The Russian invasion of Ukraine has concentrated the minds of political leaders on the southeast fringes of Europe, convincing them that they must embed themselves urgently into Western institutions for their own protection. The choice made by Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and most of the Western Balkans is clear, but for this to happen the institutions they hope to join need to change too.
On February 28, just four days after the invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appealed to the EU for urgent accession under special procedures, and signed Ukraine’s application to the EU shortly afterwards. This was swiftly followed by applications from Georgia and Moldova. At the same time, several EU aspirant states from the Western Balkans sought a speeding up of their accession to the bloc, a process that has dragged on for many years.
What all of these states have in common is that they are seen as being vulnerable to potential Russian destabilisation in the context of the new geopolitical conditions. This has encouraged them to make a definite choice in favour of Western integration.
Admitting them to the EU is party a matter of protection — EU High Commissioner Josep Borrell said on his visit to Skopje on March 14 that the start of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia will strengthen security in the region — but also a sign of where they choose to stand in the world.
“The world has changed dramatically since the EU integration process was designed more than two decades ago. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world is split right in the middle: those who uphold democratic values and freedoms and those who seek to destroy them and create total societal submission to authoritarian leaders, a very Orwellian scenario. In other words, the war in Ukraine has shown that the world is split into white and black with very little space for grey in the middle. Countries must choose where they belong, because Russia and China are knocking at their doors. Staying in the middle, or being neutral, is not a safe option,” commented Natalia Otel Belan, regional director, Europe and Eurasia at the Center for International Private Enterprise, in an interview with bne IntelliNews.
No fast track
The Ukrainian application got immediate backing from eight presidents from EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe, who signed an open letter on February 28 supporting Ukraine's accession to the bloc, while others followed with supportive statements on social media. It also received resounding support when put to a vote in the European Parliament.
However, at the informal summit of EU leaders in Versalles on March 10 and 11, there was no agreement on fast-track membership for Ukraine, with the leaders of France and the Netherlands — long recognised as sceptics when it comes to the accession of some of the Western Balkans countries — voicing their objections. President Emmanuel Macron of France, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency for the first half of 2022, talked of the need to be “vigilant” and said that he did not think it was possible to “open an accession procedure with a country at war”.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said that there is “no such thing as a fast track” for accession. "I want to focus on what can we do for Volodymyr Zelenskiy tonight, tomorrow, and EU accession of Ukraine is something for the long-term — if at all," he added.
The statement adopted by EU leaders and released on March 11 invited the European Commission to submit its opinion on Ukraine’s application for membership. "Pending this and without delay, we will further strengthen our bonds and deepen our partnership to support Ukraine in pursuing its European path. Ukraine belongs to our European family," the statement said.
It was clear that the agreement didn’t live up to the hopes of some leaders present, who had hoped for more urgent support for Ukraine. Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, who has emerged as a staunch advocate for Ukraine’s application, said that the EU should provide guarantees for Ukraine’s membership as soon as possible. “If we talk about it in 10 years, it means nothing to Ukrainians,” he said.
Lengthy accession processes
The applications from Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova were dispatched after aspiring EU members from the Western Balkans had been working towards accession for many years. North Macedonia has been a candidate country for more than 16 years, having been accepted as a candidate country back in December 2005, but has yet to open accession negotiations. Montenegro, the closest state to accession, achieved candidate status over 11 years ago, in December 2010. Kosovo has so far been unable to apply as it is not recognised by five EU member states.
“This is something that has very quickly gone beyond Ukraine. Georgia and Moldova have submitted applications formally and there is also an impact on EU neighbourhood policy more generally, so there would be implications for the Western Balkans,” said Marcus How, head of analysis at Vienna-based political risk advisory VE Insight, on a panel organised by the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw) on March 8.
As the accession process drags on, the bloc’s credibility in the Western Balkans has already been undermined by the repeated delays in progress, some of which are a product of internal political issues in existing members — the Bulgarian veto on North Macedonia’s accession talks being just the most obvious example.
