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Monday 13 June 2022

South East Europe in the shadow of the war in Ukraine: Part 1

Panel 1: The relationship between the EU and the countries of the region

The main event at the SEESOX Twentieth Anniversary Day, on 8 June 2022 was a pair of panels looking at the implications of war in Ukraine for the region.

The first panel was chaired by David Madden (SEESOX); it discussed the region’s changing relationship with the EU, consequent on the war in Ukraine.

Michael Emerson (Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels) began by recalling that the Commission would be presenting three Opinions next week, on the accession applications by Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia; the European Council would discuss them on 23 June. Since the applications had been lodged, both President Macron and European Council President Michel had put forward proposals for involving new states in a form of political community, in the latter case as a complement to accession, while the former was more ambiguous. These applications were reviving interest in West Balkans enlargement, where CEPS had put forward a template for “staged accession”. The European Council would have to resolve a complex simultaneous equation, addressing the new three, the western Balkan six, and EU internal organisation. As regards the applications themselves, CEPS saw all three countries as broadly on a par with most of the West Balkans candidates, but ahead of Bosnia and Kosovo. The war created a moral obligation for the EU to react positively on Ukraine, as things could not wait until after the war; but granting candidate status could not be a short cut for regular accession negotiations thereafter. Moldova, while economically weak, had recently shown remarkable progress on the political front. Georgia was a paradox; while its economy was in better shape than the other two, there was growing evidence of state capture and of press freedom restrictions; these should disqualify it from candidate status.Jonathan Scheele (SEESOX) noted that most previous enlargements had been driven by a geostrategic imperative to consolidate democracy – Greece, Spain, Portugal, and in Central and Eastern Europe. The Thessaloniki Summit in 2003 represented the high-water mark of the 1990s geostrategic imperative, with Croatia’s accession in 2013 perhaps its last gasp. Since then, the Western Balkans accession process had stalled and the declaration in Thessaloniki that the Stabilisation and Association Process would “serve as an anchor for reform” in the region rang hollow. How far did Russia’s invasion of Ukraine change this situation? Clearly, as shown by various statements about the political nature of enlargement, Member States were keen not to give the impression that Ukraine’s application might be an excuse for abandoning Western Balkans aspirations. And Russia was exercising a destabilising role in parts of the region, which only a credible accession prospect could counter. In parallel, the role of Central and Eastern European Member States in EU policy making was growing, rendering Franco-German hesitations less sustainable. However, the absence of reforms in the Western Balkan candidate countries could not be ignored. In short, a rapid EU rethink of its approach to the region was needed; were the ideas floating around sufficiently attractive and practical? Whether EU policymakers would have the courage to respond to this new geostrategic imperative remained to be seen.,

Eli Gateva (DPIR, Oxford) addressed the state of the rule of law (RoL) in the region. The EU has stressed that the rule of law is the backbone of any modern constitutional democracy and confirmed that it is one of the fundamental values on which the EU is founded as well as a guiding principle for the Union’s external action. While the EU had lacked a consistent definition of RoL, its understanding of the concept had evolved over the last 25 years. The EU has developed rule of law instruments with a broad focus on promoting state institutions providing fair and equal treatment. In addition to focusing on the rule of law at an early stage in accession process, the EU has placed it at the heart of its enlargement policy towards the Western Balkans. Furthermore, the EU has taken steps to address concerns about double standards and introduced the Rule of Law Report which traces developments in all EU member states.. Although the state of the rule of law in candidate and potential candidate countries challenges the claim that the EU can have a transformative impact, Romania is? a remarkable example of the effects of strengthening institutions and fighting corruption and demonstrates that the Union can play an important role even after accession by empowering pro-reform domestic actors. The key to success had been domestic agency – domestic ownership of reform had led to real change, and an ability to influence Brussels’ approach. In South East Europe where the rule of law deficiencies are systematic, the Union can influence reforms but their implementation, success and sustainability of reforms depends on domestic agency.

Kristijan Fidanovski (Department of Social Policy and Intervention, Oxford) underlined that EU conditionality in the enlargement process had become ever more complex over time. North Macedonia faced growing obstacles of a political nature, and accession negotiations remained a distant prospect, with successive blockages from Greece, then France, and now Bulgaria, while Albania was collateral damage. The Bulgaria situation could be interpreted in two ways: as a “politically invented” dispute belying a history of stable relations since Bulgaria’s early recognition of North Macedonia in 1992; or as a dormant dispute that was revived in 2020, with recognition in 1992 being of a country, rather than of a language or a culture. The main issues were differing approaches to history - especially to the events of World War II - language, and a human rights narrative using differing assessments of the number of North Macedonian citizens of Bulgarian ethnicity (100,000 or 3,000). The hopes of North Macedonians that the EU might put pressure on Bulgaria to resolve the dispute had not been fulfilled, so that a bilateral solution might be the only way forward.

Jens Bastian (German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)) reviewed the impact within the region of EU sanctions on Russia, where the six packages had been neither completely adopted nor implemented. Serbia and Republika Srpska had refused to join, constituting an element of division and a challenge to the policy of alignment with the EU. The new gas deal signed in Belgrade this week, and references to a “Russo-Serbian strategic partnership”, called into question how Belgrade could continue to conduct accession negotiations in Brussels. At the same time, the rest of the region, rather than strengthening energy dependence on Russia, like Serbia, was reducing it. But even in the energy sector, there were carve-outs for Russian-sourced nuclear fuel. Serbia maintained an open airspace to Russia, but to no effect, its NATO neighbours had closed theirs. The divergence on commitment to sanctions would create further difficulties for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue.

Kalypso Nicolaidis (European University Institute; SEESOX) noted that EU enlargement had been on the table of SEESOX since its foundation, but the initial geopolitical imperative had been overtaken by more legalistic and technocratic concerns. The politics of energy transition were very much at the forefront of minds, though the EU would always accommodate dissent where this was technically feasible, as in the case of the Russian oil embargo; but financial aid for those inside the EU was not the same as for those outside. The introduction of new candidates would reconfigure the accession process in the West Balkans; but whom would this benefit? For the “stallers”, like Macron and the EU institutions, putting the new candidates in the same bag as the Western Balkans might delay things; for the “accelerators”, Ukraine’s candidacy could be used to speed up accession for everybody, giving the role of the Central European Member States greater legitimacy. How far could this gap be bridged to lead to an optimal solution? An incremental approach might help, as well as support for domestic agency in the candidates.

Q & A. A lively session raised questions about the risk of a geopolitical imperative encouraging existing EU members to ignore values; the likelihood of real engagement by the EU in enlargement; the risk of ideas like Macron’s being seen as a form of “second tier” membership; the continuing refusal of five Member States to recognise Kosovo; and whether the EU currently had the confidence and the economic growth necessary to sustain a major enlargement.Jonathan Scheele (SEESOX Associate; SEESOX Blog Editor)

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