After the EU summit decisions on Ukraine and Moldova, there will be no motivation for the Western Balkans to fulfil the classical EU enlargement conditions, writes Orhan Dragaš.
The disappointment that has taken hold of the Balkans over the recent decisions of European Union leaders regarding enlargement is understandable. More precisely, due to the absence of any decision that would bring any Balkan state at least one step closer to membership in the Union.
Nobody got anything, which happens very rarely. If there was no “carrot”, at least EU leaders could have broken some good news. At the summit in Brussels, there was no good news for anyone, not even the usual pat on the shoulder.
This came at the time when the candidacies of Ukraine and Moldova were approved as “political decisions”, and that these decisions would be unimaginable if Ukraine wasn’t under Russian aggression, and Moldova under its direct threat.
Every decision of the EU concerning enlargement, since its establishment, has been exclusively political. Ukraine and Moldova are no exception, just as no other Eastern European country was in the big wave of expansion in 2004, and especially in the smaller wave of 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria joined. Moreover, enlargement is a sovereign “terrain de chasse” of member states’ decision-making, the Brussels administration only assists, proposes, and assesses the ability of a candidate for membership to take a (small) step forward. In that respect, The EU executive is like an assistant at the faculty who prepares students for the exam, and whether a student will pass it or not is decided only by the professor.
In the Balkans, therefore, they have reason to be disappointed, but not to be depressed because, God forbid, nothing catastrophic has happened. They have been “neglected” so many times so far (expression and recognition of the former EU Minister for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini) that there should be no surprises. The only pragmatic thing would be to remind that the EU currently has incomparably more important political priorities than the Western Balkans.
The war in Ukraine is of course the number one such priority, although Ukraine and Moldova were not in the strategic priorities of the EU at all. Ukraine and Moldova were part of the so-called “Eastern Partnership”, for which instead of the prospect of full membership, a certain degree of economic and political cooperation was offered. Much less than to the Balkan neighbours.
In that sense, the message of European leaders is very clear and any attempt to challenge it, let alone to influence it, is in vain. Cool heads are hard to find in the Balkans, but if there were any, they would reasonably conclude that the Ukrainian and Moldovan cases are finally exposing the “cheating” we’ve known for years – meeting membership criteria etc. Obviously, skipping the important stages when joining the EU is possible – if EU leaders see it that way.
When proposing Ukraine as a candidate country, Ursula von der Leyen said that Ukraine “has already implemented about 70 percent of EU rules”. Come on. Mathematically translated into already known negotiating chapters, that would mean that Kyiv has mastered 25 out them. Three more than Serbia, for example, which opened “only” 22 chapters in ten years of negotiations. Does this shortcut seem realistic?
For the Western Balkan countries, the only correct reading of the latest decisions from Brussels should be – you must fulfil some conditions, but not many of them, possibly not all of them. After the decisions on Ukraine and Moldova, there is no motivation that will return the Western Balkans to fulfilling the conditions from the negotiating chapters. This way of bringing in new members has long been overcome and it has already survived a major change after the adoption of the system of negotiating clusters, devised by Emmanuel Macron. But even for this simpler and more efficient solution, there is no longer much justification.
Quite simply, the political condition is the beginning and the end of the path to membership in the Union. Serbia got a start a long time ago, it has crossed a good part of the way, but it will have to wait for a political decision to pass the finish line. To make it simple: if Belgrade signed an agreement with Pristina today, Serbia would become an EU member tomorrow. If North Macedonia “irons out” identity issues with Bulgaria today, it would join the EU very soon. If Kosovo signed an agreement with Belgrade today, its visas would be revoked before the evening, and it would join the EU in a short time.
In June, therefore, there was no good news from Brussels. But December’s EU summit is not far, and the Western Balkans will certainly be a topic. There is enough time for all to prepare and focus on political decisions and political criteria in the “new circumstances”. These previous ones are no longer valid.
Dr Orhan Dragaš from the International Security Institute is the author of the books “Two faces of globalisation – truth and deceptions” and “Post-Truth in South-East Europe”.
This article was originally published by EURACTIV.com, Exit.al’s media partner.