Brief #1: Good News For Georgia, Moldova, And Ukraine?
What You Need To Know: At first glance, the release of the European Commission’s annual enlargement report on November 8 was truly historic for the continent’s eastern neighborhood. Recommendations included Ukraine and Moldova starting EU accession talks and Georgia becoming an official EU candidate country. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen started off the press conference summarizing the report by noting that it had been almost exactly a decade since the first Euromaidan protests in Kyiv kicked off on November 21, 2013, after then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an Association Agreement with the EU that would have brought Ukraine closer to Brussels. In many ways, those protests were the start of Ukraine’s journey toward the EU, and now, 10 years later, the country has taken another important step.
Yet, going forward, much remains unclear. For starters, these are just recommendations. The real decisions are made by the 27 EU member states, via unanimous voting, in mid-December. Those decisions can be significantly tempered — or even ignored — with a country’s accession status often the object of horse trading or “collateral damage” from other decisions in unrelated fields. There are also genuine questions about the European Commission’s claim that its recommendations are merit-based and what the exact timelines will be moving forward. It’s all a bit vague, leaving lots of room for interpretation — and that’s probably exactly how Brussels wants it.
Deep Background: When the European Commission in June 2022 recommended candidate status for Moldova and Ukraine, it set out nine conditions for Chisinau and seven for Kyiv. Those conditions were largely but not exclusively related to rule-of-law reforms, and, in order to move to the next step — opening accession talks — both countries were expected to make significant progress.
The commission says that both countries have accomplished 90 percent of what was asked of them. But if you look at the reports, Ukraine has completed only four out of seven conditions and Moldova six out of nine. This is still respectable compared to Georgia, which, according to the commission, has only completed three out of the 12 conditions set out last summer for Tbilisi to get candidate status.
However, despite these evident shortcomings, the commission has decided that all three countries have done enough to proceed on their respective EU paths. For some time, EU diplomats have been telling me that more than anything the reports reflect the political enlargement momentum that exists in the EU right now. Next year will be one of uncertainty, with European Parliament elections in June and an entirely new European Commission. So, Brussels is keen to get things done — and that means green lights before the end of the year.
- The outstanding conditions for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have not disappeared but have rather been woven into their accession processes. This raises the key question of whether the commission’s recommendations that Ukraine and Moldova should start accession talks are unconditional. From what I understand, this is what many Moldovan and Ukrainian officials were asking in their conversations with EU officials — and von der Leyen insisted on the dais at the Brussels press conference that they are.
- But are the recommendations to start the accession process really without conditions? The European Commission report states that the “commission recommends that the [European] Council opens accession negotiations with Moldova/Ukraine.” But then it states: “Furthermore, the commission recommends that the [European] Council adopts the negotiating framework once Moldova/Ukraine has….” The report then outlines three conditions for Chisinau and four for Kyiv — the ones remaining from their “homework” from a year ago.
- For Moldova this means committing more resources to the anti-corruption prosecutor’s office in the country; continue working toward “de-oligarchization,” for example by increasing controls of financial flows and cash payments; and finally, appointing vetted Supreme Court justices and a new prosecutor-general.
- To meet the conditions, Kyiv must boost staffing at the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine and bolster its powers; enact a law regulating lobbying, which is in line with European standards; and address the Venice Commission recommendations on the country’s laws on national minorities, state languages, media, and education.
- Interestingly, the European Commission then notes that it will report back to member states on “the progress and compliance in all areas related to the opening of negotiations” by March 2024. Several commission officials I have spoken to are confident that both countries will manage to fulfill all the conditions by that time.
- But it does give EU member states one more chance to potentially stop the process if they want to. Hungary has already voiced the opinion that Kyiv isn’t doing enough to ensure the rights of the ethnic Hungarian minority in the country, notably regarding the use of the Hungarian language.
- This also means that de facto accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova won’t really start until spring 2024. There could be a “symbolic” opening of talks as soon as December, when EU member states will decide on the recommendations — provided all 27 of them agree, that is.
- For Georgia, which remains one step behind Moldova and Ukraine, the recommendation is to award the country candidate status provided certain steps are taken. The report then outlines nine conditions. Most of them are repackaged conditions from 2022, such as fighting “political polarization” and judicial reform. However, there are three new ones: fighting disinformation; greater alignment with EU foreign policy decisions; and ensuring “a free, fair, and competitive electoral process” for parliamentary elections in the fall of 2024.
- What that probably means is that Tbilisi will get its candidate status in December (again, if all EU member states agree) regardless of how much progress is made on reforms. Fulfilling the conditions will be more about moving to the next stage: starting accession talks. And it’s not clear when that might be. Normally, there would be a new enlargement report in the fall of 2024, offering assessments and policy recommendations; but given that there might not be a European Commission in place by then, the report might have to wait.
