John O’Brennan takes stock of EU enlargement in light of the opening of negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova, arguing that despite this enlargement policy is still characterised by inaction and a lack of imagination.
Almost a decade ago I published a piece on EU enlargement policy in the European Foreign Affairs Review. It argued that the accession process was ‘flatlining along a trajectory of frozen negotiation chapters, towards an increasingly uncertain destination’. This was despite the fact that enlargement had proved the single most successful policy pursued by the European Union in its history. Almost a decade on, little has changed. No further accessions have taken place.
December’s European Council summit meeting provided what appeared to be a significant boost for the enlargement process, with Ukraine and Moldova given the go-ahead to open negotiations. European leaders overflowed with superlatives like “historic” and “momentous”.
As welcome as this development was, however, there was nothing particularly momentous about the apparent breakthrough. For one thing, the opening of accession negotiations merely signals an intent on the EU’s part to negotiate 35 specific accession ‘chapters’ with the candidate state.
North Macedonia became a candidate for membership in 2005. Serbia did so in 2012. Neither country has made much progress in the negotiations in the period since. Bosnia Herzegovina was awarded candidate status in December 2022, but only on a conditional basis. Along with Kosovo, Bosnia effectively remains in the ante-chamber to accession negotiations. That isn’t in any real sense an actual candidacy for EU membership (yet).
Ukraine’s progress was only made possible by the climbdown made by Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Leading up to the summit, Orban made it clear that he did not want Ukraine to join, did not agree with the Commission’s contention that Ukraine had made sufficient progress in the talks to date, and was prepared to use the Hungarian veto to ensure negotiations could not open.
Orban’s big play was to link his potential use of the veto to the €32 billion in EU funds which the Union had withheld from Hungary since the ‘rule of law budgetary procedure’ came into operation in 2021.
This threat amounted to nothing short of blackmail. Given the ‘Ukraine fatigue’ increasingly evident in Washington DC and in some EU capitals, the need to open accession negotiations took on heightened importance. Orban played on this collective vulnerability and seized his chance.
To its great discredit the European Commission caved in to the blackmail and announced that Hungary had delivered on the rule of law ‘milestones’ set by the Commission, and had thus done enough to justify the release of €10.2 billion in EU funds, about a third of the total withheld.
What followed was farcical, as both Commission representatives and members of the European Council proclaimed to the press that there had been genuine progress by Hungary. EU experts, on the other hand, do not believe this to be the case.
In fact, there is every reason to believe that Orban’s authoritarian hold over the Hungarian state has only deepened over time. After all, in advance of the summit meeting the Fidesz-controlled parliament passed a new law (the ‘Sovereignty Protection Act’) that targets journalists, opposition politicians, academics and civil society and will almost certainly lead to an increase in repression in Hungary. That Orban could feel so emboldened that this legislation was enacted just two days before the European Council summit speaks volumes about his lack of fear of EU rule of law regulations.
So, what are the prospects for Ukraine and other candidate states in the years ahead? The summit had not even concluded when Orban promised to put the brakes on Ukrainian progress in 2024. In a grotesque twist in sequencing, Hungary will take over the presidency of the EU Council in July. Given the premature departure of Charles Michel, President of the European Council, it is very possible Orban will chair meetings of the European Council before a new president is appointed.
Orban wants states like Serbia, led by a fellow travelling ultra nationalist, Alexander Vučić, sitting beside Hungary in the European Council, with Ukraine sitting permanently outside, subject to Russian control. Ukrainian accession must be resisted because Ukraine represents the member state Hungary was before Orban came back to office in 2010 – eager to converge with EU norms and a ‘success story’ in the enlargement cannon.
The simple truth is that enlargement negotiations have become increasingly brutal for candidate states because they are subject to the whims of individual member states who each possess a veto over all stages of the accession process.
No sooner had North Macedonia ‘solved’ its problem with Greece (about the name of the country) than Bulgaria appeared with a set of demands related to identity, culture and disputed history. Skopje has struggled ever since to deal with the demands of Sofia, going so far as to begin the highly contentious process of changing its constitution to recognise the small Bulgarian minority (two thirds of the North Macedonia population disagrees with the move).
While member states can stymie progress by any individual candidate state, the enlargement process is going nowhere.
Research demonstrates that there is a symbiotic link between the credibility of the EU promise of accession and the extent to which elites in candidate states are willing to drive the sometimes very costly reforms which EU membership necessitates. The less candidate state elites believe they are likely to actually join the EU, the less likely they are to pursue the reforms.
The Western Balkan states were promised membership in 2003. Some of them are further away from achieving membership today than they were then. To a great degree this is down to the belief that the EU membership promise has become less and less credible. That Ukraine is perceived to have catapulted to the head of the pack because of being attacked by Russia adds to the sense of displacement felt in some Western Balkan capitals.
There seems a wider failure on the part of the EU here – an inability to conceptualise the Western Balkans as a region where democracy is very fragile and in need of real support. Ethno-populists continue to bedevil the region. Enlargement policy is presided over by a commissioner widely perceived to be very close to Viktor Orban. Russia and China continue to disrupt and corrupt. And the EU only half-heartedly engages with civil society in the region.
Brussels barely offers any criticism of the high levels of ‘media capture’ throughout the Western Balkans (and in some member states). Its criticism of election rigging by Alexander Vučić and his acolytes in the recent Serbian parliamentary elections was incredibly timid. If the EU were really interested in promoting democracy through enlargement it would have suspended Serbia’s accession talks after flagrant irregularities were announced by the OSCE and huge protests occurred in Belgrade.
The Western Balkans, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are all vulnerable to anti-democratic forces. The EU’s enlargement policy should provide a bulwark against such malign forces as well as a viable pathway towards membership for all nine aspiring members. Instead, it continues to be characterised by inertia, infighting and a pronounced lack of vision.
By John O’ Brennan, Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration, Department of Sociology, Maynooth University and Director, Maynooth Centre for European and Eurasian Studies. He is the author of a number of books on EU enlargement.