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 in this week's newsletter, I'm reporting from the GLOBSEC forum in Bratislava where I take a closer look at Ukraine's road to the EU and the cautionary tale the Western Balkans offers Kyiv.
Special Report: The GLOBSEC Conference In Bratislava
Last week, I spent three days in the Slovak capital attending GLOBSEC's annual Bratislava forum -- arguably the biggest think-tank event in Central Europe -- where politicians, officials, academics, and journalists were discussing the future of Europe from early breakfast to late-night cocktails. With Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, there are a lot of voices in Brussels and elsewhere claiming that the political center of the continent is slowly but surely shifting eastward.
Partly, this is because the European Union and NATO are now seriously looking at a future with expanded membership eastward. But also, perhaps, because most of the Central and Eastern Europeans were proven right about Russia and the Kremlin's intentions to undermine the continent's security and political architecture -- something that caught a perhaps complacent Western Europe off guard, despite warnings such as the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea six years later.
Perhaps the biggest sign of Western Europe's realization of this shifting center was the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to GLOBSEC, who was on the way to the European Political Community (EPC) summit in Moldova.
It almost appeared that Macron had tailored his words specifically for a doubting and hawkish Central and Eastern European audience. He admitted that France used to be seen as an arrogant country in this part of the world, but assured the audience that "each and every country is important for us." He dismissed the notion that there is an "old" and a "new" Europe, and he backtracked on his claim from a few years ago that NATO was "brain-dead," now calling the military organization "very useful."
Perhaps the sweetest music for many to hear in Bratislava was Macron's admission that "we have lost opportunities to listen to you" -- a reversal of a famous quote by Jacques Chirac, then French president, who told several Central and Eastern European countries that they had lost a "great opportunity to shut up" when they supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq 20 years ago.
Early on at GLOBSEC, confidence and bonhomie were in the air, with the host, Slovak President Zuzana Caputova, declaring in her opening speech that, a year ago, the West had feared both soaring inflation and rising gas prices but had overcome that. She noted that "we are far more resistant than expected and stronger than the opponent," although adding, "we need to stay the course."
But can it stay the course?
Central and Eastern European countries appear to have won over the Western EU member states that further eastward enlargement is a must. But the "whens" and "hows" are still unanswered, which will delay the eastward shift of Europe's political center. And then, crucially, there is the cautionary tale of the Western Balkans to further complicate the picture.
Brief #1: Ukraine's Journey To The EU Will Be Far From Easy
Deep Background: Ukraine will almost certainly become a member of the EU. But the question is not only when. The question is also if the EU is truly ready for this and, perhaps more importantly, how the bloc will change in order to accommodate Kyiv and other future members. There were some raised eyebrows earlier this year when Ukrainian officials talked about EU membership in as soon as two years.
Since then, such ambitious talk seems to have died down. Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine's deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, explained in Bratislava that "we never asked for shortcuts. When we are talking about fast-track membership, we are talking about ourselves."
She noted that Kyiv has already completed a self-screening process of more than 30 different policy chapters of EU laws and regulations the country needs to adopt to become a member. The question is if the EU will accept this.
There was speculation in Brussels and Bratislava last week that Ukraine (and Moldova) could get the green light to start accession talks in December. This usually means that a screening process starts before any real negotiations are under way, a process that can take well over a year. To offer a pertinent example: Albania and North Macedonia officially opened accession talks and began the screening process in July 2022. That screening is still ongoing and will continue deep into the fall before any chapters are opened. Would Ukraine really be able to skip this altogether?
- For Ukraine, this is understandably all overshadowed by the catastrophic war. No one I spoke to or listened to in Bratislava expects a quick end to the conflict. Czech Foreign Minister Jan Lipavsky admitted that Prague is expecting Russia to present a threat to Europe for decades, and the former U.S. secretary of defense, Mark Esper, echoed that, adding that there isn't much optimism when it comes to the Kremlin even "after Putin."
- This will have an impact on Ukraine's and other countries' EU integration. Katarina Mathernova, the deputy director general for neighborhood policy and enlargement in the European Commission -- essentially the body in Brussels that will lead the accession talks with Kyiv -- openly said that there is "no appetite in the EU to let in a country that doesn't control its borders."
- She also added that the decision-making process in the EU isn't indefinitely expandable. This means that the EU needs to reform before it takes in more members. An official from the German Foreign Ministry who focuses on European issues, Anna Luhrmann, talked about the EU's "absorption capacity" and that while Brussels asks candidate countries to do their homework -- i.e., reforms -- the EU must do its homework as well. And that means changing how it's being run.
- There are many ideas on how to transform the EU if more members join. Perhaps not all countries will have their own European commissioner. Perhaps vetoes in some areas will be changed to qualified majority voting (QMV), which would essentially mean that laws are passed if 55 percent of member states representing at least 65 percent of the EU population vote in favor.
- The catch is that to get rid of vetoes you need a consensus. Judging from the conversations in Bratislava, that will be hard to reach. Would France give up a veto in foreign policy or Germany on tax issues? Changes to EU treaties, which could be a possibility in the future, would most probably also have to be approved in some current EU member states via referendums ---- something Brussels has long dreaded after the Dutch, Irish, and French voted against treaty changes earlier this century.
