The candidate countries under the enlargement policy have anticipated the European Commission’s assessment of their progress toward joining the European Union for a long time. The Commission has recommended initiating negotiations with Moldova and Ukraine and setting conditional terms for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Notably, it has assessed all ten countries within the enlargement policy. The European Council is scheduled to convene for a summit in December to determine the fate of these candidate countries.
Every year in November, the European Commission (EC) assesses the countries applying for membership in the European Union (EU) based on how much progress they have made in the accession process. This year was marked by high expectations as the Commission assessed the progress of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia for the first time in its history. These countries applied for membership in 2022, while Ukraine and Moldova were granted candidate status in June 2022 at a summit of Member States’ leaders. Georgia did not obtain candidate status then but was promised the status by the European Council (EC) after meeting certain conditions. For this reason, too, but also because of the turbulent political situation in the country, all eyes were on the Commission’s assessment.
At a press conference on 8 November 2023, EC President Ursula von der Leyen recommended opening accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova. Bosnia and Herzegovina also received an optimistic assessment and became the only Western Balkan country to receive a recommendation to open accession negotiations. However, Bosnia’s case is based on several conditions it has to meet before opening the talks. In the case of Georgia, the recommendation to grant the country conditional candidate status on fulfilling additional criteria is a success. The EC is addressing its recommendations to the European Council, the institution bringing together heads of government and state, whose representatives will meet again in December this year to decide whether to endorse the Commission’s proposals. The decision of the EC to grant candidate status or, in other words, to open the 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire must be unanimous, i.e. agreed by all 27 member states.
The “green light” for Ukraine and Moldova means that the EC has acknowledged the progress made by the countries over the last year and a half on their path towards becoming EU member states. In the case of Ukraine, there is progress, particularly in the field of democracy and the rule of law. Ukraine is also advancing in addressing corruption and the fight against oligarchs, but the Commission stated that Kyiv needs to continue vigorously in these areas. It should be noted that all the reforms are taking place during the war with Russia. This presents the enormous determination the Ukrainians show on the road to becoming an EU member. The EU has yet to see such rapid progress by a state in the pre-accession process since perhaps the northern enlargement in 1995 when very well-prepared Finland, Sweden and Austria joined the Union. Positive signals for Ukraine were already being sounded a week before the expected EC assessment when Ursula von der Leyen visited Kyiv and praised the “excellent progress” and “the achievement of many milestones”, adding that if the pace is maintained, Ukraine will certainly succeed in convincing and opening accession negotiations.
The most optimistic assessment was for war-torn Ukraine, but Moldova was identified as a front-runner in implementing reforms. It has succeeded in strengthening democracy, the rule of law, and the civil sector, earning high praise for its fight against corruption and organised crime. Moldova is expected to fulfil three more of the nine recommendations made by the EC last year, which include improving the country’s economic situation and implementing judicial reform.
Though Georgia did not secure candidate status along with Ukraine and Moldova last year, it has now received the Commission’s recommendation. Similar to the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, this recommendation is contingent upon meeting several criteria. Therefore, Georgia still has a substantial amount of work ahead, necessitating progress on issues such as foreign (Russian) interference in the country’s events, combating corruption and organised crime, and ensuring free and fair parliamentary elections slated for next year. Recent political instability, a trend toward illiberal tendencies, and the increasing influence of China have affected Georgia, as noted in a recent Brief by the Adapt Institute.
Bosnia and Herzegovina was the only country in the Western Balkans to achieve a breakthrough in the accession process when the European Council received a recommendation from the Commission to open formal negotiations on Bosnia’s accession to the EU, but only after certain conditions were met. This is not the same status Moldova and Ukraine obtained, but it is still a step forward. The EC has said that it will support the opening of negotiations with Bosnia but must progress in many areas, such as the fight against corruption, the judicial system and the availability of human rights for all citizens. It does not like the developments in one of the administrative parts of the state, the Republika Srpska, where an authoritarian government is being strengthened. Thus, Bosnia and Hercegovina has to meet the 14 key priorities addressed to it by the EC before accession negotiations can be opened.
The EC’s decision can also be seen as a signal for other Western Balkan countries to persist in their reform and accession process. Among the five other Balkan countries engaged in the EU’s enlargement policy (Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina), all except Kosovo possess candidate status, while Serbia and Montenegro are already in negotiations for specific chapters of European law. Nonetheless, the process is prolonged, and the evaluation of Bosnia and Herzegovina may serve as one of the scarce positive signals for the Balkan countries.
The remaining Western Balkan countries did not demonstrate the same level of progress as Bosnia in the EC evaluation report. Montenegro faced criticism in the assessment for halting progress in accession negotiations due to its polarised political situation. However, its foreign policy strives to align with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), which was viewed positively. Regarding Serbia, the EC recommended the opening of the third part of the accession negotiations (Competitiveness) and praised the country’s judicial reform. However, Serbia was also criticised for not aligning its foreign policy with the CFSP, particularly concerning Russia and China. Additionally, criticism was directed at Serbia for investigating attacks on the Kosovo police and for its efforts to improve relations with Kosovo. Albania is potentially on the verge of commencing negotiations to align national law with European law, pending a decision by the EU Council. However, it needs to exert more substantial efforts to enhance conditions for minorities, bolster the rule of law, and safeguard freedom of expression.
North Macedonia is currently undertaking an acquis screening exercise, an analytical assessment of the candidate country’s legal compatibility with European law. This step precedes the official commencement of accession negotiations. North Macedonia received a commendation for affirming its intention to become an EU member state, aligning its foreign policy with the CFSP, and implementing legal reforms. Kosovo is classified as a potential candidate country, but its sovereignty is not recognised by five EU Member States. The EC emphasised the necessity for normalising relations with Serbia, highlighting that neither side has fulfilled the binding conditions essential for EU progress. Kosovo must also focus on combatting corruption and reforming its judicial system, despite earning positive evaluations for electoral reform and human rights protection. Turkey’s accession negotiations have stalled since 2018, yet the country remains a crucial partner for the EU. To reignite the accession process, Turkey must implement positive reforms. Nevertheless, cooperation in strategic areas such as migration and energy between Turkey and the EU persists.
The rapid progress of Ukraine and Moldova casts a shadow over the slow advancement of the Western Balkan countries. Consequently, countries on the peninsula might feel disillusioned and sidelined by the EU. The accession process commenced after Russia’s attack on Ukraine in February 2022, prompting the Union to astutely and strategically seize the opportunity to rejuvenate its enlargement policy. Despite the candidate statuses granted and the EC’s recommendations to initiate negotiations, the final verdict will be rendered at the mid-December European Council summit. This summit will be the arena for genuine political decision-making, with the risk that countries like Hungary might block Ukraine’s progress or negotiate the initiation of negotiations at the expense of other considerations. As mentioned earlier, Moldova stands out as a leader in adopting reforms. Among the Balkan countries, Montenegro takes the lead, with its ambassador to the EU expressing the aspiration to become the 28th member state by 2028. However, Montenegro needs to continue stabilising its political situation. Ukraine and Moldova, as reform frontrunners, face a distinct situation. Although they lead in reforms, aligning their national laws with European laws will take several years. It remains uncertain what approach the EU will adopt to integrate them into its structures. Should the summit yield a positive response, the Commission will only unveil a negotiating framework with both countries next year. Until then, the outcome of the summit remains pending, requiring us to await further developments.
This brief is supported by
NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division