On November 8, 2023, the European Commission adopted the 2023 Enlargement Package. It closely examines the progress made by the countries who want to become members of the European Union: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Türkiye, and for the first time also Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova and Georgia.
The European Commission took the historic step of formally recommending to member states that they should open EU accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova. Furthermore, the Commission recommended that the Council grant Georgia the status of a candidate country on the understanding that several steps are taken.
The Commission presented a new Growth Plan for the Western Balkans the same day. However, the accession path for Western Balkans was perceived as stalling. In Bosnia and Herzegovina’s complex case, the Commission recommended opening accession negotiations “once the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria is achieved.” The Commission welcomed the new parliament’s constitution and the government’s formation in Montenegro but noted the deep polarization and political instability. It also urged Serbia to improve its alignment with the EU’s common foreign and security policy.
Born from the ashes of two world wars, the European Union has always been a peace project catalyzed by conflicts. The largest expansion of the EU took place in 2004, consolidating democracy in Central and Eastern European states after the end of the Cold War. The war in Ukraine put the EU’s enlargement process back on the political agenda.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned in a speech to the European Parliament that “if our union isn’t fast enough in bringing candidate countries closer, others will fill the vacuum.” In a speech to the Ukrainian parliament the previous week, von der Leyen addressed Ukrainian war efforts, stating, “You are fighting not only for your freedom, your democracy and your future, but for ours too.” Opening accession negotiations with Ukraine, the EU has sent a clear signal of support, unequivocally endorsing Ukraine’s European future and commitment to freedom and democratic values.
However, when anti-democratic and bellicose forces are gathering momentum worldwide, the EU should remain vigilant and acknowledge that peace and freedom can be fickle dreams. Reinforcing the EU’s commitment to the Balkans and its other neighboring regions remains essential to long-lasting peace and economic prosperity.
Twenty years after the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, when the EU pledged future membership for all Western Balkan states, only Croatia has actually joined. The EU claims a crucial role in maintaining the peace in Bosnia, and between Kosovo and Serbia, but few observers would rate Bosnia as having gained much stability since 2003, and the 2013 Brussels Agreement between Serbia and Kosovo is increasingly disregarded by all sides. The EU needs to live up to its own promises as well as making demands of others.
The new Growth Plan for the Western Balkans includes €6 billion in grants and loans to accelerate economic convergence with the EU. It underpins the need for a determined geostrategic investment in a peaceful, stable, strong and united Europe. However, significant investments and economic restructuring in countries that aspire to rejoin the European project will require both sustained political will and challenging market reforms.
On October 17, Serbia and China signed a controversial free trade agreement that will cease to apply on the day Serbia becomes a member of the EU. Russia became Georgia’s second largest trading partner by imports and its third largest trading partner by exports in 2023. Georgia’s economy unexpectedly boomed in the wake of the war in Ukraine but is now facing the prospect of Western sanctions targeting sanctions circumvention.
The Ukrainian reconstruction is estimated at over $400 billion, more than twice the multi-year Marshall Plan to reconstruct Europe after World War II (about $167 billion today). EU and member state support to Ukraine totals already over €65 billion in military, financial, humanitarian and emergency assistance, but international investors are looking for clear ways to assess and manage risks due to the ongoing conflict. Moldova’s inflation in 2022 reached 33.5 percent, a record level in Europe, hurting further the population’s living standards and putting pressure on the pro-European government.
The new drive for enlargement poses risks and creates challenges within the EU itself. For almost a decade, European leaders were focused on internal political problems. Enlargement, however, requires reforming the EU’s internal decision-making processes. For a range of EU countries, including Belgium, which will hold the presidency of the Council of the EU from January next year, enlargement is only possible if combined with internal reform. A joint group of Franco-German experts recently reported on potential reforms for achieving three goals: “increasing the EU’s capacity to act, getting the EU ready for enlargement, and strengthening the EU’s rule of law and the EU’s democratic legitimacy.” The EU leaders largely agree with the goals above, but the process will inevitably be slow and difficult. Achieving consensus at the EU level will require reform discussions to move parallel to EU accession negotiations with candidate countries.
The leaders of the existing 27 member states will consider the Commission’s recommendations at their meeting on December 15. Although the Commission recommended that the Council adopts the negotiating frameworks for Ukraine and Moldova as soon as they have adopted certain key measures, officials and diplomats stress that the opening of negotiations is no guarantee of EU membership. The Western Balkans and, notably Türkiye, offer tangible examples of negotiation fatigue, political challenges and shifts in popular support.