Where Does EU Enlargement Stand Right Now?

By: - April 2, 2024

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Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL’s newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

I’m RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I’m looking at the latest developments concerning EU enlargement and what it means for Bosnia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Georgia.

Brief #1: Ukraine, Moldova, Bosnia: How Their EU Membership Bids Are Stacking Up

What You Need To Know: In December 2023, European Union leaders made the historic decision to open EU accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova. But two months into 2024, the negotiations have not yet started as fears still exist of going too fast too soon — notably with Kyiv — especially ahead of June’s European Parliament elections.

And as Ukraine’s and Moldova’s enlargement journeys are connected, this of course applies to Chisinau as well. Most pressing are the negotiation frameworks that the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, needs to adopt for both Ukraine and Moldova. Those two countries also have a “midterm” assessment, along with Bosnia-Herzegovina. The commission is due to deliver all these reports to EU member states on March 12. A more comprehensive report on all EU candidate countries in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe is due at the end of October.

Deep Background: The easiest way to unpack all of this is to revisit the December 2023 summit conclusions that the 27 EU heads of state agreed on regarding enlargement. The conclusions state that “the European Council decides to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and with the Republic of Moldova. The European Council invites the council to adopt the respective negotiating frameworks once the relevant steps set out in the respective commission recommendations of November 8, 2023, are taken.”

“Relevant steps” for Ukraine and Moldova normally means issues related to the rule of law in those countries. While Kyiv and Chisinau are working to address the issues, the question of whether they have satisfactorily resolved them is open to interpretation. It is the European Commission’s job to decide and issue a recommendation. Then it’s up to the EU member states to decide.

This is where Bosnia also comes into the picture. And again, it’s worth looking back at those EU summit conclusions: “The European Council will open accession negotiations with Bosnia-Herzegovina, once the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria is achieved. It invites the commission to report to the council on progress at the latest in March 2024, with a view to making a decision.”

Drilling Down

  • Bosnia is one step behind Ukraine and Moldova, as the opening of talks is conditional on the country completing a number of reforms spelled out in the European Commission’s enlargement report in November 2023.
  • Some of Bosnia’s biggest supporters in the EU — Austria, Croatia, Hungary, and Slovenia — want Bosnia’s candidacy to be tied to Ukraine and Moldova. So far, those supporters have used their potential vetoes on accepting Ukraine and Moldova into the bloc in order to secure a green light for Sarajevo. Not everyone feels the same about Bosnia. There are plenty of officials from the EU and EU member states who think that Bosnia is less deserving than the two Eastern European countries.
  • The issue is coming to the fore, as EU leaders have explicitly asked for a European Commission report on the progress Bosnia has (or hasn’t) made by the end of March at the latest. That’s a requirement that neither Moldova nor Ukraine have. The most likely scenario is that the European Commission will deliver a written report on Bosnia but only give oral assessments on Ukraine and Moldova.
  • EU leaders will assemble again for a summit in Brussels on March 21-22. From speaking to officials and diplomats, my understanding is that Germany and France don’t want the summit to be about enlargement, instead preferring to focus on how to arm Ukraine. So those assessments might be something of a damp squib.
  • Another distinct possibility, from speaking to my sources, is that Germany and others would prefer that no enlargement decisions be made before the European Parliament elections in June. The justification stems from the concern that populist parties around the continent would increase their support by inciting alarm about Ukraine’s impending EU membership.
  • That would be bad news for Ukraine and Kyiv’s biggest supporters, notably the three Baltic states and Poland. They were hoping that a symbolic intergovernmental conference, marking the opening of talks with Ukraine (and Moldova), could be held in March.
  • This would mean a decision is pushed back to the end of June, after the European elections. Leaders of the 27 member states are planning to hold two summits in Brussels in June chiefly with the aim of selecting new European Commission and European Council presidents but also to potentially discuss and decide on enlargement.
  • A June date would also give Ukraine and Moldova a few more months to complete the necessary reforms. In Moldova, for example, the EU-required vetting of judges is expected to drag on well into May.
  • But what about the negotiation frameworks mentioned in the December 2023 summit conclusions? Each framework is a roughly 20-page document outlining the main negotiation chapters — for example, agriculture, taxation, or home affairs — and what each candidate needs to do to comply with EU laws.
  • Normally, the frameworks are just an overview, without any controversial political elements. And while they are country-specific, the chapters will be essentially the same as those negotiated by Albania and North Macedonia, who were both given the go-ahead to start accession talks back in 2022.
  • The European Commission is currently working on drafts of the frameworks, and, when visiting Kyiv in February, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that they will be ready in mid-March. That’s the easy part. The hard part is getting agreement and sign-off from all the members of the EU.

