Enlarged and in charge: Why the EU needs a new approach to accession

The EU’s enlargement policy will only remain effective if it judiciously manages its relations with Western Balkans countries

Edi Rama, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen together at the Western Balkans leaders’ meeting in June 2022

Russia’s war on Ukraine has forced the European Union into an urgent rethink of geopolitics in its neighbourhood. As member states discuss the issue, they should remember that enlargement is the process best suited to addressing many of the challenges they face and building up the EU’s political and security influence in nearby countries. The process has drawn many countries into a single European community. The progress in governance reform and economic development made by Baltic states, Greece, Spain, and Portugal is evidence of its success.

Nonetheless, recent applications for EU membership from Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova have raised questions about the duration and viability of the process – which Western Balkans countries have been involved in since the early 2000s – as well as the need for a visionary yet realistic approach to it. There is also persistent controversy over the internal reform of the EU: how to not only widen the enlargement process but also to deepen reform in the EU.

The European Council agreed on 24 June that Ukraine and Moldova would receive candidate status and that Georgia’s application would be reconsidered at some point in the future. For Western Balkans countries seeking EU membership, the Council’s conclusions were underwhelming at best. It once again deferred to the European Commission, making no commitment to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia – mainly due to the latter’s bilateral disagreements with Bulgaria. The Council asked Kosovo and Serbia to “urgently” find a solution to their ongoing disputes and called on Bosnia and Herzegovina to “urgently finalise constitutional and electoral reform” as a condition of reconsidering the country’s 2016 application for EU membership. The Council made no mention of Turkey or Montenegro. Nor did it pressure Serbia to support EU and US sanctions on Russia.

Candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova was the only piece of good news to come out of the Council meeting. However, this was a symbolic step in the right direction for the EU – and a highly politicised decision – in its attempts to become a geopolitical player.

Geopolitics in the European Council

As former German vice-chancellor Joschka Fischer recently pointed out, “Europe must accept that it is living in a dangerous neighborhood”. This statement applies not only to the east but also to the south. While the EU has granted candidate status to two countries engaged in territorial disputes with Russia, this does not necessarily mean that it is ready to be an assertive geopolitical actor or that it has a clear vision of how to build a new international order (even on its own continent).

To ensure that enlargement remains an effective instrument at a time of heightened competition between great powers, the EU will need to judiciously manage frustrations to its east and in the Western Balkans. However, it is hard to imagine that such management will be possible with the EU’s current internal setup, which requires a consensus between all 27 member states on foreign policy decisions.

This is part of the reason why the enlargement process has lost much of its popular appeal in the Western Balkans. The EU’s internal structure has, most recently, allowed Bulgaria to veto accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. And the Council’s conclusions earlier this month added humiliation – in the form of inertia in all areas of integration – to the list of disappointments for the region. Unless the union addresses these problems, it will be forced to contend with growing political and security risks in its southern neighbourhood, as well as years of costly crisis management and a loss of influence there.

Enlargement and Russia policy

Of course, the future of the EU’s enlargement policy will also depend on the outcome of the war in Ukraine. Therefore, this policy should align with European efforts to deter Russia. If Ukraine pushes Russian forces out of its territory, this will have implications for security in the Western Balkans. For instance, it will affect the standing of Milorad Dodik, who leads Republika Srpska – one of the entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina – and acts as a Russian proxy, constantly working to undermine the functions of the state.

If Russia conquers Ukraine, this will threaten both Kosovo’s statehood and the sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Similarly, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic may not be a Russian proxy, but he has often protected Russia’s interests in Europe. He has no interest in bringing Serbia into the EU – which he sees as a useful source of investment and other financing that can strengthen his country’s economy – or in tackling the recent decline of democracy in the country. He insists that Serbia’s ties with Russia are vital to its national security – in reference to Russia’s veto on the recognition of Kosovo at the United Nations. If Russia conquers Ukraine, this will threaten Kosovo’s statehood and the sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Transatlantic cooperation

If the EU is to pull countries in its neighbourhood out of Russia’s orbit, it will need the support of the United States. Washington has traditionally kept an eye on political and security stability in the neighbourhood, especially in the Balkans. And, under the Biden administration, the EU and the US have been aligned in their policy on the Balkans – even if there has been little progress on democracy consolidation, economic development, or the resolution of bilateral disputes in the region in recent years.

Washington supports Balkans countries bilaterally in many areas. For instance, it has tried to persuade Sofia to end its veto on North Macedonia’s accession, started a strategic dialogue with Skopje, and continued to back the EU’s efforts to facilitate the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.

The United States’ strategic focus in Europe may now be on the war in Ukraine, but it still expects the EU to make progress on integration with the Western Balkans (albeit while lacking the means to exert pressure on member states in this area). If the conflict has not finally convinced the EU to integrate the region into the Euro-Atlantic community, it is not clear what will.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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