Ukrainian flags stretched out in front of the entrance to the EU Parliament. Folk songs sounded across the square. The EU heads of state and government met a few hundred meters away – and announced a historic agreement late in the evening. The EU summit on Thursday gave Ukraine and Moldova official EU candidate status.
EU Council President Charles Michel tweeted: “A historic moment. Today is a crucial step on your way towards the EU. Michel congratulated Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Moldovan President Maia Sandu and the peoples of Ukraine and Moldova. “Our future is together .” Michel also said the summit gave Georgia a European perspective. The EU is ready to grant candidate status to the country once it addresses the priorities requested by the EU.
The EU candidate status is not yet a decision on the start of EU accession talks. This again requires a unanimous decision by the EU states. Austria has demanded equal treatment of the western Balkan states, especially Bosnia-Herzegovina, which also does not yet have official candidate status.
However, the Western Balkans summit, which took place before the regular summit meeting, brought no concrete progress at all. A senior EU official said the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania was still blocked. Most recently, Bulgaria had resisted the start of the talks.
A dispute with Serbia has not yet been resolved. Belgrade does not want to support the EU’s sanctions against Russia, although the accession candidate should follow the Union’s foreign policy line.
Meanwhile, Slovenia, Austria and Hungary lobbied to grant Bosnia-Herzegovina candidate country status. Chancellor Karl Nehammer insisted on “the same rules for everyone” – and spoke of a “question of credibility”.
reforms without recognition
However, hopes for rapid progress in south-eastern Europe have now been severely dampened. North Macedonia, for example, had to wait too long for the enormous reform efforts it had made to be recognized. A number of experts have been warning not only recently of neglecting the Western Balkans, where Russia and China also want to expand their spheres of influence.
The admission of the six Western Balkan countries to the EU must be given top priority, argues Branimir Jovanovic from the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw). Otherwise, “there is a great danger that frustration in these countries will grow even more and Russia’s attempts at influence will be wide open,” says the lead author of a current study by wiiw and the Bertelsmann Foundation. He points to the war in Ukraine – and the danger that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “great power fantasies” will “turn the Western Balkans into a powder keg again if we don’t finally anchor it firmly in Europe.”
The economist sees a policy that leads to an increase in income in the region as the key to improving regional cooperation. He therefore advocates higher transfers from the EU budget. However, this should be linked to strict conditions for institutional reforms. Only with better institutions and better governance could additional funds be absorbed. “The costs for the existing EU members would be negligible at 0.05 percent of the gross domestic product per country, but the benefits would be huge,” Jovanovic notes.
However, the question of financing will probably lead to heated debates in the EU. The Union has also pledged its support to Ukraine. Budget Commissioner Johannes Hahn does not rule out that the need will amount to hundreds of billions of euros in the coming years. He proposes macro-financial assistance that would mean loans to Ukraine on extremely favorable terms. Not only the EU members should be involved in the project, but also the USA and other international donors.
Call for EU own resources
The EU Parliament, in turn, is again calling for an increase in the EU budget – against the background not only of the war in Ukraine, but also of the climate crisis and inflation. “The European budget is not sufficiently endowed,” said the ÖVP mandatary and vice-president of the House of Representatives, Othmar Karas, to journalists in Brussels. The Union should have more own resources at its disposal. Karas’ SPÖ colleague Evelyn Regner calls for a possibility of European culpability – and permanent budget flexibility that allows deviations from the stability pact.