As is well known, Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz does not want to travel to Kyiv purely for a “photo shoot”. In the Chancellor’s opinion, a visit to the Ukrainian capital is only worthwhile if there are “very specific things” to be discussed. In the Western Balkans region, on the other hand, there are apparently enough concrete things that are worth visiting now.
Similar to Ukraine, which is hoping for EU membership prospects, the Western Balkan countries of Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina also want to join the EU. However, they have been hoping for membership for much longer than Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy signed the application for EU membership shortly after the start of the Russian invasion. At that point, EU accession negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro had been going on for more than eight years. And Albania and North Macedonia have long hoped that they too could start negotiations with Brussels. But this is being blocked by EU member Bulgaria over a bizarre history dispute.
Against this background, Scholz is sending a very conscious signal with his two-day visit to the region. He thinks it is appropriate for the EU to keep its long-standing promises to the Western Balkans. If Scholz were to succeed during his trip in dissuading the Bulgarian government from its blockade of EU accession candidate North Macedonia, it would certainly be a diplomatic coup. But it doesn’t look like that.
It would have been even better if Scholz had traveled to Kyiv during these days. There Selenskyj hopes that the German government will take a clear position in support of Ukraine’s candidacy for membership. Such a determination in Berlin – that would actually be one of those “concrete things” that the Chancellor previously spoke about in a rather vague way with a view to a trip to Kyiv.
It may be that the chancellor’s vagueness on the question of Ukraine’s accession has tactical reasons. The topic is highly controversial among the 27 EU countries. Other countries like France are even more on the brakes than Germany. Head of state Emmanuel Macron even declared that “decades” would pass before Ukraine could join the community. In this situation, Scholz may want to avoid an open dispute in the community before the EU summit in two weeks’ time discusses Ukraine’s candidate status.
More on the Ukraine war on Tagesspiegel Plus:
Nevertheless, Scholz’s hesitation is a mistake. In any case, the granting of candidate status would only be the first step on a long road towards the EU. On the other hand, it would be an encouragement for the Ukrainians in their defensive struggle against Vladimir Putin at this point in time.
Of course, there can be no accession rebate for Ukraine. Widespread corruption, oligarchic structures that still exist and flaws in the rule of law are among the things that must be rectified in any case before Ukraine is really ready for membership. But since the start of Russian aggression, the focus has changed: because the democratic values of the EU are currently being defended in the war zone in eastern Ukraine, the EU owes it to the attacked country to show clear prospects of accession.
In any case, the waiting room outside the EU in the form of a “European political community”, which Macron argued about, is not sufficient for Kyiv. “EU membership light” would seem like a consolation prize for Kyiv. Incidentally, this also applies to all other states that are striving to join the community – i.e. the Western Balkan countries as well as Georgia and Moldova. In the case of Turkey, in view of the obvious democratic regression in recent years, the serious question arises as to whether EU membership is ever an option.
But should the accession wishes of the Western Balkan states and the new accession candidates in the future – Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova – be weighed up against each other, as Scholz is obviously doing? The chancellor said that fairness towards the countries of the Western Balkans is imperative if there are no shortcuts for Ukraine on the way to the EU. The two are by no means mutually exclusive: on the one hand, the EU must continue to urgently try to end the blockade on negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania that Bulgaria has triggered. And secondly, more importantly, the community must state clearly at the forthcoming EU summit how it intends to deal with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Above all, Ukraine now needs a clear signal from Brussels.
If you look at the map with the numerous countries in the south and east of today’s EU willing to join, you will come to the conclusion that the club of currently 27 member states will have to prepare for a similar development in the long term as it did in 2004. At that time, ten new states joined as part of the eastward expansion.
The historical flashback also includes the fact that the EU was not prepared for the large accession round at the time. Five more years passed before a reform came into force that took account of the growth of the club. The logic is simple: the more members there are, the fewer the veto options must be. That is why, among other things, the EU Treaty of Lisbon abolished the unanimity principle in domestically relevant issues such as EU asylum policy. This resulted in Hungary and the Czech Republic being overruled during the 2015 refugee crisis.
With its existing decision-making mechanisms, the EU has now withstood Putin’s aggression in Ukraine surprisingly well. Six packages of sanctions have now been decided, some of them after tough debates. However, sanctions policy is one of the areas in which countries like Hungary can use their veto power at will.
The example of Hungary shows that the internal pressure for reform in the EU is still great. Abolition of the veto in questions of sanctions policy is therefore unavoidable. This time, however, the community must adopt such reforms before new members from the Western Balkans or Ukraine eventually join the EU. Europeans should not repeat the mistake of 2004, when they stumbled into enlargement unprepared. So both have to make an effort: the states within the community that have to reinvent their decision-making rules – and everyone who is waiting outside the door.