Russia’s war against Ukraine has forced the European Union to urgently rethink geopolitics in its neighborhood. As Member States debate the issue, they must remember that enlargement is the process best suited to address many of the challenges they face and to strengthen the political and security influence of the EU in neighboring countries. . The process drew many countries into a single European community. The progress of governance reform and economic development made by the Baltic States, Greece, Spain and Portugal bear witness to its success.
However, recent applications for EU membership from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have raised questions about the duration and viability of the process – in which the Western Balkan countries have been involved since the start of the 2000s – as well as the need for a visionary but realistic approach. to her. There is also a lingering controversy over the internal reform of the EU: how not only to broaden the enlargement process but also to deepen it.
The European Council agreed on June 24 that Ukraine and Moldova would receive the status of candidate countries and that Georgia’s candidacy would be reconsidered at a later date. For the Western Balkan countries applying for EU membership, the Council’s conclusions were disappointing at best. He again deferred to the European Commission, failing to commit to opening accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia – mainly because of the latter’s bilateral disagreements with Bulgaria. The Council called on Kosovo and Serbia to “urgently” find a solution to their ongoing differences and called on Bosnia and Herzegovina to “urgently finalize constitutional and electoral reform” as a condition for reconsidering the candidacy of the country in 2016 to candidate status. The Council made no mention of Turkey or Montenegro. Nor did he pressure Serbia to support EU and US sanctions against Russia.
Candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova was the only good news to come out of the Council meeting. However, it was a symbolic step in the right direction for the EU – and a highly politicized decision – in its attempts to become a geopolitical player.
Geopolitics at the European Council
As former German Vice-Chancellor Joschka Fischer recently pointed out, “Europe must accept that it lives in a dangerous neighborhood”. This statement applies not only to the east but also to the south. If 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 (including on its own continent).
To ensure that enlargement remains an effective instrument at a time of heightened great power competition, the EU will need to manage frustrations in the East and Western Balkans wisely. However, it is difficult to imagine that such management will be possible with the current internal configuration of the EU, which requires consensus among the 27 member states on foreign policy decisions.
This is partly the reason why the enlargement process has lost much of its popular appeal in the Western Balkans. The internal structure of the EU has, most recently, allowed Bulgaria to veto accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. And the Council 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 resolves these issues, it will be forced to deal with growing political and security risks in its southern neighborhood, as well as years of costly crisis management and loss of influence there.
Enlargement and Russian policy
Of course, the future of EU 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, it will have security implications in the Western Balkans. For example, it will affect the position 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 state functions.
Similarly, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic may not be a Russian proxy, but he has often protected Russian interests in Europe. He has no interest in bringing Serbia into the EU – which he sees as a useful source of investment and other funding that could 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 for its national security – in reference to Russia’s veto over Kosovo’s recognition at the United Nations. If Russia conquers Ukraine, it will threaten the statehood of Kosovo and the sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
If the EU wants to pull its neighboring countries 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 neighborhood, particularly 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 consolidating democracy, economic development or resolving the conflicts. bilateral disputes in the region in recent years.
Washington supports the Balkan countries bilaterally in many areas. For example, he tried to persuade Sofia to lift its veto on North Macedonia’s membership, started a strategic dialogue with Skopje and continued to support EU efforts to facilitate Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.
The US strategic focus in Europe may now be centered on the war in Ukraine, but it still expects the EU to make progress in integrating with the Western Balkans (although it does not not have the means to put pressure on the Member States in this area). If the conflict did not ultimately convince the EU to integrate the region into the Euro-Atlantic community, it is unclear what will.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the views of their individual authors only.