The Western Balkans, Ukraine and the EU

Two proposals for EU enlargement by Kristof Bender

The Western Balkan countries have languished in the EU accession process for years. Ukraine and Moldova, which both applied last year, will face a similar fate. The EU can change this by offering these countries the prospect of a credible, specific goal they can achieve on their own.

The EU accession process no longer works properly. This is due to the combination of two undisputed facts: first, for the accession process to work, it must be credible and meritocratic. It needs to offer an attractive, achievable goal, the realisation of which is dependent on the performance of the accession countries. This is how the process has played a crucial role in transforming Eastern Europe in the past – from Estonia to Romania. Secondly, several EU member states now take the view that the EU must reform itself and change its treaties before accepting new members. However, this is a difficult and lengthy process that will take years. These two facts are incompatible. As long as it is uncertain when and whether the EU will be ready to accept new members, the process can neither be meritocratic nor credible. This incompatibility explains the main problems of the accession process.

First, not letting countries move forward, even if they show results, will undermine their motivation to make demanding and tough reforms. It will weaken the position of reformers and boost the credibility of Eurosceptics who question the EU’s sincerity.

Secondly, the cost of blocking accession countries for bilateral reasons that have nothing to do with the accession criteria is low. Member states that block an important decision in the EU can generally expect to get less support from other members regarding other issues. In this case, however, several members are (tacitly) happy about the lack of progress, so that the actual costs of such bilateral blockades remain negligible.

Thirdly, these blockades have caused massive damage to the process. The North Macedonian leaders invested a lot of political capital to settle the long-standing bilateral name dispute with Greece. But rather than being rewarded with accession talks, the country was blocked again, first by France, then by Bulgaria. The signal is disastrous: even those who work rigorously toward the European option will get nowhere in the end.

As a result, the accession process is all but defunct. Thirteen years after the European Commission first determined that Northern Macedonia fulfils all the criteria to enter accession negotiations, the country has still not opened a single negotiating chapter. Ten years after negotiations began, Montenegro has closed only three of 35 chapters. All candidate countries are stuck. Not even the most advanced countries currently have a credible membership perspective. Ukraine and Moldova, which were granted candidate status in record time in June 2022, will face the same fate.

Zoran Zaev, then prime minister of North Macedonia, is received with military honors in Berlin in 2018. The country is still waiting for negotiations as part of the EU accession process. Photo: Inga Kjer / Kontributor via Getty Images

If nothing changes in the process, they too will be in for an eternal wait for a myriad of symbolic steps invented to draw out the process. Without a meritocratic process and a credible goal, they too will lose their enthusiasm. As long as certain member states insist on introducing internal reforms before accepting new members, these problems will not disappear. For the EU and everyone believing in a united Europe, the question is: what can be done to restart the process despite these obstacles? What can we do to turn it into the genuine transformation process it used to be in previous enlargement rounds? Here are two concrete proposals.

Membership for Montenegro

The EU announces that it will make preparations to admit Montenegro as a full EU member in 2026 if the European Commission concludes that the country has achieved “a good level of preparation” in all areas. It took Slovakia 34 months to begin and complete its accession negotiations. Montenegro has already opened all chapters. Why shouldn’t it be possible to close all of them within 24 months? If we allow for 15 months for ratification, the country could join the EU in mid-2026. This ambitious goal alone would be a strong, much-needed signal that it is still possible to join the EU; a signal that it is worth the effort to seriously participate in this process.

Offering this chance to Montenegro would not be a gift. In order to join, the country would have to fulfil all the criteria. With 620,000 inhabitants, Montenegro is a very small country. Its accession, including the necessary EU funds, would cost very little. Before the UK left, the EU already had 28 EU member states. No institutional changes would be required. Such an announcement would therefore be feasible. While it would show that the EU is serious about a “European future for the Western Balkans”, however, it would not suffice. The EU would have to fill the process with meaning for all other countries as well – with an attractive, achievable goal. And it would have to do it now. This cannot wait while the EU goes through a slow and difficult internal reform process (of which nobody knows when and how it will be completed).

Membership in the European single market

Therefore, the EU and its member states should declare that any European democracy that fulfils the membership criteria, including respect for human rights and the rule of law, will have access to the European single market, the four freedoms (free movement of goods, persons, services and capital) and EU funds.

This would be an ambitious goal that would bring the countries very close to full membership. They would not (yet) get a seat at the negotiating table, which would address concerns of those member states that insist that internal EU reforms be carried out first. However, membership in the single market comprises the bulk of the acquis. The citizens and businesses of the countries that manage to join would enjoy almost the same rights and benefits as those granted to EU member states.

Full EU membership would remain the goal. Participation in the internal market, which all EU members must join, would be a big step on the way to full membership – an attractive, achievable interim objective. Austria, Finland and Sweden were also offered membership in the internal market in the first half of the 1990s, because some member states were hostile to enlargement. As soon as the political conditions within the EU changed, they were already well prepared and able to swiftly join the EU.

This approach offers two major advantages: first, it will remove bilateral blockades for a large part of the process. It is up to the Commission to report on progress. Only when “a good level of preparation” has been achieved in all areas would all the member states ultimately make a political decision on the respective country’s admission to the single market. Secondly, this can be offered to all European democracies, regardless of their formal status in the accession process, i.e. also to Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This would make it possible to already include all the Western Balkan countries in the transformation process. This offer can, of course, be also extended to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. It would also fill their process with meaning and give them an attractive, achievable goal towards full membership. In her State of the Union address, Ursula von der Leyen announced her willingness to work with Ukraine to “ensure seamless access to the single market”. This is encouraging – but now requires concrete steps to be taken. Much is at stake: not least whether in the future Ukraine will be on our side or not.

Original in German. First published in the IWMpost No. 130 (Autumn/Winter 2022). The article was produced within the framework of the Europe’s Futures project.
Translation into English by Barbara Maya
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This text is protected by copyright: Kristof Bender / IWMpost. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team. Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations or on top of the article. Cover picture: Zoran Zaev, then prime minister of North Macedonia, is received with military honors in Berlin in 2018. The country is still waiting for negotiations as part of the EU accession process. Photo: Markus Schreiber / AP / picturedesk.com


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Europe’s Futures is a cooperation between ERSTE Foundation and the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) to develop new perspectives for a re-strengthened, united, and democratic Europe by engaging liberal-democratic voices from Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe in high-level academic, social and political debate on the future of the European Union.

Since 2018, each year six to eight leading European experts take up an engagement at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna. Europe’s Futures creates a platform of voices presenting ideas for action whose goal is to reinforce and project forward a vision and reality of Europe. The programme is an endeavour based on in-depth research, concrete policy proposals, and encounters with state and civil society actors, public opinion and media. It is directed by Ivan Vejvoda.

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