Kurt BassuenerSenior associate at the Democratization Policy Council

In the eyes of a great many of the region’s citizens, clearly not. So those who can—Kosovars still cannot, generating justified frustration—are getting out and moving to the EU for opportunity and dignity.

The EU’s effective alliance with governments of the region—rather than its citizens—to pacify it, is largely responsible for this dead end. This posture works for entrenched elites, including Bosnia and Herzegovina’s peace cartel. Human capital flight works for them. Those departing also are the most likely to threaten their dominance. It’s a disaster for these societies, which are on a path to becoming nursing homes and the EU’s extraterritorial refugee camps, run by oligarchs or autocrats.

It’s not a conscious strategy but rather the EU’s lowest common denominator disposition toward the Western Balkans. And it does effectively represent French President Emmanuel Macron’s disposition toward the region, as seen in a French non-paper in 2019.

To regain credibility with the people of the Western Balkans, the union must undertake a radical philosophical shift, committing to uphold its declared values and allying with citizens to ensure they are reflected in governance. Russia’s assault on Ukraine provided an opportunity to finally recalibrate. The EU blew it.

Dimitar BechevVisiting scholar at Carnegie Europe

The EU’s enlargement promise is far from credible. The last time the union welcomed a new member was nearly a decade ago, in 2013, when Croatia joined. As for the remainder of the Western Balkans, core EU member states, especially France but not only, are sceptical about the political wisdom of enlargement.

How many more Hungarys or Polands can the EU afford, skeptics ask. Bulgaria’s hijacking of the enlargement policy over the long-standing dispute with North Macedonia does not augur well for the future either. The same can be said about Croatia’s intervention into Bosnia’s internal politics, which reinforces centrifugal tendencies.

In the region itself, a generation of leaders have taken charge who, unlike the 1990s crop, know how to talk the EU talk but not really abide by Brussels’ conditions for making the government transparent and corruption-free.

And then there is the Kosovo issue, which rules out Serbian membership unless Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić decides to cut the Gordian knot and recognize Kosovo’s sovereignty.

But he has hardly any incentive to do it, since the gates of the EU are at best half open and at worst tightly shut. At this stage, diminutive Montenegro is the only credible future entrant—possibly before the end of this decade—but this only goes to show how limited the union’s appetite for enlargement is.

That should not discourage Ukraine and Moldova, who have just been granted candidate status. Being Russia’s neighbor and/or fighting a war of national survival makes a profound difference. Enlargement might have turned into a charade but if you are Ukrainian, you have reasons to play the game.

Allison CarragherNonresident scholar at Carnegie Europe

Not in the Western Balkans.

On June 24, I awoke in Zagreb to the following headline: “To Ukraine, Everything; To the Western Balkan Countries, Nothing.”

Such was the region’s sentiment after the EU granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova some four months after receiving their applications. In contrast, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s 2016 application was left to fester another year.

Bosnia hasn’t made much progress on reforms stipulated by the European Commission. One scholar dramatized that its latest EU enlargement report “reads like a doctors’ assessment of a coma patient.” Even so, when compared to Ukraine, Bosnia is (marginally) less corrupt, more developed, and has stronger rule of law.

The revised enlargement criteria of 2020 aimed to make the accession process more predictable, merit-based, and politically driven. The Ukraine decision meets only one of these three conditions.

Western Balkan leaders have been told for years that political will on enlargement is lacking. Like parting lovers, the EU would attest, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine revived political will in the EU for enlargement—just not for the Western Balkans. How can they not feel that the EU was just waiting for someone more attractive to come along?

Alba CelaExecutive director at the Albanian Institute for International Studies

At this very moment it is very hard to say yes. After last week, when expectations were squandered again, the feeling of resignation is palpable. It is becoming so hard for those of us who want to defend this path, the European integration process with all its reforms and normal steps, to explain the current dynamics to others.

This will fuel even more outward migration from the Western Balkans region as people chose to go to the EU rather than wait for it at home.

It is important to point out that enlargement is not only held back by obstacles such as Bulgaria’s veto this time, but by the entire spirit against it, especially coming from France. Every two years or so, there is a new idea from France, but practically all it does is buy time: the new methodology, the “European political community”… I am sure in two years something else will come up.

The 2003 promise of Thessaloniki, when EU leaders vowed to bring the region into the union, is in dire need of a serious renewal.

Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe

Ukraine’s EU membership talks require a reform effort no other EU member state has been asked to achieve.

