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The European Union must commit to joining the countries of the region and fix 2030 as the deadline for this to happen, as well as apply a phased approach to the enlargement process, the head of the Sofia office of the European Foreign Policy Council (EFCP) urges. .
In what is likely to be her last State of the Union speech as European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen said the EU must answer “the call of history” and accept a large group of new members, including from the Western Balkans. Ten days earlier, European Council President Charles Michel tried to encourage his audience of leaders from the Western Balkans: “I believe we must be ready – on both sides – to enlarge the EU by 2030.”
However, neither side is ready for this step. The EU does not want to expand, and the countries of the Western Balkans do not want to reform. As the Kremlin continues its attempts to meddle in the region, the EU institutions must take this strategic urgency seriously and prioritize the accession of the countries of the region. In his speech, von der Leyen echoed the popular opinion in the EU that, although strategic, this enlargement should still be based on merit. A more concrete commitment is needed and should be implemented through a phased approach.
The EU’s commitment to enlargement has suffered numerous setbacks since the 2003 Thessaloniki summit, the Western Balkans were assured that they would become an integral part of the EU after meeting the Copenhagen criteria. The subsequent bilateral disputes (between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia, Slovenia and Croatia, Bulgaria and North Macedonia) damaged bilateral relations between the member states and the Western Balkans, and the non-recognition of Kosovo by five EU member states further slowed the process. The change in the methodology of enlargement under French pressure in 2018 was another obstacle in the way.
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At the same time, the six countries of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia – lag behind with reforms in significant areas: state of democracy, rule of law, media freedom, fight against corruption and building a functioning market economy. Observers criticize some countries in the region for becoming “stable autocracies” and the EU for not taking a stronger stance against autocratic tendencies in the region. These trends pose a serious risk to the security of the EU, because governments in the region are increasingly inclined to seek loans or investments from partners that do not set demands for democratic standards. Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro have already sought alternative partners in the form of Russia, Turkey and China. Their influence is likely to further weaken the hold of democracy in the region and distance it geopolitically from the EU.
In the 20 years since the Thessaloniki summit, the EU’s lack of commitment to enlargement and slow progress in the Western Balkans have created a vicious cycle of excuses and disappointments in both countries. By announcing a deadline of 2030, Michel’s team hopes to break this cycle as it will be “ambitious but realistic, a date close enough to be considered achievable and worth the political investment on the part of the leaders in the candidate countries”.
In addition, the political will in the EU for the integration of Ukraine and Moldova renewed the disputes about the enlargement. However, the countries of the Western Balkans should not count on a relaxation of the criteria towards them due to the current geopolitical momentum. Instead, the better way would be for each country to be able to progress at its own pace through gradual membership, carrying out reforms. This is a counterbalance to the current approach, where a country is either a member or not. So-called gradual accession would restore confidence in the merit-based process and is currently being discussed in many European capitals.
The EU needs to overcome disagreements among member states on how to make its institutions more flexible and better prepared for gradual enlargement. The basic package should include at least the following elements: participation in the single market, full integration with the EU climate agenda (including access to the financial instruments of the European Green Deal) and access to EU structural funds (full or partial). The precondition must be the full alignment of the foreign policy of the countries of the region with the foreign policy of the EU. Such an initiative should be launched by the European Council (not the European Commission) as a strong political signal.
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Some member states fear that the fast-track accession process could lead to the installation in the EU of a leader who opposes European values, along the lines of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has consistently blocked European legislation. To prevent such blockages from occurring, Michel suggested two measures. The first is a “trust clause” whereby new members cannot block future members. The second is the “constructive abstention” method. This method stems from the abstention of neutral Austria in the EU’s discussions on the European Peace Mechanism, which finances the sending of weapons to Ukraine. And while the former seems applicable, the latter is too altruistic as it presupposes a high level of political maturity. Relying on constructive abstention to overcome gridlock is unlikely to work among politicians who are new to Brussels and want to show political muscle. So a phased approach to accession, where new EU members gradually gain voting rights, is among the main ways to protect against this threat.
The EU should take advantage of the geopolitical urgency to speed up the accession of the six Western Balkan countries without offering an alternative to enlargement. Turkey’s failure to join the EU serves as a warning of what can happen when a country realizes it will not become a member of the EU – a dangerous “refusal” of reforms that could lead to a retreat from democratic standards in the EU’s neighborhood country pushing it eastward in search of allies.
The European Commission cannot manage Ukraine’s accession process in the same way as that of the Western Balkans. Ukraine’s accession must contain bold and consistent political messages, as well as larger sums to finance its recovery. Talks on tying Ukraine’s recovery to its EU integration are due to start by the end of this year, with the aim of getting the next Multiannual Financial Framework, Common Agricultural Policy and Cohesion Policy ready for enlargement for potential enlargement. The financial framework for Ukraine would be part of a broader peace deal that would likely include freezing Russian assets and further economic stabilization efforts. Quite rightly, its size will far exceed the size of all cohesion policy and enlargement policy instruments currently available to each individual country. Ukraine’s integration process should inspire confidence in EU member states to strengthen the political will to join the Western Balkans. In addition to the current merit-based approach, a phased process would allow for the capabilities of each candidate country to be taken into account.
Behind the focus of some member states on progress and reforming the enlargement process lies the lack of preparedness in the EU to support the Western Balkans. The current attempts by von der Leyen and Michel to push this process towards the Western Balkans and create better preparedness within the EU may not succeed if no one takes them seriously. Rather than delay membership promises, risk losing the region to growing disillusionment, a stable autocracy or other partners, the EU must immediately take the necessary steps to prepare for enlargement. The call of history can easily become a historical missed opportunity.
The European Foreign Policy Council does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all EUSR publications, represents the author’s opinion only.
The column “Analyses” presents different points of view, the opinions expressed do not necessarily coincide with the editorial position of “Dnevnik”.