EU Εnlargement is at an Ιmpasse

It has been four years since the much-discussed Prespa Agreement, which was supposed to “unlock” the process of democratization of the Western Balkans, limiting the rivalry between specific countries and paving the way for rapid accession to the EU. None of this happened.

Promoting the accession of Northern Macedonia stumbled on a Balkan approach. As long as Greece objected to negotiating with Skopje to start accession negotiations, Bulgaria appeared to be a supporter of Skopje’s European ambitions.

The integration of the Western Balkans into the EU is problematic

But as soon as the Greek objections were overcome, Bulgaria turned against Northern Macedonia, in an attempt to impose conditions that would turn it into a complement to the history, even the language of Bulgaria.

Bulgarian objections have been raised against Borisov, but they are still binding on the new government of reformer Kirill Petkov. The latter took the initiative to lift the Bulgarian veto on the start of accession negotiations with Northern Macedonia, but found itself in a very difficult position very quickly.

One of the four parties in the ruling coalition withdrew, denouncing the “bidding” and depriving the prime minister of a parliamentary majority. The President of the Republic, Rumen Radev, is also strongly opposed to the reconciliation with Northern Macedonia.

The Bulgarian veto towards Northern Macedonia binds the developments regarding Albania as well. Thus, at the EU Summit, which will take place in Brussels on 23 and 24 June, no decision will be made on the immediate start of accession negotiations with the two countries.

It is not only the Bulgaria-Northern Macedonia conflict that is hindering enlargement to the Western Balkans. The area is generally moving in the wrong direction. Europeans point to the need to accelerate enlargement so as not to create a strategic gap to be filled by Russia or China. At the same time, however, their reluctance to expand is growing.

Serbia, which has made considerable progress in the accession negotiations, is also playing a double role in the Ukraine crisis. It supports some of the EU’s initiatives, but refuses to impose financial sanctions on Russia, while its armaments programs rely heavily on China and Russia.

It will be very difficult for European partners to make room for a Serbia that insists on very close relations with Russia even after the invasion of Ukraine.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has essentially collapsed as a single state entity, with Bosnian Serbs pulling the strings of their release from the federal government, while Croatia is calling for – without easy reluctance – changes to its agenda.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is seen by most as a geostrategic “black hole” whose EU accession it would only create problems. There are also difficulties with Montenegro, where international parallel economic circuits have developed, but also with Kosovo, a traditional battleground between Serbian and Albanian nationalism.

Twenty years ago, the enlargement strategy to the Western Balkans began in Thessaloniki, which was confirmed at a meeting of EU, Western Balkan and Moldovan leaders last week in Thessaloniki.

Top diplomacy has not yielded – for the time being – impressive results, nor are there any estimates for immediate positive developments. In theory, the Western Balkans could join the EU quickly. The economic size is relatively small, the cooperation between the countries of the Western Balkans developed when they were part of Yugoslavia and their trade, tourism and investment have a dominant European dimension. But there are issues of democratic organization and application of the rule of law, as well as obstacles associated with historical national antagonisms that are not easy to overcome.

At some point, it will be decided to start accession negotiations with Northern Macedonia and Albania, but their development will be slow to torturous and with uncertain outcome. Germany invests in EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, considering that it will strengthen its position in an area where it has traditionally had a great influence. France, on the other hand, is much more cautious. That is why President Macron has proposed the application of stricter criteria for the progress of the accession negotiations, while promoting the idea of ​​a broader political conciliation, without necessarily reaching the countries that participate in full EU membership.

It is no coincidence, then, that for the past twenty years, the European perspective of the Western Balkans has been systematically promoted, without any impressive progress towards the countries of the Western Balkans in the EU.

Another problem is the inclusion of Ukraine in a new EU enlargement

The de facto problematic strategic enlargement of the EU will pass in the near future and the test of Ukraine.

The generally positive proposal of the European Commission for the start of accession negotiations with Ukraine will provoke intense discussions at the Summit, which will take place on 23 and 24 June.

There are three schools of thought among European governments:

1. The most militant, such as the governments of Poland, Lithuania and Estonia, are calling for the start of accession talks immediately, to send a message of European determination to attacking Russia.

2. Most “27” governments accept, for strategic reasons, the start of accession negotiations, but point out that Ukraine’s accession to the EU. it is a matter of decades. It is an economically devastated country, as it is estimated that its GDP will decline by 40% -50% due to the war, during 2022. Also, the democratic institutions of the country are extremely underdeveloped and problematic. The example of the EU is typical. trying to contribute to the investigation of war crimes in Ukraine. In the contacts that the Europeans had with the Ukrainian authorities, it appeared that the judicial, investigative authorities are politically guided, while the Ukrainians consider it inconceivable to control their own behavior towards Russian prisoners or Russian-speaking separatists.

3. Finally, there is the European School of Realists, which emphasizes that Ukraine must first resolve its military issues in order to then create the conditions for dealing with huge financial issues. According to this view of things, the start of accession negotiations can wait.

Moldova and Georgia in EU?

Moldova and Georgia are two other countries – formerly members of the Soviet Union – and are developing co-operation with the EU with a view to future membership. And in them I believe that Brussels must send positive messages for a final future liberation from Russian influence.

We should know, however, that by sending positive messages to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, we may face a strong Russian reaction. That is why the opening of the EU to these countries must be based on a dynamic foreign policy, substantial military support – with the immediate supply of sophisticated weapons systems on a large scale – and the financing of their economies in the tens or even hundreds of billions of euros.

The worst the EU can do is to upgrade in words the European perspective of these countries, without standing by them vigorously with enormous military and financial assistance.

He has been following this tactic since 2014, strengthening the European ambitions of the Ukrainians – along with those of Moscow – without taking a firm stand on the Ukrainian side. With this method, the Ukrainians are faced with a huge national cost due to their confrontation with Russia, but also with a series of austerity programs – in IMF standards – that lower their standard of living even lower.

Enlargement to Turkey is and will remain frozen. I have not met in the corridors of Brussels a European official or government official who thinks that Turkey can have a place in the EU.

Accession negotiations with Northern Macedonia and Albania are likely to begin in 2022 or 2023, after the obstacles created by Bulgaria are overcome as soon as Greece abandons its objections. However, it will take a long time to complete the accession negotiations, mainly because there are huge issues related to the quality of democratic institutions, justice and the rule of law in these countries.

Finally, the prospect of Ukraine joining the EU is even longer. Ukraine’s luggage includes the war with Russia, the underdevelopment of democratic institutions and widespread corruption, as well as the destruction of the national economy.

European officials and governments are repeating the same strategic mistake on possible enlargements. They talk a lot, without even agreeing on a common approach, they promise a lot and they avoid – as much as possible – their politico-military and economic obligations. This superficial approach, which characterizes the Community method, is completely outdated in conditions of geopolitical turmoil and large-scale war, and in my view dangerous.

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