- The other issue is how to pay for it all. Laurence Boone, a French counterpart of Luhrmann, noted that only five EU member states currently are net contributors to the EU budget -- all of them from the West. The question is if Central and Eastern European member states truly are ready to foot the bill for more enlargement?
- A little taste of how difficult Ukraine's entry to the EU could be was offered earlier this spring when Poland and other eastern member states shut their borders to placate farmers angry at the mass of Ukrainian agricultural products that were flowing into the EU market without tariffs.
- Scratch the surface at GLOBSEC and there is a lot more pessimism. When speaking to Slovak officials on background about the upcoming parliamentary elections this fall, one said to me: "Viktor Orban might soon have many friends here in high positions," an allusion to how Slovak politicians could be more in line with the Hungarian prime minister's conciliatory stance toward Moscow, complicated relations with Kyiv, and watering down of EU sanctions measures.
- GLOBSEC's own study about political trends in Central and Eastern Europe for 2023, presented at the forum, showed Slovakia to be an outlier when compared to the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, which all had generally more positive attitudes among the general public toward both Ukraine and Western institutions.
- A full 69 percent of the Slovak respondents agreed that by providing military equipment to Ukraine, Slovakia is provoking Russia and bringing itself closer to the war. Only 58 percent would vote to stay in NATO, and 69 percent agreed with the statement that Ukrainian refugees receive support at the expense of Slovakia's own vulnerable or needy citizens.
Brief #2: For Ukraine, The Western Balkans Is A Cautionary Tale
Deep Background: While the talks in Bratislava focused on Ukraine and its path toward Euro-Atlantic integration, the future of the Western Balkans was also widely discussed. And judging from remarks on how long it has taken for the countries in the region to get closer to Brussels, it should be seen as yet another warning signal to Ukraine not to expect too much too soon from Brussels.
Perhaps the most forthright person bemoaning the state of EU-Western Balkan relations was Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg. Vienna is a keen supporter of bringing the six Western Balkan hopefuls (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia) into the EU, but he didn't mince his words on how difficult that would be. He recalled the historic first EU-Western Balkans summit in the Greek city of Thessaloniki in 2003, when the EU pledged that all former Yugoslav republics plus Albania would become EU member states. Slovenia joined a year later and Croatia in 2013, but no other Balkan country is even close to membership.
"20 years later and not enough has been achieved," he said, noting that the Western Balkans is the EU's first test of geostrategic unity. "If we fail there, we have failed everywhere," Schallenberg said in a panel discussion. And while supporting the future membership of Ukraine and Moldova, he also cautioned against sidelining the Balkan six in favor of fast-tracking Kyiv and Chisinau. "In an Orwellian sense we cannot have somebody who is more equal than others," he said.
- In her address to the GLOBSEC crowd, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen focused on how to speed up the European integration of the Western Balkans, noting, "it is not enough to say that the door is open."
- Von der Leyen presented a few new proposals, with perhaps the key one being bringing the Western Balkan six closer to the EU's lucrative single market. She noted that those countries should be able to join the digital aspects of the market, for example in e-commerce or cybersecurity, and that this would increase the trade of physical goods and services. She also promised more pre-accession funding for the region, even though no figures were mentioned.
- Other avenues for further integration discussed informally at the conference were the possibilities for Western Balkan countries to join the EU's Horizon Europe funding program for innovation and research, to fully integrate with the union's trans-European transport network policy, TEN-T, and to have the countries' ambassadors to the EU "sit in" on preparatory council meetings in Brussels with representatives from all EU member states.
- The foreign minister of North Macedonia, Bujar Osmani, welcomed the proposal of more integration in the EU before actual membership, saying that the region now is just "hanging" and that this would provide "the scaffolding."
- But he also cautioned that, while EU enlargement might be back at the top of the agenda, these moments have come and gone before. He mentioned the 2015 migration crisis, recalling that there was then an increased awareness of the need to integrate the Western Balkan countries, in part to deal with migrants coming to the European Union through the so-called Western Balkans route. When that crisis faded, Osmani said, so did the enthusiasm.
- The Albanian prime minister, Edi Rama, also pointed out that the EU lost out in the Western Balkans during the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, when he said that member states weren't too quick to share the jabs. It resulted in Albania running to Turkey, Serbia to Russia and China, and North Macedonia to anywhere they could get the vaccines from.
- But perhaps the biggest sign of how difficult the EU is finding it to play a decisive role in the region was the chaotic GLOBSEC agenda changes to accommodate Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti and Serbian President Alexander Vucic, amid a tense standoff between the two countries.
- There was talk that the leaders would have another round of EU-facilitated dialogue in Bratislava under the supervision of EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and his Western Balkans envoy, Miroslav Lajcak. But Vucic never came, and Kurti delayed his arrival by one day.
- Kurti was slated to appear on a panel on the situation in the Western Balkans with Lajcak, but in the end it was downgraded to a stand-alone conversation with former Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic in which he rather dryly joked that, in the Western Balkans, people still live in a way that they don't know what the day will bring.
That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak or on e-mail at email@example.com.
Until next time,
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