Only two countries are poorer in Europe—Moldova and Kosovo. Ukraine and Moldova—also a candidate—are partly occupied by Russia. Even when the war ends, it is likely Ukraine will be a dismembered state with Russian troops controlling much of its sovereign territory.

The EU took a divided Cyprus party occupied by Turkey into membership under threat of a Greek veto for the entire enlargement process in 2004. At the time, EU leaders said never again to taking in a member state occupied by a foreign power.

Is that principle to be ditched for Ukraine? Ukraine’s oligarch class and the embedded corruption for jobs, university degrees, favorable court judgements is little different from Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was pushing what he called a “de-oligarchisation” law but was accused of appointing cronies to key government jobs.

The financial transfers to Ukraine will be massive. Excluding Russia, Ukraine is Europe’s biggest country with the sixth largest population. The decision to offer Ukraine membership was unavoidable given the failure of NATO and the EU to support Ukraine militarily. Any small state can veto Ukraine’s membership so President Emmanuel Macron’s idea of an EU with different membership categories may yet prove attractive with even Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying at the G7 he was “interested” in it.

Marc PieriniNonresident Scholar at Carnegie Europe

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered spectacular reactions by both the EU and NATO, as if the jolt was powerful enough to make governments instantly break taboos and change long-standing political convictions. The response includes unprecedented sanctions, changes to energy policy, and military funding from the EU’s side. For NATO, it entails enlargement to two previously neutral countries and a massive surge in rapid reaction forces. Many of the decisions taken in the last four months were simply unthinkable a year ago.

One of these decisions is the EU’s promise to Moldova and Ukraine. Many observers doubt that it is a credible or even a realistic promise. Let’s put it differently: given the massive uncertainty about the Kremlin’s intentions in Ukraine and with regard to the EU, granting the two countries candidate status was a wise move. Anybody familiar with the EU’s accession process and its history will know that this is not an overnight fix—it can take years, a decade, or more. What was important last week was to give a strong political signal.

Meanwhile, another debate had been formally launched by the European Council about the shape of a necessary arrangement with the countries of “Wider Europe.” This discussion should result in a quick decision in the months to come to establish a new mechanism for dialogue and cooperation, whether or not such an arrangement translates into accession. Putting such a mechanism in place without abandoning the EU’s fundamental democratic principles is the urgency of the moment. It is also the EU’s credibility test.

Daniel SmilovProgram director at the Centre for Liberal Strategies, Sofia

The EU’s problem is not so much that there are divisions and differences among its member states. The union has always been a complex supranational structure, in which the sovereign states play a significant role. The problem now is that there are bitter divisions within the member states on key questions.

The North Macedonian saga demonstrates just that. On the Bulgarian side, Prime Minister Kiril Petkov fought a very difficult battle against President Rumen Radev and some of his own coalition partners. Partly as a result of this, Kiril Petkov’s government fell and Bulgaria is most probably heading toward yet another snap election. If there is a deal between Bulgaria and North Macedonia, this will be one of the last achievements of Petkov’s short-lived government.

On the Macedonian side, the French proposal is also dividing and polarizing the country, and it is unclear whether the current government will ultimately approve it or not—in any case, it will cause a significant political crisis.

Such internal divisions—be it on Russian aggression in Ukraine, gas/energy, or on enlargement—are the root causes of the lack of predictability in the EU. And it is not just Bulgaria, but also France, Italy, to a degree even Germany. Such bitter societal divisions do not affect only supranational institutions as the EU. The example of the United States shows that stable and predictable foreign policy may become a very difficult proposition if the internal differences are as great as between U.S. President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump.

Mirjana TomićJournalist and project director at Presseclub Concordia, Vienna

There are facts and there are perceptions. Facts about the EU are hard to fathom; perceptions are easier to identify. I shall focus on the latter.

Most European citizens, EU and non-EU passport holders, have limited knowledge of the European Union: its institutions, competencies, regulations. The EU passport holders take it for granted that they belong to the club, irrespective of whether their countries adhere to the rules-based system. Citizens who aspire to join the club live off promises. Their politicians build careers on those promises. Details remain vague.

In Serbia, to give an example, the opening of each EU accession chapter is publicized as a political achievement.  Only the EU experts master the intricacies of the acceptance criteria.

Countries that are already in the waiting room receive incomprehensibly written progress reports. Only insiders can interpret them. Are the Balkan countries undergoing the democratic backsliding because they have been waiting for too long or because the club did not recognize their merits? Citizens ignore those intricacies. They perceive the lack of results, such as no free travel or work permits in the EU.

