Ukraine and Moldova recommended for EU accession talks, Western Balkans urged to speed up reforms

Ukraine and Moldova recommended for EU accession talks, Western Balkans urged to speed up reforms
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said enlargement is "the call of history" at a press briefing on November 8. / European Commission
By bne IntelliNews November 8, 2023

The European Commission recommended starting accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova on the release of its latest package of enlargement reports on November 8

There was also good news for Georgia, as the Commission recommended giving the country candidate status, contingent on further reforms, as well as the start of accession negotiations with Bosnia & Herzegovina, again depending on the country's reform progress. 

For the longstanding accession candidates in the Western Balkans — Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia — the verdict was mixed. The Commission’s reports noted progress in some areas, but pointed to a stalling of reforms in Montenegro in particular. 

Ukraine and Moldova to move ahead 

Both Ukraine and Moldova were given EU candidate status in 2022 after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushed the EU to refocus on enlargement.

“Enlargement is a vital policy for the European Union. Completing our union is the call of history, the natural horizon of our union. Completing our union, also has a strong economic and geopolitical logic,” commented European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on the release of the package.

The European Commission’s statement on November 8 talked of a “powerful reform dynamic” in Ukraine after the country secured candidate status. 

“In light of the results achieved by Ukraine and Moldova, and of the ongoing reform efforts, the Commission has recommended that the Council opens accession negotiations with both countries,” a Commission statement said. 

It recommends that the EU Council adopts the negotiating frameworks once Ukraine and Moldova have adopted key measures. 

It commented on the determination of the Ukrainian government and parliament in advancing on the seven steps outlined by the European Commission Opinion on Ukraine's EU membership bid. Ukraine implemented a transparent pre-selection process for Constitutional Court judges, reformed judicial governance bodies, and bolstered its anti-corruption initiatives. Additionally, the nation made significant strides in curbing oligarch influence and aligning with EU standards, even amidst wartime challenges, demonstrating its commitment to EU integration, according to the statement. 

Commenting before the release of the reports, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that Kyiv expected a positive verdict and is already planning its next steps. 

“Ukraine will join the EU. And we will achieve this, in particular, as a result of our state's internal transformation that is completely consistent with the interests of our people,” Zelenskiy wrote on social network X (formerly Twitter). 

The report on Moldova also detailed progress on meeting the nine steps required by the Commission. It pointed to the justice reforms launched by Chisinau as well as the restructuring of anti-corruption bodies, and the deoligarchisation plan drawn up by the Moldovan authorities. Public administration and finance management reforms were pursued, alongside legislation for public procurement, while civil society involvement in decision-making and human rights protection were bolstered. 

“An important milestone for Moldova. @EU_Commission recommends the initiation of Moldova's EU accession talks, recognising our commitment to democracy and development,” President Maia Sandu wrote on X. 

“Moldova is firmly on the path for EU membership and we will continue working relentlessly towards this goal.” 

Candidate status recommended for Georgia 

Georgia did not secure candidate status at the same time as Ukraine and Moldova in 2022 amid concerns about the state of democracy. However, in November 2023, the country has been recommended for candidate status on the "understanding that a number of steps are taken”.

“Georgia has taken steps to strengthen engagement with the EU and increased pace of reforms in the recent months,” the statement said. 

It pointed to efforts to address the 12 priorities identified by the Commission including on gender equality, fighting violence against women and organised crime. Steps have also been taken towards judicial reforms and the protection of human rights.

“Building a strong cross-party political consensus would contribute to addressing polarisation and accelerate its European path,” the report added. 

More effort needed from Bosnia 

Bosnia was also granted accession candidate status in 2022, becoming the fifth of the Western Balkans countries to become a candidate. 

On November 8, the Commission recommended the opening of accession negotiations once Bosnia has achieved the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria.

As for Ukraine, the Commission said the decision to award candidate status “brought a much-needed positive dynamic”, with the new government starting to deliver on reforms. However, it warned that further efforts are needed, including on the rule of law and judicial, constitutional and electoral reforms. 

Commenting on the difficult political situation within Bosnia, the Commission warned: “It is also important to preserve the constitutional order of the country. The secessionist and authoritarian measures introduced in the Republika Srpska entity are not in line with the EU path.” 

Montenegro’s progress stalls 

Montenegro is the most advanced of the candidate countries towards EU accession, however, as pointed out by the Commission, progress toward EU accession reforms came to a standstill due to polarisation and political instability during the reporting period. 

After months of negotiations, a new government was appointed in October, and the Commission said it now expects Podgorica “to swiftly demonstrate its capacity and commitment to Montenegro's EU path and deliver on EU accession related reforms”.  

North Macedonia is the longest-standing EU accession candidate, having been granted candidate status back in 2005. Its progress has been repeatedly blocked by bilateral disputes with its EU-member neighbours, first Greece and later Bulgaria. The government is now struggling to get constitutional changes required for it to start accession negotiations through the parliament, which the Commission said should be made a priority

On a more positive note, the Commission said that it presented to EU Council the screening reports on the “fundamentals cluster” for North Macedonia in July and looks forward to a swift follow-up, with a view to opening negotiations on the cluster by the end of the year.

“The political polarisation and the blockade of the parliament where important legal decisions are made are the most important detected weaknesses in the latest report of the European Commission,” Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani said on the release of the report.

The opening of the first negotiation cluster with Albania is also expected by the end of the year. The Commission was positive on Albania’s determination to implement EU reforms, while warning that further efforts are needed in areas such as freedom of expression, minority issues and property rights. 

Conflict between Serbia and Kosovo 

For both accession candidate Serbia and potential candidate Kosovo, the Commission stressed the need to normalise their relations in order to progress on their EU path. 

It pointed out that despite the agreement reached (but not signed) earlier this year as part of the EU-facilitated dialogue between the two countries, “both Serbia and Kosovo are yet to start the implementation of their respective obligations, which are binding for the parties and a key part of their European paths”.  

The report also called on Serbia to align its foreign policy with the EU’s by joining sanctions on Russia.

Regarding Kosovo, the Commission acknowledged legislative progress during the reporting period, particularly highlighting a significant electoral reform. Nevertheless, there remains unfinished business, notably in the development of an action plan for justice reforms. 

No accession prospects for Turkey 

Commenting on Turkey, the report described the country as a “key partner” for the European Union but stressed that progress in accession talks has stalled since 2018. 

“The country has not reversed the negative trend of moving away from the European Union, and it pursued accession related reforms to a limited degree,” said the statement. 

A report on EU-Turkey relations is due to be submitted to the EU Council in November.