were keen on any initiative that would bring their countries closer to the EU, they did not want to accept a weaker alternative to full membership as their ultimate goals. Gavrilița said that the country has received public assurances that Macron’s proposal is not a replacement for membership pathway.
Two days earlier, Beaune had warned that it might take decades before Ukraine becomes a full member of the EU.
“If we say that Ukraine will join the EU in 6 months, 1 year or 2 years, we are lying. This is not true. It is probably 15 or 20 years, and it is very long,” French Minister for European Affairs Clement Beaune said, according to LeFigaro.fr.
“I don’t want Ukrainians to be sold illusions and lies,” Beaune continued. “If we say to Ukrainians, ‘Welcome to the EU,’ but you didn’t read in the treaty, in the footnote, ‘Hello, it’s 15 years from now,’ I think there will be a disappointment for a whole generation of the Ukrainian people.”
Have things changed?
This was very much the experience of the Western Balkan countries, in particular North Macedonia, which became a candidate country 17 years ago. Despite meeting the criteria to start accession talks, the country’s progress was blocked by EU members using their veto powers.
However, as many EU politicians have recognised, the impetus for enlargement has grown suddenly following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Schallenberg recalled the accessions of first Greece in 1981 then Spain and Portugal in 1986, with the aim of strengthening the young democracies, followed by the entry of Central and some Southeast European countries in the early years of this century. However, he said, “if we had dealt with enlargement in the 1990s the same way as we are doing it now then probably Poland and Romania would not be members of the EU … we know we have to get our act together.
“The Russian attack on Ukraine shattered many things we believe in since February 24. It is now crunch time and I believe the EU needs to get its act together. We are entering more confrontational phase that will last years if not decades,” he added.
“Enlargement is the biggest geopolitical instrument we have but we can’t grant candidate status and then nothing happens for years afterwards. We are seeing growing frustration in the Western Balkans, where people are looking elsewhere, and we are seeing developments we not like to see. We shouldn’t repeat these mistakes in Ukraine, Moldova and others … we have to think anew about the neighbourhood policy, we have a responsibility as the EU.”
Estonian President Alar Karis told the panel that Estonia has been always very firm supporter of enlargement policy. Just as Estonia’s Scandinavian neighbours supported it back in the 1990s and early 2000s, “now the candidate countries also need friends to support this process”.
Like Schallenberg, he stressed that there “is no fast track because it is a process”. However, he indicated other factors may be even more important than meeting the criteria for membership. “At the end of the day it’s a political decision on whether the members of the EU feel that you are one of us. Criteria is something but more important is the feeling you are one of us.”
Balkan enlargement delayed
It is many years since some of the Western Balkan countries first applied for EU candidate status, and the views of the region from Western Europe in particular, combined with divisions within the region, have helped to keep them waiting for progress.
North Macedonia has been a candidate country for more than 16 years, having been accepted as a candidate country back in December 2005, but has yet to open accession negotiations. Montenegro, the closest state to accession, achieved candidate status over 11 years ago, in December 2010. Kosovo has so far been unable to apply, as it is not recognised by five EU member states.
North Macedonia’s repeated failure to gain unanimous approval form EU member states to process toward membership is perhaps the biggest challenge to the EU’s credibility in the region, where European Commission officials and other observers have repeatedly warned of the risk of backsliding on democracy and the fight against corruption as states lose hope of ever achieving membership.
Twice, the country’s process has been delayed because individual EU member states – first Greece and now Bulgaria – have used their veto power to west concessions from Skopje. Now, Sofia is under pressure to allow Skopje to start EU accession talks by the end of June, after a veto imposed for the first time two years ago, but as bne IntelliNews reported, Bulgarian officials are not sending promising signs.
In the latest development North Macedonia’s PM Dimitar Kovacevski said on May 23 that there has been no progress in talks with Bulgarian officials, in terms of achieving a joint document that will open the way for lifting the Bulgarian veto on Skopje to launch the EU accession talks.
This also prevents Albania from starting EU accession talks, as Tirana and Skopje are coupled in the process. Albanian PM Edi Rama said recently that if the country fails to start EU accession talks following the June EU summit the country will request to be de-coupled from North Macedonia.
Even the two frontrunners in the accession process – Serbia and Montenegro – have run into difficulties.
Serbia cannot enter the EU until it reaches a normalisation agreement with Kosovo, but recognition of Kosovo’s independence would be almost impossible to sell to the population. Moreover, Belgrade’s refusal to align with the EU and sanction Russia has caused officials in Brussels and the member states to question its commitment to European values.
Meanwhile, Montenegro’s progress towards EU membership has been slowed down by the political instability and tensions in the country, according to a report adopted by the EU’s Foreign Affairs Committee on May 12. Since 2017, none of the 33 opened negotiations chapters have been closed.
However, the war in Ukraine and fears of a potential spillover to other parts of emerging Europe has prompted both Bosnia and Kosovo to do more to persuade the EU to grant them candidate status.
In Bosnia, Zeljko Komsic, chairman of the three-member presidency of Bosnia, has sent an official request to EU officials to consider granting candidate status to the country. Komsic argued that more than ever Bosnia needs European unity and a clear signal that the Western Balkans is a part of Europe. However, the application process has long been delayed by political disputes among the country’s leaders.
Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti said on March 3 that Pristina will accelerate the application process for EU membership and that he wants the country to become a Nato member as soon as possible.
In an interview with bne IntelliNews on the sidelines of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) annual meeting in Marrakesh on May 10, Finance Minister Hekuran Murati reiterated Kosovo’s ambitions for EU membership.
At the same time, EU officials are pushing for a breakthrough in June.
EU High Commissioner Josep Borrell said on May 17 that stepping up EU engagement with the six Western Balkan countries and advancing towards a common European future is more important than ever in view of the Russian attacks on Ukraine.
Two days later, the European Parliament urged the EU Council on May 19 to launch EU accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, especially in the geostrategic context of the war in Ukraine.
A statement endorsed by MEPs warned: “Even though both countries have fulfilled the conditions set by the European Council and delivered sustained results, Council has failed to open accession negotiations with them … This has undermined public attitude towards the EU and is a serious danger to enlargement policy as a whole,” states the report.