Slim hopes of EU enlargement progress ahead of European Parliament elections

Slim hopes of EU enlargement progress ahead of European Parliament elections
EU leaders will discuss enlargement policy at the Council meeting on March 21-22.
By bne IntelliNews March 20, 2024

EU members are pushing for the start of accession talks with Bosnia & Herzegovina at this week’s EU Council meeting, but wider progress on enlargement is unlikely before the June European Parliament elections. 

An official statement from the Council says EU leaders will discuss enlargement policy, including the latest developments in the bloc’s new candidate countries Bosnia, Ukraine and Moldova at the summit on March 21-22. 

This comes after EU leaders gave the greenlight to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova in December, conditional on the two countries meeting conditions set in the European Commission’s November 2023 enlargement report. 

EU leaders also said they were ready open accession negotiations with Bosnia, again provided compliance with the membership criteria is achieved. 

They invited the European Commission to report to the Council on progress by March at the latest, and officials are expected to give a written report on Bosnia and as well as oral assessments on Ukraine and Moldova, Euractiv reported. Based on the report, leaders are expected to decide on opening accession negotiations with Bosnia. 

This comes after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recommended on March 12 that Bosnia should get the go-ahead to start EU membership talks, as the country has been pushing hard to fulfil all key requirements over the past year under the governance of pro-Western Prime Minister Borjana Kristo.

“Since we granted candidate status, Bosnia & Herzegovina has taken impressive steps forward. More progress has been achieved in just over a year than in over a decade,” von der Leyen said.

Ahead of the Council meeting, several EU members have also urged the Council to greenlight the start of talks with Bosnia. 

Officials from Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Slovakia and Slovenia signed a letter calling on EU leaders to unfreeze the start of membership talks.

Over the past year, Kristo’s government has been pushing hard to adopt key reforms that would unblock the start of EU membership talks. Last week, the government was supposed to adopt the last required law – on courts – but Serb members of the government blocked it.

Without the adoption of this law, Bosnia might not get a green light to start membership talks with the EU.

Among those to call for the start of negotiations was Croatia’s foreign ministry state secretary Andreja Metelko Zgombic, who said opening negotiations with Bosnia is strategically import after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and given Moscow’s strong influence on the ruling party in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska.

“This would be a strong message to pro-European forces in Bosnia & Herzegovina, and this will show that that reforms pay off. That will encourage other Western Balkan countries and three countries in the Eastern Neighbourhood — Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia,” Zgombic said as quoted by N1.

Austrian Foreign Minister Karoline Edtstadler also backed the start of talks with Bosnia, saying that the new geopolitical circumstances posed the question on when the enlargement should happen and not whether enlargement should happen.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) warned on March 20 that Bosnia’s economy is expected to slow without progress on reforms. On the other hand, opening European Union accession talks could accelerate the country’s reforms efforts and improve its economic indicators, the Fund said. 

Support for Ukraine and Moldova 

Meanwhile, the European Council is expected to promise Ukraine and Moldova more support to address the threats posed by Russia — but the accession negotiations calendar for the two countries will remain lower on the agenda with no decision likely to be announced before the European elections, as reported by Europa Libera (Free Europe).

Earlier this month, the ambassadors of the EU countries approved a request from Moldova to be helped to strengthen its defence, providing €41mn over the next forty months for the acquisition if military vehicles, aerial surveillance equipment, electronic warfare equipment and logistic equipment.

Diplomatic sources told Free Europe that the decision not to set a date for accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova followed opposition from Germany and France, who do not want a possible decision related to the expansion of the EU to be taken before the European Parliament elections.

The European Commission on March 12 proposed to the EU member countries a framework for the accession negotiations with Moldova and Ukraine. The document describes how the negotiations will proceed with the two countries.

However, the European Commission's proposal states that the two countries still have arrears in reforms; in the case of Moldova these concern the justice sector.

Partial access

Politico reported on March 20 that von der Leyen is set to unveil proposals aimed at reforming the EU's process for admitting new members. Instead of the current binary approach, where countries are either fully admitted or not at all, Brussels seeks to introduce a more gradual integration process for Ukraine, Moldova, and the Western Balkans, according to a leaked draft obtained by Politico. 

Benefits such as access to the single market for candidate countries in the Western Balkans that make reform progress have already been discussed since the New Growth Plan for the region was announced last year. 

Elections approach 

Despite the push by some countries for Bosnia to start accession talks, politicians are wary of moving quickly on enlargement ahead of the European Parliament elections. 

According to Politico's sources within the EU, there's a prevailing sentiment among officials to handle preparations for potential accession of Ukraine, Moldova, and Western Balkan countries discreetly. 

Ukraine’s admittance to the bloc is a particularly sensitive issue, given the widespread protests by EU farmers against imports of agricultural goods from Ukraine. 

The East European country has one of the lowest GDPs on the continent but it also has a huge agricultural sector. Its entry to the EU raises significant questions about the bloc's cohesion policy and the redistribution of funds from wealthier to poorer regions, with a reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) likely to be required.

EU countries have overnight agreed to impose new restrictions on Ukrainian agricultural imports to the EU that will cost the cash-strapped country €1.7bn and hurt its ability to fight the war against Russia.

Overall, a shift to the right is expected across many EU member states in the upcoming 2024 European Parliament elections, with populist radical right parties poised to gain significant traction at the expense of centre-left and green parties. 

According to research by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) based on early polling data, anti-European populist movements are expected to lead in nine member states including all of the Visegrad Four countries, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. They are projected to secure second or third positions in nine others including Bulgaria and Romania in Southeast Europe and the Baltic states of Estonia and Latvia. 

The forecast suggests a departure from the traditional dominance of the centre, with almost half the seats projected to be held by MEPs outside the "super grand coalition" of the three centrist groups. More recent polls from countries including Romania also indicate a shift towards far right parties.