No state has joined the EU since Croatia, nearly a decade ago in 2013. The accession process has slowed since the wave of enlargement in the early 2000s, due to a combination of the Western Balkans countries’ relative poverty compared to even the poorest EU member states, and the preoccupation of EU members with other issues such as the migrant crisis and Brexit. With the prospect of EU accession arguably the most important incentive for reform in Central and Southeast Europe regions, there have been repeated warnings of backsliding on democracy and the fight against corruption as the process has slowed.
North Macedonia’s Foreign Minister Bujar Osmani said on February 28 that the European Union should urgently unblock the EU integration process with Skopje and Tirana in the light of the situation in Ukraine following the Russian invasion. Osmani underlined in a TV show on 24mk that the EU should now understand the consequences of the possible destabilisation of the region, or the danger of ‘third forces’ entering the Balkans, if the EU accession process is delayed.
Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti said on March 3 that Pristina will accelerate the application process for EU membership and that he wants the country to become a Nato member as soon as possible. Speaking to AFP, he argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin "will use the factors and actors he controls also in the Western Balkans”. "As they [Russia] will target new conflicts, the Western Balkans in general and Kosovo in particular are at risk," Kurti warned.
In Bosnia, Zeljko Komsic, chairman of the three-member presidency of Bosnia, has sent an official request to EU officials to consider granting candidate status to the country. Komsic argued that more than ever Bosnia needs European unity and a clear signal that the Western Balkans is a part of Europe.
During his tour of three Western Balkan countries on March 14-16, Borrell commented that it is “high time to reinvigorate [the enlargement] process and integrate the Western Balkans in an irreversible manner into the European Union.” In Tirana, he said that Albania has met the conditions for opening accession negotiations and that he would “strongly support” an opening of talks during the current French presidency of the EU Council. However, as this requires unanimous support from EU members, he was unable to commit to a date.
New imperatives in a changed world
The complex and lengthy process of entering the EU means that a political gesture of welcoming Ukraine’s application to join the bloc doesn’t amount to much more than a pledge that the county can start working towards joining at some indefinite point in the future.
However, as Belan argues, “now is not the right historic time for a symbolic gesture”. “The outcomes of the Russia invasion of Ukraine will determine the future of the entire global liberal-democratic order; it is imperative that the EU takes a firm stand on where Ukraine MUST belong: among the community of democracies or a victim of a dangerous authoritarian regime at the very border of the EU. My sincere hope is that the EU would rather welcome a wounded Ukraine as a member (even if imperfect in many ways) and help it reform while it is under the EU embrace and protection, than not,” Belan said.
Belan argues that the world has changed dramatically since the EU integration process was designed and the Western Balkan countries started the accession processes. There is now a war on the border of the EU (Ukraine borders EU members Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia), and there are fears fighting could spread to other parts of the EU’s southeast neighbourhood.
“With the Russian invasion in Ukraine and a very aggressive China, the future of the entire liberal-democratic world order is at stake. If Ukraine falls under the Russian occupation, there is a high risk that Moldova, Georgia and others in the vicinity will fall too. It is clear by now that Russia will not stop with Ukraine,” said Belan.
“A lengthy accession process will jeopardise the entire EU promise for a peaceful and prosperous neighbourhood to the east or southeast. Where the EU hesitates, the authoritarians firmly step in and exploit that hesitation to shift the societies' hearts and minds as well as the convictions of their leaders away from democratic norms and values. This is what is happening in the Balkans.”
Let down by the West
In the first waves of EU accession after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Nato membership was seen as a stepping stone to eventual EU membership, as both were seen as steps to improve a country's security in the widest sense. Now, arguably, both accessions should be seen as equally urgent.
However, the lack of a very positive answer to Ukraine’s application to join the EU comes after the country was arguably let down by Nato.
