by AFP, AGERPRES, ANSA, ATA, BTA, dpa, EFE, Europa Press, FENA, HINA, MIA, STA, Tanjug | 10.Nov 2023 | Key Story
On Wednesday, the European Commission recommended opening formal membership talks with Ukraine and Moldova. This is a major gesture of support for Kyiv as it battles Russia. It also grants candidate status to Georgia and is to open accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), once conditions are met. But where do the rest of Western Balkan countries stand?
Corruption at the highest level, deficits in the rule of law and dubious treatment of national minorities: At the beginning of 2022, it still seemed unthinkable that Ukraine could become a serious candidate for EU membership in the foreseeable future. A good 20 months after the start of the Russian war of aggression against the Eastern European country, it is a different place.
The EU Commission presented an eagerly awaited report on the progress of countries with aspirations to join the EU. It assured that Ukraine is ready to negotiate its entry given the reforms it has carried out despite continuing to fight Russia’s invasion. According to the report by the EU, Ukraine has completed four of the seven priority reforms that were set.
“Today is a historic day,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, adding that the recommendation comes ten years after the Maidan protests in Ukraine, “where people were shot because they wrapped themselves in a European flag”.
The positive signal from the EU provides a vital boost to Ukraine at a difficult time when its troops have failed to make a breakthrough and the West is distracted by turmoil in the Middle East.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the move as the “right step” for Europe. “Our country must be in the European Union. Ukrainians deserve it both for their defence of European values and for the fact that even in times of full-scale war, we keep our word,” he posted online.
Ukraine launched its bid to become part of the European Union right after Moscow’s all-out invasion in February 2022, and was officially named a candidate to join in June of the same year.
The EU’s 27 leaders still have to sign off on the recommendations at a summit in December. Von der Leyen said Ukraine and Moldova should be required to complete further reforms before a formal start date could be set. She said her executive would issue an update on the progress in March 2024. Even if Ukraine starts talks, it will still only be at the beginning of a painstaking process of reforms that could last for years – if not decades – before it joins the bloc.
Alongside urging progress for Ukraine and Moldova, Brussels also suggested that the member states grant Georgia candidate status. The ex-Soviet states Moldova and Georgia both applied at the same time as Ukraine.
What about the Western Balkans?
The war in Ukraine has breathed fresh life into the EU’s stalled push to take on new members, as the bloc looks to keep Russian and Chinese influence at bay. For the first time, the Commission presented a report to each aspiring country, and there are ten of them. Namely Turkey, Georgia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina plus Ukraine and Moldova.
The Slovenian Foreign Minister Tanja Fajon argued that enlargement to the Western Balkans and the East is not solely in the interest of the EU and new members, but also a geostrategic imperative. “Europe will be even more stable, secure, and prosperous when the enlargement is completed,” she said.
Turkey began accession talks in 2005, but those are at a dead end. Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia are also stuck in negotiations. Bosnia-Herzegovina can hope for the start of EU accession negotiations.
Open Doors for Bosnia
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) did not get the unalloyed seal of approval, failing to win clear backing for talks after becoming an EU candidate in December. The commission recommended opening negotiations “once the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria is achieved”.
But the recommendation in favour of Bosnia and Herzegovina in particular is also seen as an important political signal. “We open the door very wide and we invite Bosnia,” von der Leyen said. “Now to go through this door, for that, of course there has to be activity in Bosnia.”
The enlargement report says that BiH made progress regarding political criteria as a functional government was established relatively quickly after elections held in 2022. It started to deliver on reforms, including the boosting of legal certainty. However, the actions of the authorities of the entity Republika Srpska which undermine the country’s constitutional order are seen as problematic.
The message from Brussels was met with different reactions in the country, from optimism to disappointment. The chairwoman of the Council of Ministers, Borjana Krišto, said that BiH still has the opportunity to make accelerated progress to EU membership. “This is a significant and strong incentive for all of us in BiH institutions to work faster, better and more in meeting all criteria and priorities,” said Krišto. The Chairman of the BiH Presidency, Željko Komšić, stated that: “Now it’s all up to us!”
“We expected an unconditional recommendation for the opening of negotiations and a green light, regardless of all the uncertainties regarding the future of the EU and enlargement, to embark on the real work of organising and conducting negotiations,” the President of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, wrote.
