Responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European states have broken a series of taboos in ways unthinkable until February 23, 2022, the day before the aggression. Many of these taboos were about defense: countries and European publics that defined themselves as pacifist found themselves in favor of financing the armament of Ukraine and sending military equipment there. The European continent has known wars during its long peace (the wars of the dissolution of former Yugoslavia seem to have been forgotten in recent rhetoric) but this kind of mobilization is unprecedented.
Another historic decision, hardly imaginable before this war, was taken in June 2022 when Ukraine and Moldova (and potentially Georgia) were accepted as candidate countries to join the European Union. Now the government in Kyiv is putting pressure on Brussels to accelerate the track to membership. While the EU has reiterated its commitment to providing “political and military support as long as it takes” it has avoided making promises about when these countries should join. Managing expectations will not be an easy diplomatic task.
EU enlargement was once heralded as the EU’s greatest foreign policy success; the promise made to Ukraine underscores just how significant it can be. However, accomplishing the project will be formidable for problems in the countries that want to join, as much as those inside the Union itself.
Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are not alone. The EU has also made pledges to six countries in the Western Balkans and Turkey. But its lack of focus for the past decade has had repercussions. Turkey and Serbia have been distancing themselves from their previous democratic achievements. The reform-oriented Western Balkans states, such as North Macedonia and Albania, have been bitterly disappointed by the EU’s tardiness is responding to their progress. Other states have been stuck in a vicious circle of corruption, stagnation and democratic backsliding.
The Western Balkans still suffer outstanding unresolved disputes inherited from the dissolution of Yugoslavia, as do the successor states of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe occupied by Russia.
Other countries, such as Russia, Turkey, China and the Gulf States, have all been taking advantage of the EU’s absence through diplomacy, investments, propaganda and a lot of disinformation. In 2022, in the midst of the Russian war against Ukraine, public opinion in Serbia shifted for the first time to a larger plurality against joining the EU. This may not be surprising in a country that sees giant billboards featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin to mark his birthday.
The challenge to the EU is equally formidable. Imagining a Union functioning with 36 or 37 member states would require quite a re-invention. The debate about the internal reforms necessary to make a larger EU function effectively has started. The focus is very much on decision-making, voting rights and the ability of countries to block EU policies. Reforming the EU by extending Qualified Majority Voting is the main idea, and supporters of Balkan accession have proposed phasing in voting rights to accelerate its integration and smoothen their impact on EU decision-making.
Ukraine’s accession (and Turkey’s) also poses challenges of scale. With a population of over 43 million, by comparison to the 15 million of all six countries of the Western Balkans, Ukraine would become the fifth largest EU member state by population. EU policies – agricultural policy in primis – and their financing would require massive revisions. Extending Qualified Majority Voting hardly seems fit to the task.
The governability of an EU with over 30 members is clearly one challenge that could well weaken the geopolitical significance and traction of the historic decision taken last June. Add to the mix the fact that the democratic backsliding within the EU, notably in Hungary and Poland, has led some to question the wisdom of their joining back in 2004. On the one hand, this strengthens the argument that doubling down on democratic reform is the key to ensuring that enlargement is a geopolitical choice that strengthens the EU’s own democracy. On the other, it can be used as an excuse to postpone enlargement until the EU itself has made reforms that make it governable. For the past decade, this latter argument has prevailed – and its consequences are visible in Russia’s revisionism of the region.
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This means that the new commitments made to Ukraine and Moldova, existentially at risk because of Russia’s aggression, need to be connected with the lessons learned in the Western Balkans.
Among the lessons from the Western Balkans is that reform-oriented pro-European forces in the political elite and in society need support, recognition and tangible benefits to continue pursuing reform. Political leaders need to be able to invest in the long-term project of reforming their countries with backing from their societies and international support. The transition in East Central Europe after the end of the Cold War shows that reform packages cannot be imposed from above, but need local ownership.
In turn, this means that the level of engagement of the EU needs to be granular, taking into account local conditions and preferences, while offering an attractive vision for the future. As Ukrainian society is showing the rest of the world every day, people and their morale matter. Ukraine is able to push back on one of the biggest armies of the world because of the strength of its society.
Over the past few years, intergovernmental diplomacy between EU and Balkan political leaders has paid lip service to democracy while ignoring those forces that were truly committed to change. This level of deep engagement will be needed over time, precisely because the full process of transforming the EU from its present imperfect form to one with 36 member states will take time.
In the meantime, in October 2022, 44 European countries (all but Russia and Belarus) gathered in Prague for the first meeting of the European Political Community. Originally an idea of French President Emmanuel Macron, intended to build “the security architecture the European continent needs”, it had been criticized by countries outside the EU that feared it was conceived as an alternative to EU accession. However, the wartime context, the participation of the UK and other countries that do not intend to join the EU, and the careful presentation of the initiative as not driven by Brussels, all contributed to a successful gathering that could lead to a new broad framing for the European continent.
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Until Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Eastern Europe was ambiguously seen as the EU’s Eastern Neighborhood or, from Moscow, as Russia’s Western sphere of influence. Where it belonged was never clear. With the European Political Community, that grey zone now has a clear border, alas one along which lives are being killed.
The European Political Community could develop as a broad and inclusive “tent” offering a vision for Europe. Within that tent, the EU and those political and societal forces that are committed to democratic reform need to find the space to design a credible and effective route to join the European Union.