13 August 2022

Will the Ukrainian momentum help to overcome the stalled enlargement policy of the European Union?

By Oliver Schwarz
Ukrainian president Volodimir Zelenskiy next to an EU flag during a plenary session of the Ukrainian parliament Verkhovna Rada
“Ukraine’s application has reminded the EU that enlargement is a political project. But on the Western Balkans, it is close to complete deadlock.”

If you are looking for reasons to be hopeful about the enlargement policy of the European Union, then I have got one of those classic good news/bad news messages for you.

The good news first: Ukraine’s application for membership has given a new momentum to EU enlargement. Only a few days after Russia’s attack, Ukraine applied for EU membership. Both the Commission’s and the Parliament’s responses to this proposal were very positive and supportive. Many heads of state and government have also pledged their support for Ukraine, while some have been more cautious, pointing out that accession would be a long and difficult process.

On 17 June, the Commission presented its opinion on Ukraine’s application for membership (and on the applications of Georgia and Moldova). The message was clear: The Commission backs EU membership for Ukraine. And indeed: During the 23-24 June European Council meeting, the 27 member states have granted candidate status to the war-torn country. Moldova was also given candidate status. In addition, Georgia was granted a European perspective.

A political project

Ukraine’s application has reminded the EU that enlargement was and is a political project. Greece, Portugal and Spain acceded the EU to consolidate democracy in these countries. The eastern enlargement took place to overcome the historic divide of the European continent. In the case of Bulgaria and Romania, the EU was willing to bear the costs of insufficient accession capacity and established the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism, a relatively smart instrument.

Candidate status for Ukraine is undoubtedly a political signal not only to Kyiv but also to Moscow. The way from applicant to candidate usually takes years, but Russian aggression has impressively accelerated the process. This is what a geopolitical Union should look like.

Enlargement policy is close to deadlock

Map with EU candidates
EU candidate countries.

So much for the good news. But now for the bad: EU enlargement is close to complete deadlock. Over the past decade, the EU has been unable to stop the systematic autocratisation of Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In the same period, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has deteriorated the country’s democratic status from a “semi-consolidated democracy” to a “hybrid regime”. In Montenegro, the voters have temporarily sent President Milo Đukanović’s party into opposition. But here, too, the EU tolerated the establishment of a stabilitocracy for years.

But EU enlargement shows itself not only incapable of dealing with authoritarian politicians and democratic backsliding. In Bosnia and Hercegovina, the EU has so far failed to strike a basic reconciliation of interests between the country’s three ethnic groups – Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs. As a result, the Dayton Agreement is still proving to be dysfunctional. Meanwhile, the people of Kosovo are still waiting for the European promise of visa-free travel to be fulfilled. Not to mention the fact that five EU members have still not recognised the country’s independence.

However, the biggest pitfall of the EU has recently been in North Macedonia. The country has been a candidate for more than 16 years now. Since 2009 the Commission has recommended the opening of accession negotiations with Skopje. The opening of accession talks was first blocked because of the name dispute with Greece. But when this dispute finally was settled by the Prespa agreement in 2018, which can undoubtedly be classified as historic, Bulgaria began to block the accession process on nationalist and historical revisionist grounds. Since Brussels decided to link the accession process of North Macedonia with that of Albania, Tirana’s European perspective was also put on hold. Credibility looks different.

A declaration of political bankruptcy

While Western Balkan leaders, who attended the European Council’s June summit, welcomed the accelerated process for Ukraine, they also very clearly criticised their countries stand-still and hoped for some quick and visible steps forwards. In this respect, however, the European Council has failed completely. Neither was Bosnia and Herzegovina granted candidate status, nor did Kosovo receive visa-freedom. The accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia were also not opened until several weeks later, after the so-called French proposal had brought a little movement into the Bulgarian-Macedonian conflict.

All in all, this is not only disappointing, but a declaration of political bankruptcy for EU enlargement. Ukraine is a good example of what the European accession perspective is capable of achieving positively in third countries. However, this effect will evaporate if the European accession perspective becomes an empty promise without any significant progress. This is impressively evident in the countries of the Western Balkans. EU enlargement needs a serious relaunch.

