Dec 13, 2023

Will Deadlock over Ukraine Kill the EU Enlargement Momentum?

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wants to postpone Ukraine’s accession talks and accelerate those of the Balkan candidates. In fact, he might slow down EU enlargement in general, which was only recently revived and which Hungary strongly supports.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen attend a press conference at the Berlin Process, leaders' summit in Tirana, Albania, October 16, 2023.
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For the European Council meeting on December 14-15, no compromise is emerging so far. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wants to block the start of the European Union accession talks with Ukraine (and by default, also Moldova), denouncing the European Commission’s recommendation as “unprepared and untimely.” Along with financial and military aid for Ukraine, this decision requires unanimous approval of all 27 EU member states. Diplomats are working hard to avoid a deadlock. A failure would undermine EU unity on supporting Ukraine, which was once solid after the start of Russian invasion in February 2022, but has recently looked more fragile.  

Back on the Agenda

Clinically dead until the start of Russia’s full-scale war, the EU has revived its enlargement policy as part of its response to Russia’s military aggression. In Berlin and Paris, it is seen as part of the strategic adaptation to a new hostile environment in Europe. As German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock put it, “we can no longer afford any gray areas in Europe.” With revisionist Russia in the EU’s eastern neighborhood, “gray zones” are becoming conflict zones—and potential war zones as the example of Nagorno-Karabakh tragically demonstrates, where Azerbaijan’s military forced tens of thousands of Armenians to flee this fall.

For Germany and others, enlargement is now an issue of European and national security. The revival of the EU’s enlargement instrument is thus closely linked to Ukraine, Moldova, and potentially also Georgia (which the European Commission proposed to give EU candidate status). While lacking a similar security dimension, it is also a strategic opportunity to unlock the Western Balkans and after years of stagnation, open for them a way forward. Conversely, were Ukraine’s and Moldova’s aspirations now blocked, this would likely reinforce stagnation across the Western Balkan candidate countries, namely Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia.

While Hungary is currently the only member state openly questioning the start of membership talks with Ukraine, there is a lot of grumbling in the background about the EU’s fast-track approach (Ukraine and Moldova only became candidate countries in July 2022). To make things more complicated, the European Commission proposed a two-step approach: first, a political decision by the European Council on the opening of accessions talks this December, followed by a more technical step of agreeing the negotiating framework with Ukraine (and Moldova) at the next EU summit in March 2024. By then, it will report back to the Council on Kyiv’s compliance with the last remaining issues in the areas of corruption, lobbying concerns, and national minority languages.

Dividing the political and operational aspects of the same decision was a risky strategy from the beginning. It gave Kyiv and Chisinau precious few extra months to comply but also opened the door for some EU member states to wait until March—and thus encouraged Orbán’s tough approach. Shifting the decision to open EU accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova to March, however, might see it become entangled with the election campaign to the European Parliament and face domestic headwinds in several member states. 

Among the EU’s 27 member states, there are obvious differences in terms of regional focus. Some with close links to the Western Balkans are concerned about the region being neglected by the EU. As Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg told the Financial Times, the EU should not be looking at the Western Balkans “with a magnifying glass” and at Ukraine with “rose-tinted glasses.”

This phrase aims at justifying Austria’s controversial move to use support for Ukraine as leverage when pushing for the same upgrade for Bosnia-Herzegovina, despite a substantially worse track record in fulfilling conditions set by Brussels. On the one hand, Vienna managed to put more of a spotlight on Sarajevo’s bid; on the other, it played into Orbán’s hands by undermining the political consensus on Ukraine and created new divisions. For instance, the Netherlands wants to veto accession talks with Bosnia while maintaining its positive decision on Ukraine and Moldova even under the scrutiny of the new, more Euroskeptic parliament in which right-wing populist Geert Wilders’ party holds the most seats.

Old versus New Aspirants? 

So far, Ukraine’s EU ambitions have been a double-edged sword for the Western Balkans. While the war has boosted their own long-term EU membership goals, it has also swung the spotlight on Kyiv and Chisinau’s bids, away from them. On top of deep frustration with the never-ending EU’s accession marathon, the new mood in the Balkan capitals is one of feeling treated unfairly by Brussels. After years of frustration, EU membership is no longer seen as a credible offer in most Balkan capitals, which leads to little political will to introduce membership-related reforms. This is a big contrast to Ukraine and Moldova, where EU enlargement still has a strong transformative power.  