The Slovenian member of the Commission, Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič, said that since receiving candidate status last year, Bosnia has shown “the biggest acceleration so far in its reform process”. He is confident that the country can soon reach the required level of compliance with the key priorities needed for the start of negotiations, a decision on which will be made by the Commission in March next year.
North Macedonia “to pick up the pace on EU-related reforms”
On Wednesday, Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi called on North Macedonia to pick up on “the pace of EU-related reforms” now that the “accession negotiations process has begun”.
According to Commissioner Várhelyi, some changes to the criminal code have caused concern that they are affecting a number of high-level corruption cases. “Strengthening the trust in the judiciary and countering corruption, including through solid investigations, prosecution and final judgments in high-level corruption cases is of key importance,” said Várhelyi. Regarding the screening process, the commissioner said the country’s authorities have demonstrated a high degree of commitment in its realisation, also when it comes to the relevant constitutional changes.
In terms of Bulgaria’s relationship with North Macedonia, Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov said during the European Political Community summit in Granada in October: “Our position will not change. If they [North Macedonia] revise their constitution, this will open the door for them”. He was referring to Sofia’s insistence on the inclusion of Bulgarian minority rights in North Macedonia’s Constitution as a precondition for lifting its veto on the start of EU accession talks with Skopje.
Belgrade made constitutional amendments
Várhelyi pointed out that Serbia implemented constitutional amendments for the independence of the judiciary, media laws and fulfilled the requirements for opening another cluster. He also said that Serbia has made progress in aligning its foreign policy with the EU, but that the lack of sanctions against Russia remains a cause for concern. He added that Belgrade and Pristina are invited to engage more constructively in the dialogue and implement the agreed agreements.
“It is important for our democracy to see progress everywhere, in the media sphere, but especially regarding to Kosovo and Metohija. Nothing is unexpected in the report, we should not expect revolutionary changes, it is important that we go the European way, and at the same time preserve our national interests,” said Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.
Albania moving successfully towards EU integration
According to Ursula von der Leyen, Albania is moving successfully towards integration into the European Union, as she said before the Berlin Process summit in October. The Commission president also touched upon the economic development of the country. “We have laid a good foundation already with our 30 billion Euro Economic and Investment Plan. It is delivering. Half of the Plan, 16 billion Euro, are actually already deployed,” she said referring to economies of the Western Balkans and the European Single Market, that are still too far apart. “Western Balkan economies are 35 percent of the EU average,” she added.
What to expect?
Wrapped up with Ukraine’s membership push, and those of the other hopefuls, is a far more fundamental debate on how to make the EU manageable if it reaches 30 members or more.
Countries such as the Netherlands insist there can be no shortcuts on the road to membership. Hungary, Russia’s closest ally in the EU, accuses Kyiv of curbing the rights of ethnic Hungarians.
Allowing in a war-shattered nation of more than 40 million people would spell a major shift – and huge costs – for the bloc and will turn some countries currently receiving EU funds into net contributors.
Romania for instance wants Moldova and Ukraine to join the EU quickly, but that does not mean “from today to tomorrow”, President Klaus Iohannis told a joint conference with Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo in Belgium.
”We know that these accession negotiations last for years, we know from our own experience and we see well that for some states in the Western Balkans they are already taking a long time. Obviously, we want the negotiations to start quickly. This does not mean accession, it means negotiations and preparation for accession,” Iohannis said. “At the same time, I fully agree that the Union must, in turn, make some changes and, if I may repeat what I said at the last informal Council in Granada, not only the candidates must be prepared for accession, but also we, who are already the European Union, must additionally prepare for this accession. It is necessary to improve the procedures, to improve some negotiation procedures and so on. So, there is work on both sides,” Iohannis added.
The News Agency of the Slovak Republic (TASR) is a part of project called the EuropeanNewsroom (ENR). The aim of the project is to strengthen news services from various countries in Europe and to support cooperation between the agencies' international news reporters. The ENR project includes the following agencies: AFP, ANSA, Agerpres, APA, ATA, Belga, BTA, DPA, EFE, Europa Press, FENA, HINA, MIA, STA, Tanjug and TASR. Polish news agency PAP is an associated partner, while the Ukrinform agency is also participating in the project as part of the solidarity shown to Ukraine.