Eastern Europe Joins the Western Balkans: A New Start for the EU’s Enlargement Policy?
Khrystyna Parandii is a ReThink.CEE fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States with expertise in political and conflict analysis, obtained from diplomatic institutions, international organizations, civil society, and think-tanks. Having served as political officer at several European embassies in Kyiv and as international relations manager at Ukraine’s largest reform-oriented civil society coalition, she focuses on the intersection of international relations, EU integration, and the reform process in Ukraine. She holds an MA in European studies from Maastricht University and another one in international relations and diplomacy from the College of Europe.
The geopolitical shock of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has resuscitated the EU’s enlargement policy, which had been in a stalemate for years. In June 2022, the EU granted candidate status to Moldova and Ukraine, and recognized Georgia as a potential candidate. This seemed unrealistic before for these “front-runners” of the Eastern Partnership policy, which for long has been perceived in the EU as an alternative to enlargement. Moreover, significant progress was made in the EU’s relations with the Western Balkan countries, with accession negotiations finally opened with Albania and North Macedonia after years of delay, and Bosnia and Herzegovina designated as a candidate country.
These important decisions have created elevated expectations regarding the next steps in the countries of both regions. However, the risk of disillusionment with the enlargement policy in the EU and the candidate countries is high, unless the shortcomings of the current process are addressed by both sides. This paper looks at how enlargement policy could become more credible and effective for new and old candidate states while remaining attractive and beneficial also for the EU and its member states.
To this end, the paper examines the current configuration of the enlargement policy and the impacts of Russia’s war in Ukraine on it. It also takes stock of the challenges and shortcomings of the enlargement process, based on lessons from the Western Balkans’ long-running experience with it. While enlargement policy has become more significant for the EU and the candidate countries since 2022, the progress of the latter towards membership remains challenging in view of their problematic internal developments as well as doubts regarding the EU’s absorption capacity and disagreements among member states. The paper looks at existing ideas for reforming enlargement policy and possible optimal ways ahead in terms of tweaks to the EU’s policy and the candidate countries’ accession strategies and expectations.
Existing proposals for a gradual EU accession should be the cornerstone of reforms to enlargement policy. This model envisages that candidate countries will be able to get greater access to EU programs and funds based on their progress in accession negotiations even before full membership. This can help create positive dynamics in the accession process given that addressing the EU’s absorption capacity issues will likely take many years.
However, the proposed institutional changes alone will not be sufficient to overcome the existing enlargement challenges.
Therefore, there are additional steps the EU and its member states can take to make the accession process more credible. It is also necessary to build grassroot support for enlargement in the EU and in the candidate countries as well as to further invest in democratic consolidation in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe—while simultaneously developing better mechanisms of post-accession conditionality to guarantee the compliance of new member states with EU norms and rules. As far as the candidate countries are concerned, their governments must avoid creating unrealistic expectations around the enlargement process among their populations and find ways to cooperate among themselves on accession-related matters.