Brief #2: With Hungary And Georgia, A Complex Picture Gets Even More Complex

What You Need To Know: The already complex enlargement picture gets even muddier when it comes to Georgia and Hungary. More so, as the Hungarian European commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi, is also in charge of the bloc’s enlargement negotiations.

On July 1, Hungary takes over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Council, which defines the political direction and priorities of the EU. Given Budapest’s open skepticism of Ukraine’s EU membership bid — starkly illustrated in December 2023, when Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had to leave the room while others voted to open membership talks with the war-ravaged country — Kyiv might not see much progress in the second half of 2024.

Deep Background: EU officials and diplomats are broadly split into two camps. Some believe Hungary will act as a spoiler on anything Ukrainian and that every decision related to Kyiv will have to be made prior to July 1 — or instead have to wait until Poland takes over the rotating presidency from Hungary on January 1, 2025.

The second camp is more optimistic and believes that Hungary will take a more moderate position during its presidency, given that the country must appear to be a neutral, honest broker for those six months. The optimists have also noted that if Budapest did want to spoil things, it could do so at any time, presidency or not.

My guess is that the intergovernmental conference will be held with Moldova and Ukraine in June. It’s unlikely, but who knows, maybe even Bosnia will get one as well.

In this context, it is worth mentioning Varhelyi, who, despite the fact that he officially works for the European Commission, seems to be very aligned with the Orban government’s thinking on enlargement. Case in point: screening. This is when European Commission officials sit down with their counterparts, in this case from Ukraine and Moldova, and go through policy field after policy field to determine how EU rules and regulations would be transposed into national law.

The screening is the meat on the negotiation framework’s bones. Diplomats from EU member states expressed surprise when they learned in January that the screening with Ukraine and Moldova hadn’t started immediately after EU leaders made the decision in December 2023. In fact, the screening still hasn’t started, although both Ukrainian and Moldovan officials have claimed the opposite.

Quite why it has dragged on is unclear. One explanation is that Varhelyi didn’t want to start the process until he got an explicit green light from EU member states to do so, whereas officials from other EU member states claimed that such a technical move didn’t need to be signed off on by national capitals and that the European Commission was capable of taking such a step itself. So far, so Brussels.

Drilling Down

  • So where does Georgia fit into all of this? You may remember that the South Caucasus country got candidate status from EU leaders at that same December 2023 summit that Moldova and Ukraine got a green light to open accession talks. This means that Tbilisi is at least one step behind the pair.
  • This could mean Hungary will get involved, especially if its past record is anything to go by. Take the EU-Georgia Association Council, which took place in Brussels in February. Normally, this is a fairly low-profile event, where Brussels and Tbilisi compare notes on various political developments. This time, though, Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Kobakhidze was there, along with the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, and Varhelyi.
  • EU member states tend to not even send their EU ambassadors to such things, instead deploying their designated desk officers. However, at the EU-Georgia Association Council, Hungary was represented by none other than Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto.
  • While the Georgian and Hungarian governments have cultivated close political ties, sending Szijjarto was an extraordinary gesture. It shows just how hard Hungary is lobbying for Georgia’s membership, with some reports indicating that Budapest is trying to move the timeline forward and even pushing for an intergovernmental conference with Tbilisi before the end of the year.

Looking Ahead

Ambassadors from EU member states are set to green-light another set of sanctions when they meet in Brussels on March 13. This time it concerns asset freezes and visa bans on around 35 people and entities that the bloc considers directly responsible for the death of Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny in a Siberian prison last month.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will present his annual report for 2023 the following day, on March 14. There will be a lot about the war in Ukraine and how prepared the military alliance is in case Russia were to attack any of its members. The report is also set to include new figures on how much the 31 allies have spent on defense in the past 12 months.

That’s all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on X @RikardJozwiak or on e-mail at [email protected].

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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