It is therefore no surprise that the European Commission’s “2023 Enlargement Package” showed very limited progress in the six Western Balkan countries: While Albania made advances and could join Montenegro and North Macedonia as frontrunners, the latter have essentially stagnated while the remaining three countries need to resolve fundamental political problems, with democracy in former frontrunner Serbia alarmingly deteriorating. Belgrade is also holding the progress of Kosovo hostage.

A comprehensive reform of the accession methodology is therefore crucial to revive the process especially for those aspirants at the top of the queue and is also in the interest of Eastern European candidates in general, unless they want to get stuck at the later stages of enlargement and end up in limbo. Several models of “staged accession” and gradual integration particularly to the EU’s Single Market have been proposed but so far not explored by the European Commission.  

A New Growth Plan

A first step in this direction is the proposed New Growth Plan (NGP) for the Western Balkans, designed to offer financial incentives and accelerated integration into parts of the Single Market for compliance with the related membership criteria. While experts generally agree that this can be a game changer, they underline several gaps in implementation that need to be filled quickly.

Given its timeframe under the current EU budget, which expires in 2027, there is not much time to lose. Each government will be invited to present individual reform plans; monitoring is envisioned in six-month periods, and so are payments. Disbursement will be done within the same conditionality framework as the NextGenerationEU package for member states and supervised by the commission. Another precondition is a positive approach to regional cooperation through an update of the Common Regional Market agreement.  

If a country does not meet its benchmarks, the funds can be redistributed to others, which could ignite some regional competition among the small Balkan aspirants. Specific benchmarks are still unclear, and the sources of the money depend on whether the EU leaders reach an agreement at the December summit on the revision of the EU budget.  

If it were to give the green light, the European Commission could start working on a roadmap and tentative timeline with all the Balkan countries already in early 2024. This way, implementation can proceed despite the June elections to the European Parliament and subsequent formation of new EU institutions, and thus generate some  regional momentum for enlargement. However, unanimity among the 27 EU members will be needed for upgrading the Stability and Association Agreements with each Western Balkan country to match the new reform plans. This is a potential roadblock, especially for Serbia, whose pro-Russian foreign policy is unacceptable to Warsaw and a number of other EU capitals. Playing hardball with Belgrade could be part of their own pressure build-up vis-à-vis Budapest, in response to  blocking Kyiv’s accession bid.

EU Enlargement and Reform

Finally, the ongoing discussion about internal EU reform to adapt for enlargement is creating additional divisions among member states. Positions vary: Some consider treaty changes unavoidable, others advocate for “differentiated integration” within the existing treaty provisions, some think that only minor adjustments are needed. Whereas member states’ representatives argue that this debate emphasizes the urgency of accelerated accession, many in the Western Balkans fear that it will further stall the process. 

Political will and mobilization will also be needed on the part of Balkan leaders and governments. Some hope rests with the new government in Montenegro, as well as with Albania. A delicate question remains how to deal with an increasingly autocratic Serbia, the largest country in the region, which under President Aleksander Vučić tends to act—in tandem with Viktor Orbán—as a regional spoiler and refuses to align with EU sanctions against Russia. 

Germany’s Diplomatic Activity

Which brings us to Germany’s role. Its engagement in the region has been commendable in the so-called Berlin Process, which has established itself as an additional pillar for economic integration and revived EU membership perspectives over the past two years. It will celebrate its 10th anniversary at a big summit in Berlin in late 2024, for which the German government will need to find pragmatic ways to cooperate with Orbán’s Hungary as the holder of the EU Presidency. 

On broader EU files such as enlargement policy and reform, the German Foreign Office has been much more active at the EU level than before. State Secretary Anna Lührmann has been very active on internal reform, while Manuel Sarazin has been instrumental in keeping the Berlin Process on track. He also engaged noticeably in direct crisis management in the region when things went wrong (for instance, between Serbia and Kosovo).

However, this “doing by leading” approach has not always extended to the chancellery. Olaf Scholz says the right things on the EU enlargement and the Western Balkans, but should do more to keep it high on the EU priority list. The German chancellor’s test might come very soon, especially if he is unable to convince the Hungarian prime minister to stop his obstructionism over Ukraine.

Milan Nič is Senior Fellow at the Center for Order and Governance in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). 

Frauke Seebass is Project Manager Western Balkans at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

The authors draw on conclusions by the high-level expert conference “New Dynamics of EU enlargement,” held at DGAP on November 16-17, 2023.