Proposals to overhaul the accession process

Throughout all the past years individual experts, research institutes, think tanks and NGOs have floated concrete proposals on how to overhaul and improve the accession process. Take the former MEP Andrew Duff, who has been promoting some form of affiliate membership for years. Also noteworthy is the non-paper by the Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg and the Minister for European Affairs Karoline Edtstadler. In concrete terms, Schallenberg and Edtstadler suggest, for example, possible integration into the internal market, involvement in EU education and funding programmes, and participation in the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the Common Security and Defence Policy.

In general, the perception seems to be gradually gaining ground that the old European mantra of “sharing everything but institutions” has outlived its usefulness. For example, Christoph Heusgen, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, recently stated in an interview that the Western Balkan states should participate as quickly as possible in the meetings of the Council and the European Council.

Other proposals seem to aim at keeping the candidate countries out rather than bringing them in. This certainly applies to the proposal of a European Political Community put forward by French President Emmanuel Macron. Political pressure from France has also recently tended to increase, not decrease, the interferences of member states on enlargement policy. For example, the new methodology introduced qualified majority voting – not to speed up the accession process, but to reinforce negative conditionality and thus further slow down the process. One would therefore like to call out to the decision-makers: How dare you!

The staged-accession proposal

Nevertheless, there are excellent reform ideas on the table. The most sophisticated proposal at the moment is that of staged accession, put forward by the European Policy Centre Belgrade (CEP) and the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS). The authors propose a progressive, conditional and staged accession process. While the ultimate goal remains “conventual membership” in the EU, a novel category of “new member states” is proposed.

These newly acceding states would be directly integrated into European policies and have the possibility to accede to the Schengen area and eurozone on standard conditions. At the same time, the proposal seeks maximum integration into the EU institutions, with some exceptions for the Commission and the Council. In order to avoid any institutional problems, the new member states would not have a veto right in the Council, but only participate in qualified majority voting.

Manifold advantages

The proposed reform is progressive. It would indeed rethink EU enlargement policy. Specific arrangements would be needed for each institution, with the Commission and Council as the most politically sensitive ones. Some of these arrangements require treaty changes. Nonetheless, the proposed model of staged accession should be thoroughly examined.

Its possible advantages are manifold: Increased participation of the candidate countries in the EU could create a stronger sense of community among them. Their involvement in decision-making processes could lead to a stronger engagement with the norms and values of the EU. General learning processes would be released and identity-building processes would be promoted even before full accession to the EU. Early integration could also lead to intensified mutual communication and thus to an early establishment of a Europe-wide political public sphere. Finally, the citizens of the candidate countries could also see themselves as members of a political community and thus identify more strongly with it.

No compromises with the rule of law

However, its implementation would require the EU to be clearer in naming, shaming and finally sanctioning those responsible for insufficient reforms and democratic backsliding. Politicians like Milorad Dodik or Aleksandar Vučić must show their colours: democratic pro-European reforms or authoritarian oscillation between Russia and China.

There can be no compromise when it comes to respecting the rule of law – not for old member states, not for new ones, not for any third country that wants to become a member of the EU. Unfortunately, in the case of Poland and Hungary, there is so far no indication that the EU is willing to take on this task.

If the EU fails in the West Balkans, it will also fail in Ukraine

Besides the principle of democratic conditionality, the basic idea of EU enlargement must be the earliest possible and most comprehensive support of candidate states willing to join. The necessary tools are all there or can be provided. Unfortunately, there seems to be a lack of political will to use or implement them.

In the EU’s own interest, one can only hope that the Ukrainian momentum will help to overcome the stalled EU enlargement policy. If the EU fails in the Western Balkans, it will also fail in Ukraine. Further muddling through will not bring the often quoted European Zeitenwende, but will only open the door further to actors like Russia and China.

Portrait Oliver Schwarz

Oliver Schwarz is a political scientist at the University of Duisburg-Essen (UDE). His research and teaching activities focus on European integration and European politics.

Pictures: Volodimir Zelenskiy: President.gov.ua [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons; EU candidate countries map: Manuel Müller, created with MapChart [CC BY-SA 4.0]; portrait Oliver Schwarz: private [all rights reserved].

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