Europe must not allow the momentum for expansion to slip

The writer is director of Carnegie Europe

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy may have set aside Ukraine’s goal of joining Nato but not its ambition to join the EU. Earlier this year, along with Moldova and Georgia, the country took its first steps towards applying for EU membership. With six countries in the Balkans plus the three in eastern Europe wanting to join the club — without counting Turkey — the EU is as much in demand as it is reluctant to respond appropriately.

Brussels risks being damned if it doesn’t respond to these demands, and damned if it does. At the forthcoming EU summit leaders are expected to react to the new requests and at the same time decide whether longstanding candidates North Macedonia and Albania can actually start negotiations — two of the many steps in the long route towards becoming members of the EU.

Not living up to the historical moment would be the kiss of death to what European leaders have heralded as a geopolitical awakening, having united countries long divided over most things pertaining to Russia and European security. Leaving out the countries most vulnerable to threats from Vladimir Putin’s Russia would render vain the purpose of this strategic shift.

But if the EU does offer the prospect of accession to three more countries, it must not allow its engagement to dwindle along the way, as it has in the western Balkans. Russia’s disruptive influence in the Balkans has had a much greater impact than its material investment in the region, and Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are already partially occupied by Russian troops.

On the other hand, if Brussels were to privilege Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia over the Balkans, it would send a signal that it is conflict which grabs Europe’s attention rather than political and economic reform.

The enlargement process, once heralded as Europe’s greatest achievement, has been stalling for years. The challenges are daunting: the western Balkans suffer outstanding unresolved disputes inherited from the dissolution of Yugoslavia, as do the successor states of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe occupied by Russia. Political and economic reform is held captive to corrupt elites.

European leaders point to the governability of a wider and more diverse EU, fear the import of the conflict-ridden and corrupt politics of the western Balkans and now of the three in eastern Europe.

They also attribute the democratic backsliding of some EU member states (notably Hungary and Poland) to their too swift accession back in 2004. If Europe cannot reform itself, how can it expand its membership?

This response is clearly inadequate to the challenge. Also, these arguments ring hollow in light of Europe’s own behaviour. North Macedonia’s travails are emblematic.

Recognised as a candidate for EU membership in 2005, its status was frozen because of a bilateral dispute with Greece. The historic Prespa agreement reached by the two countries in 2018 did not unblock things, however. The situation in the Balkans started cropping up as an issue in election campaigns across Europe, driven by domestic populism.

In November 2020, Bulgaria blocked North Macedonia from progressing towards EU membership amid disputes over history, identity and language. Albania, too, has been drawn into this dispute, despite its own significant reform efforts.

European countries’ often fraught domestic politics have seen the bloc lose its way on foreign policy. The consequence in neighbouring countries that are highly dependent on the EU has been a vicious circle of corruption, stagnation and democratic backsliding.

As Nikola Dimitrov, the former foreign minister of North Macedonia who was part of the team that brokered the Prespa agreement, put it to me: if accession is not on the cards for 20 years, it does not enter the political calculus of the Balkans’ leadership.

Now that the war in Ukraine has given new momentum to the push for enlargement, proposals are circulating to make good the lack of a clear accession process and timeline. EU leaders have offered ideas — French President Emmanuel Macron set out his vision for a wider “European political community”, while Charles Michel, European Council president, has envisaged a new “European geopolitical community”.

But these grand designs do not get to the heart of the problem. Nothing short of genuine engagement with pro-reform elements in the countries wishing to join the EU will achieve the goal of, as Macron put it, “building the security architecture the European continent needs”.

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