Europe must not let the momentum of expansion slip away

The writer is director of Carnegie Europe

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy may have set aside Ukraine’s goal of joining NATO, but not his 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 Balkan countries plus three from Eastern Europe keen to join the club – not counting Turkey – the EU is as much in demand as it is reluctant to respond appropriately.

Brussels risks being damned if it does not respond to these demands, and damned if it does. At the upcoming EU summit, leaders are expected to react to new demands and at the same time decide whether long-serving candidates from North Macedonia and Albania can actually start negotiations – two of many steps on the long road. towards EU membership.

To fail to live up to the historic moment would be the kiss of death to what European leaders have heralded as a geopolitical awakening, with united countries long divided on most things concerning Russia and European security. Leaving aside the countries most vulnerable to threats from Vladimir Putin’s Russia would defeat the purpose of this strategic shift.

But while the EU offers the prospect of membership to three other countries, it must not let its engagement wane along the way, as it did in the Western Balkans. Russia’s disruptive influence in the Balkans has far outweighed its material investment in the region, and Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are already partially occupied by Russian troops.

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

The enlargement process, once touted as Europe’s greatest achievement, has stalled for years. The challenges are daunting: the Western Balkans suffer from unresolved disputes inherited from the dissolution of Yugoslavia, as do the successor states of the Soviet Union in Russian-occupied Eastern Europe. Political and economic reform is a prisoner of corrupt elites.

European leaders stress the governability of a wider and more diverse EU, fear the importation of divisive and corrupt politics from the Western Balkans and now from the three Eastern European countries.

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

This response is clearly unsuited to the challenge. Moreover, these arguments ring hollow in light of Europe’s own behavior. The setbacks of North Macedonia are emblematic.

Recognized as a candidate for EU membership in 2005, its status was frozen due to a bilateral dispute with Greece. The historic Prespa agreement reached by the two countries in 2018 did not, however, unlock things. The situation in the Balkans began to emerge as an issue in election campaigns across Europe, driven by domestic populism.

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

The often tense domestic politics of European countries has seen the bloc lose its way when it comes to foreign policy. The consequence in neighboring countries that are heavily dependent on the EU has been a vicious cycle of corruption, stagnation and democratic backsliding.

As Nikola Dimitrov, the former foreign minister of North Macedonia who was part of the team that negotiated the Prespa agreement, told me: if membership is not considered for 20 years , it does not enter into the political calculation of the Balkan” leadership.

Now that the war in Ukraine has given new impetus to the push for enlargement, proposals are circulating to make up for the lack of a clear accession process and timetable. EU leaders offered ideas – French President Emmanuel Macron set out his vision for a broader “European political community”, while Charles Michel, President of the European Council, envisioned a new “European geopolitical community”. .

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

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