Brief #2: And Then There’s The Western Balkans…
What You Need To Know: If the enlargement report was a joyous affair for the three eastern hopefuls, it was predictably disappointing for the six Western Balkan countries — Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. For at least two decades, they have all expressed hope of joining the bloc one day but have been left frustrated for years — by both by the EU’s unwillingness to move forward and their own inability to carry out necessary reforms. It’s a stark reminder for countries like Ukraine and Moldova that EU accession is rarely straightforward once negotiations with Brussels start.
In fairness, there perhaps wasn’t much the EU could announce. Montenegro and Serbia opened accession talks in 2012 and 2014, respectively, and Albania and North Macedonia last year. Yet things are going at a snail’s pace. The political turmoil in Montenegro over the last two years has meant little progress on reforms. While all 33 negotiation chapters with Brussels are open, only three have been completed, the last one back in 2017. Serbia remains stuck due to scant progress on the normalization process with Kosovo and its failure to align with EU sanctions on Russia.
North Macedonia’s and Albania’s paths currently remain blocked after bilateral spats with EU members Bulgaria and Greece, respectively. And then there’s Kosovo, whose independence still isn’t recognized by five EU member states, and which only applied to join the bloc in December 2022. Kosovo’s application is still languishing in the European Council, where the member states sit, and won’t be sent over to the European Commission for an official opinion unless there is consensus to do so. With Spain — an ardent nonrecognizer of Kosovo — currently holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, there seems to be little chance of any progress for Pristina, at least this year.
Deep Background: That leaves us with Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was perhaps the toughest nut to crack for European Commission officials drafting the enlargement report. According to sources familiar with the process that I spoke to on condition of anonymity, most of the discussions in the run-up to the publication of the enlargement report — among the heads of the personal offices of the 27 European commissioners and the commissioners themselves — were focused on what to offer Sarajevo.
Bosnia received official EU candidate status in 2022 — a decision that raised a few eyebrows, given that the country had failed to make many meaningful reforms and, as one EU official told me, just “didn’t deserve it at all.” Yet the decision was made last year, largely as a knock-on effect of the war in Ukraine and the enhanced EU perspectives of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
Bosnia’s case is being pushed hard by Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, and Hungary, with the argument that if the bloc gives green lights in the east, the Western Balkans — notably Bosnia — should be given a nudge in the right direction as well. Especially since these countries have been waiting in the EU antechamber for two decades already, compared to the trio of eastern newcomers. The same arguments are at play again. If the European Commission recommends the opening of accession talks with Kyiv and Chisinau, there should be something on the table for Sarajevo as well. The question is what that something should be.
- The European Commission report notes that “the commission recommends the opening of EU accession negotiations with Bosnia-Herzegovina, once the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria is achieved.” Then, just as with Ukraine and Moldova, it will report back to member states on the progress by March 2024 at the latest.
- Now, with Ukraine and Moldova, there were very concrete and tangible conditions. But for Bosnia, it will be much harder for both the European Commission and the member states to determine if this “necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria” has in fact been met.
- In 2019, the European Commission set out 14 key priorities for Bosnia. They include improving the functioning of state institutions across the country — easier said than done when the country is divided into two entities — reforming the Constitutional Court, fighting corruption, and promoting reconciliation after the war in the 1990s. Sarajevo has hardly delivered on any of this since 2019, largely due to the country’s persistent political paralysis. Not much is expected to happen in the next few months before the commission reports back in March.
- Whether to open EU accession negotiations with Bosnia will probably be a political decision, not one based on merit. The question now is how hard Bosnia’s supporters among the EU member states will push for the country to actually open accession talks.
- And will the countries pushing for Bosnia’s accession try to leverage their green light for Ukraine and Moldova to get a green light for Sarajevo as well? With decisions made by unanimity, this is a real possibility — in December, when they meet to make decisions on the commission’s recommendations, or in March when the commission reports back on all three again.
EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels on November 13. While the war in the Middle East is likely to take up most of their attention, they will also discuss two things that I wrote about a month ago: how to improve relations between Brussels and Armenia, including upgraded political ties and more Brussels cash going to Yerevan; and a new Russia sanctions package, which the European Commission will present to member states this week.
Two days later, on November 15, the Europe ministers of the 27 member states will gather in the EU capital. They will already start preparing for the key EU summit on December 14-15, at which leaders are expected to make the final decisions on the abovementioned European Commission recommendations on Bosnia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. The meeting could get heated later that day, when discussions turn to the rule-of-law situations in Hungary and Poland. No decisions will be made, but both Budapest and Warsaw will push back vigorously on any form of criticism.
Rikard Jozwiak is the Europe editor for RFE/RL in Prague, focusing on coverage of the European Union and NATO. He previously worked as RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent, covering numerous international summits, European elections, and international court rulings. He has reported from most European capitals, as well as Central Asia.