At the beginning of March, Zelenskiy strongly criticised Nato for failing to come to Ukraine’s aid by closing the skies to Russian aviation. In an angry diatribe against Nato, Zelenskiy said that each Ukraine that dies from that day will be “Nato’s fault”.
A few days later, on 7 March in an interview with ABC News, Zelenskiy announced that Ukraine would no longer pursue Nato membership. "I have cooled down regarding this question a long time ago after we understood that Nato is not prepared to accept Ukraine,” he said. He accused the alliance of being “afraid of controversial things” and “scared of confrontation with Russia”.
Russia has consistently said it will not accept Nato membership for either Ukraine or Georgia. In the latter's case, the cause of the escalation of tensions with Georgia that led in summer 2008 to Russia’s five-day war and its recognition of the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, can all be traced back to the April 2008 Bucharest summit at which Nato members agreed that Georgia and Ukraine would become members of the alliance.
Paul Taylor, senior fellow at Friends of Europe, argued shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine that Nato must bear some of the responsibility for the situation around Ukraine. Presenting a report from the think-tank on Black Sea security a few weeks before the invasion at the end of January, he argued that promises made back in 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine will eventually be admitted to Nato contributed to the crisis.
While stressing that there is no justification for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its backing for separatists in both Georgia and Ukraine, Taylor criticised Nato for its promise to admit the two countries. “I think Nato made a big mistake in making a promise it couldn’t keep. That is one reason why we are in the current situation. By creating false hopes and at same time stoking unnecessary fears, Nato shares responsibility for where we are now.”
The main obstacle to any of the three newest applicants joining the EU is that they all have part of their territory occupied by Russia-backed separatists, and Ukraine of course is now partly occupied by Russia.
After Moldova submitted its application to join the EU, Sandu commented on this critical issue, saying that she expects a peaceful settlement of the dispute with the separatist authorities in Transnistria. Of the three states, Moldova is best placed to do this, as neither Russia nor any other state has recognised Transnistria as independent, and the two sides have been engaged in settlement negotiations for years.
"We have not carried specific talks [with the EU] on this. We discussed the Transnistrian conflict and the need to resolve this conflict, as well as the fact that we see this solution as peaceful. We see a solution that would result in a functional state, but we did not discuss concrete topics at this stage,” said the president.
Speaking of Ukraine, How said that he does not expect much can happen before hostilities come to an end. “Even when hostilities do end, assuming Russia is still in Ukraine in some way or other, there would need to be a treaty change in order to admit counties the territorial integrity of which is compromised. This applies not only to Ukraine, it applies to Georgia, to Moldova, Kosovo, Serbia.”
He added: “these are very difficult questions and not just [in terms of] security – integrity of borders is integral to the functioning of the EU single market. These are difficult issues to deal with and there probably won’t be a swift resolution.”
For both the three new applicants and the Western Balkans states another of the major concerns has been that they are much poorer than the existing member states, and also less ready in other ways such as governance and the fight against corruption.
However, a 2018 paper from the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS) looking at the quality of political and economic governance in the Western Balkans and Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine found that the two groups of countries were broadly comparable, with Georgia even ranking ahead of the two Western Balkans closest to accession — Montenegro and Serbia — on a number of indicators.
Hlib Vyshlinsky, executive director of the Centre for Economic Strategy in Kyiv, thus argued on the wiiw panel that the findings “mean it is not an issue of just making a huge political decision to invite the countries that are not at all ready, but of making a political decision to invite countries which are ready but before there was no political will”.
Admittedly, the Western Balkans states are ahead of their peers in terms of GDP per capita, though both were well behind the EU members. However, the two groups were well matched when comparing the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) transition indicators, and on both the political criteria measured by CEPS and on economic governance, Georgia performed better than the Western Balkan frontrunners.
Nonetheless, if the accession process takes just as long for the three new applicants as for the states for the Western Balkans, this is a very long-term prospect indeed when the states are looking for urgent support as they face an existential threat from Russia.