What are the main criteria for joining the club: political will, security issues, or legal compliance? Is there a timeline?

Do the non-EU Balkan countries fulfil all formal criteria? Probably not. But do all the member states fulfil them? Are Bulgarian demands from North Macedonia based on the EU values? Is Hungary a model for the EU aspirants?

The express EU candidacy for Ukraine and Moldova generates new questions. What were the criteria? Democracy, rule of law, transparency, shared values, or the war and fear of Russia?

Radosveta VassilevaVisiting research fellow at Middlesex University, UK

The EU has long been criticized for applying double standards when it comes to its accession criteria. It is well known that in 2007 Bulgaria and Romania were admitted for political reasons, despite their severe rule-of-law shortcomings.

Nevertheless, the EU’s mistreatment of countries in the Western Balkans illustrates a deeper problem—the hypocrisy that undermines the bloc’s credibility.

In 2020, Sofia refused to approve the EU’s negotiation framework for North Macedonia – what became widely known as the “Bulgarian veto.” This suspiciously looked like a staged trap made in coordination with key players in Brussels who hoped to delay the accession of North Macedonia and Albania.

It is true that 83.8 percent of Bulgarians do not support North Macedonia’s EU membership unless the historic disputes with Bulgaria are solved. However, the ideologists of the Friendship Treaty of 2017, the so-called legal instrument Bulgaria invokes to justify its demands about addressing what it views as historical grievances, are actually not in Bulgaria. The former prime minister of Bulgaria, Boyko Borissov, was more interested in cultivating allies in the European People’s Party in Brussels rather than listening to public opinion, alleviating cultural tensions, or tackling his country’s political and economic problems.

Now, the governments after Borissov have had to navigate the minefield he created, including the need for a parliamentary declaration overriding the declaration of the Borissov-controlled parliament in 2019. Fickle political moods inflict long-term, irreparable damage.

Ivan VejvodaHead of Europe’s Futures at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna

The EU enlargement process has always been about the credibility of the EU as an emphatic political, peace project. Can the EU really be a global player if it cannot integrate some 18 million people in its geographic heart, the Western Balkans, nearly twenty years after the EU’s Thessaloniki summit in 2003?

This is indeed a very low moment for the credibility of the enlargement and the EU project. It has gone on for far too long and fatigue has settled in on both the union’s and the candidate countries’ sides.

The geopolitical and geostrategic goal of making Europe whole and free steamed ahead during the 2000s and rightly brought in Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, even though it was clear they were not yet fully qualified. It then sputtered along and, importantly, enlarged to Croatia in 2013.

Then it came to a halt. Attention was lost. Focus shifted to other huge challenges, internal and external, and an acceptance of “stabilitocracy” sunk in. This opened the door principally for Russia and China to fill the gap left open by EU inactivity, both geopolitical and geoeconomic.

A year before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the EU understood that things had gone array, that it had to counter Russia and China, and began engaging more actively. But the February 24 invasion shook everyone out of complacency.

The lack of movement on the Western Balkans enlargement front at the time of the strategically important decision to give candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova is disheartening.

There is no other way forward than EU membership. But most of the “homework” behooves the countries and societies of all the candidate countries to do it with committed, sustained, and necessary support from the EU.

Bodo WeberSenior associate of the Democratization Policy Council

No. At the historical moment of defending democratic Europe against an autocratic, imperialist Russia, the EU at the same time demonstrated maturity—by granting candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova—and reached a new low point in its enlargement policy.

North Macedonia and Albania were again refused the opening of accession talks, despite having fulfilled reform conditions for five years. Kosovo, again, was not granted visa liberalization. Even worse, with the Bulgarian parliament during the summit voting for an initiative of President Emmanuel Macron, the French EU presidency might be able to declare success on unblocking North Macedonia’s accession, while at the same time ultimately killing enlargement: the “compromise” initiative legitimizes Sofia’s misuse of enlargement to force the country’s notion of national identity upon the neighboring candidate country—just as Putin is attempting to do in Ukraine.

On the surface, the EU’s credibility problem is one of disunity, a French president who is genuinely against enlargement, and a failure to make strategic political use of the union’s strong democracy promotion toolbox at its periphery.

Below the surface, it’s about a union that has long forgotten about the political rationale behind enlargement and its linkage with internal deepening: “Political union” and “Where does Europe end?”.