European Western Balkans

How realistic is the 2030 target for EU enlargement?

President of the European Council Charles Michel at Bled Strategic Forum 2023; Photo: Bled Strategic Forum

At this week’s Bled Strategic Forum, President of the European Council Charles Michel proposed the year 2030 as the target by which both the EU Member States and the candidate countries should be ready for enlargement. While the speech showed that this policy is now indeed higher on the agenda of the Union, the question of whether there will actually be new EU members in the next seven years is still open, as both the Union and the candidates are moving slowly to meet the necessary conditions.

EU officials have been reluctant to offer a specific date for future enlargement, ever since the previous European Commission released a strategy that indicated 2025 as a potential year for admitting new members. The EU was careful not to commit itself to this year too strongly, and it was later silently abandoned.

Michel’s proposal, therefore, comes after years of ambiguity about the readiness and the timeline for enlargement. It is made in the context of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, which already in its early phases produced predictions that accepting new members will return to the agenda due to geopolitical considerations. Not long afterward, Ukraine and Moldova became official candidate countries, followed by Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Loïc Tregoures, lecturer at the Institut Catholique de Paris, confirms for European Western Balkans that the enlargement is now higher on the EU agenda by necessity. Nobody would have foreseen Ukraine, Moldova and, potentially, Georgia becoming candidate countries in 2021, he says.

“It is Michel’s duty to launch a political signal, give an impulse and a horizon with a date, although giving a date implies a high risk of disappointment if nothing is achieved. So I do believe that the door is really open”, he says.

Wouter Zweers, Research Fellow with Clingendael – the Netherlands Institute for International Relations, agrees that enlargement is high on the EU’s agenda, pointing out that it will be “all over the place” in the coming months.

“There is the Informal Gymnich meeting of EU ministers of foreign affairs, the Granada Informal European Council, October European Council and December European Council combined with the EU-Western Balkans summit coming up, and in all of these events enlargement and EU institutional reform will take centre stage. Discussions will be both on short-term decisions such as whether to open accession negotiations with Ukraine, Moldova, but even more so on reforms needed in the enlargement process and in the EU itself”, Zweers reminds for EWB.

Nevertheless, it remains apparent that the EU has still not reached a consensus on actually enlarging by 2030. In the days following Michel’s speech, mixed reactions could be heard in the public.

On the one hand, it seems that France, which only several years ago was seen as the leading sceptic towards enlargement within the EU, has begun to shift both its position and its tone. Laurence Boone, Minister of State for Europe of France, also participating at the Bled Strategic Forum, stated on Tuesday that “there will be no security and stability in the EU and the neighbourhood countries without enlargement”. She even added that the EU enlargement could take place faster than 2030, provided that both the EU and the candidate countries reform themselves. Other EU leaders, including the host government of Slovenia, also expressed support for the process.

Several events that took place after the Bled speech, on the other hand, raised the question of whether a clear agreement and coordination on this issue is there. A day later, a European Commission spokesperson said that this institution was not focused on the date but on working with the candidate countries on fulfilling necessary conditions. Some leaders of the Western Balkans, including Prime Minister of Albania Edi Rama and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia Ivica Dačić, expressed their own scepticism that the enlargement will take place by 2030.

Another elephant in the room remains the readiness of the candidates to become EU member states. The pace of reforms has been slow at best, with some countries even backsliding in several areas. The lasting solution to the most important bilateral dispute in the Western Balkans, between Kosovo and Serbia, still seems out of reach.

Loïc Tregoures believes that, realistically, Montenegro and North Macedonia can have hopes to be close to 2030 target, if the “regatta principle” is conserved – countries becoming members individually once they meet the necessary criteria. He also says that France’s position has seriously evolved.

“The position has been very clear for the last 18 months: there is a new situation, enlarging Europe is a geopolitical priority, reluctance on this principle is gone among the French authorities. However, conditions for admission won’t be sacrificed”, Tregoures says.

Wouter Zweers assesses that Michel was rather bold in naming 2030 as a target date.

“It could surely be possible, but several conditions need to be met. From the EU side, it will depend on the political will and ability of leaders to set differences aside and sort out EU internal reforms. There is definitely momentum and ideas about models such as phased integration that have been around for some time now are becoming more concrete and turned into policies. This should make the accession process more tangible, and could incentivize candidates to spur reforms. But it is rather ambitious to think that all candidates will be able to join by 2030”, he says.

The Netherlands, alongside France, has also been one of the EU Member States perceived as more sceptical of enlargement in recent years. Zweers says that, for this country, the geopolitical necessity of quickly enlarging the EU further is not as important as safeguarding the internal functioning of the EU.

“I expect the Netherlands to be constructive in discussions about EU-internal reforms and reforming the enlargement process because these discussions provide an opportunity to enhance the functioning of the EU at large, for example, its decision-making procedures. But the Netherlands will not accept quick accession of any candidate if conditions on rule of law and geopolitical alignment, so joining EU sanctions and foreign policy positions, are not sufficiently fulfilled”, Zweers concludes.

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