In what could be his last State of the Union Address As president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen said the European Union must answer “the call of history” and admit a large group of new members, particularly from the Western Balkans. Ten days earlier, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, tried to energize his audience of Western Balkan leaders: “It’s time to get rid of ambiguities… I believe we need to be ready – on both sides – for enlargement by 2030.”
However, neither side is ready. The EU is reluctant to enlarge and the Western Balkan countries are reluctant to reform. But, like the Kremlin continues its attempts To influence the region towards Russia, EU institutions must take into account this strategic urgency and prioritize the region’s membership. In his speech, von der Leyen echoed popular opinion within the EU that, although strategic, this enlargement should nevertheless be based on merit. But a more concrete commitment is necessary and must be done in a step-by-step approach.
Since Thessaloniki Summit 2003 which concluded that all Western Balkan countries will “become an integral part of the EU” once they have met the established requirements. Copenhagen criteria, the EU’s commitment to enlargement has suffered numerous setbacks. Bilateral disputes (between Greece and Macedonia at the time, Slovenia and Croatia, Bulgaria and North Macedonia) have damaged diplomatic relations between Member States and the Western Balkans, while the non-recognition of Kosovo by five EU member states hopes of membership were compromised. And one change in enlargement methodology below French pressure in 2018further slowed down the process.
At the same time, the six candidate countries in the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia – have regressed in important reform areas: democracy, rule of law , media freedom, fight against corruption and construction of an operational system. market economy. They were criticized by observers to develop into “stabilitocracies”, and the EU to not take a stronger stance against their autocratic tendencies. This trend poses a serious risk to EU security: these governments are more likely to seek loans or investments from partners that do not come with democratic performance conditions. Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro have already sought alternative partners with countries like Russia, Turkey and China, whose authoritarian influence is likely to further weaken their democracies and shift their geopolitical allegiances away from home. EU.
In the 20 years since the Thessaloniki Summit, the EU’s lack of commitment to enlargement and the backsliding of the Western Balkan states have turned into a vicious cycle of excuses and disappointments from both sides. By announcing the 2030 deadline, Michel’s team hopes to break this circle would be “ambitious but realistic… The date is close enough to appear achievable and deserves the political investment of the elected leaders of the candidate states”.
Moreover, political will The desire to integrate Ukraine and Moldova into the EU, following the Russian invasion, has revived debates around enlargement. But Western Balkan countries should not count on a relaxation of enlargement criteria due to current geopolitical dynamics. Instead, the best solution would be for each state, in implementing its reforms, to be able to move forward at its own pace through gradual membership – rather than the current approach where a country is either a member state , or it is not. A so-called step-by-step membership would restore candidate countries’ confidence in merit-based processes and is already the subject of debate in many European capitals.
However, the EU must overcome differences between member states on how to make its institutions more flexible and better equipped for step-by-step enlargement. A 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 funds structural structures of the EU (total or partial). The initiative should have as a precondition the candidates’ full alignment with EU foreign policy and should come from the European Council (and not the European Commission) as a sign of strong political commitment.
Some member states fear that a rapid accession process could lead to the importation of a leader opposed to EU values, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who systematically blocks European legislation. To avoid import blockages, Michel proposed two measures. The first is a “trust clause”, according to which newcomers cannot block future members; and the second is a method of “constructive abstention” derived from Austria’s neutral abstention during EU discussions on the European Peace Facility, which funds the shipment of weapons to Ukraine. And if the first seems feasible, the second is too altruistic because it presupposes a high level of political maturity. Relying on constructive abstention to overcome blockages is unlikely to work among politicians new to Brussels and eager to show their political strength. Thus, a staged membership approach, in which new entrants gain additional voting power, is most likely to combat this threat.
Finally, the EU must seize this new geopolitical emergency to accelerate the accession of the six Western Balkan states without offering an alternative to enlargement. Turkey’s failure to join the EU serves as a warning of what can happen when a government realizes it will not join the bloc – a dangerous “abandonment” of reforms that can lead to a new democratic setback of a European neighbor and push it further east looking for allies.
In the case of Ukraine, the risk of non-enlargement could be the birth of a nationalist country, a Ukraine in the style of Orban. At the same time, Ukraine’s ambitious progress toward European integration has created a paradox in the EU accession process: the six Western Balkan countries, with a combined population of 17 million do not threaten the EU’s absorption capacity, but it is reluctant to move forward; whereas with Ukraine there is a sense of urgency to move forward, but her size may present an absorption capacity problem.
This is why the European Commission cannot lead Ukraine’s accession process in the same way for the Western Balkans. As a country at war, Ukraine’s membership must contain a bold and coherent political message and greater funding linked to its reconstruction. Discussions on how to link reconstruction to European integration must begin by the end of this year in order to prepare the next multiannual financial framework, the common agricultural policy and cohesion policy with a view to possible enlargement. THE financial framework because Ukraine would be part of a broader peace deal that could possibly include frozen Russian assets and an additional effort at economic stabilization, far greater than the size of any accession or cohesion policy instruments currently available. ‘now a given country, and for good reasons. Ukraine’s integration process must inspire confidence in EU member states in order to strengthen the political will behind accession to the Western Balkans. Therefore, in addition to the current merit-based approach, a step-by-step process would take into account the capabilities of each candidate State.
Behind the efforts of some member states to advance and reform the enlargement process lies a lack of preparedness within the EU to support the Western Balkans. Current attempts by von der Leyen and Michel to reinvigorate this process in the Western Balkans and create better preparation within the EU could fail if no one thinks seriously about it in the first place. And instead of dragging out the membership promise and risking losing the region to disillusionment, stabilitocracy and other partners, the EU should immediately take the necessary steps to prepare for enlargement. The call of history can easily turn into a missed historical opportunity.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent solely the opinions of their individual authors.