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People take part in a pro-EU rally in Chisinau in May.
People take part in a pro-EU rally in Chisinau in May.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on last week's EU enlargement report: What does it mean for Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, and where does it leave Bosnia-Herzegovina?

Brief #1: Good News For Georgia, Moldova, And Ukraine?

What You Need To Know: At first glance, the release of the European Commission's annual enlargement report on November 8 was truly historic for the continent's eastern neighborhood. Recommendations included Ukraine and Moldova starting EU accession talks and Georgia becoming an official EU candidate country. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen started off the press conference summarizing the report by noting that it had been almost exactly a decade since the first Euromaidan protests in Kyiv kicked off on November 21, 2013, after then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an Association Agreement with the EU that would have brought Ukraine closer to Brussels. In many ways, those protests were the start of Ukraine's journey toward the EU, and now, 10 years later, the country has taken another important step.

Yet, going forward, much remains unclear. For starters, these are just recommendations. The real decisions are made by the 27 EU member states, via unanimous voting, in mid-December. Those decisions can be significantly tempered -- or even ignored -- with a country's accession status often the object of horse trading or "collateral damage" from other decisions in unrelated fields. There are also genuine questions about the European Commission's claim that its recommendations are merit-based and what the exact timelines will be moving forward. It's all a bit vague, leaving lots of room for interpretation -- and that's probably exactly how Brussels wants it.

Deep Background: When the European Commission in June 2022 recommended candidate status for Moldova and Ukraine, it set out nine conditions for Chisinau and seven for Kyiv. Those conditions were largely but not exclusively related to rule-of-law reforms, and, in order to move to the next step -- opening accession talks -- both countries were expected to make significant progress.

The commission says that both countries have accomplished 90 percent of what was asked of them. But if you look at the reports, Ukraine has completed only four out of seven conditions and Moldova six out of nine. This is still respectable compared to Georgia, which, according to the commission, has only completed three out of the 12 conditions set out last summer for Tbilisi to get candidate status.

However, despite these evident shortcomings, the commission has decided that all three countries have done enough to proceed on their respective EU paths. For some time, EU diplomats have been telling me that more than anything the reports reflect the political enlargement momentum that exists in the EU right now. Next year will be one of uncertainty, with European Parliament elections in June and an entirely new European Commission. So, Brussels is keen to get things done -- and that means green lights before the end of the year.

Drilling Down:

  • The outstanding conditions for Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have not disappeared but have rather been woven into their accession processes. This raises the key question of whether the commission's recommendations that Ukraine and Moldova should start accession talks are unconditional. From what I understand, this is what many Moldovan and Ukrainian officials were asking in their conversations with EU officials -- and von der Leyen insisted on the dais at the Brussels press conference that they are.
  • But are the recommendations to start the accession process really without conditions? The European Commission report states that the "commission recommends that the [European] Council opens accession negotiations with Moldova/Ukraine." But then it states: "Furthermore, the commission recommends that the [European] Council adopts the negotiating framework once Moldova/Ukraine has...." The report then outlines three conditions for Chisinau and four for Kyiv -- the ones remaining from their "homework" from a year ago.
  • For Moldova this means committing more resources to the anti-corruption prosecutor's office in the country; continue working toward "de-oligarchization," for example by increasing controls of financial flows and cash payments; and finally, appointing vetted Supreme Court justices and a new prosecutor-general.
  • To meet the conditions, Kyiv must boost staffing at the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine and bolster its powers; enact a law regulating lobbying, which is in line with European standards; and address the Venice Commission recommendations on the country's laws on national minorities, state languages, media, and education.
  • Interestingly, the European Commission then notes that it will report back to member states on "the progress and compliance in all areas related to the opening of negotiations" by March 2024. Several commission officials I have spoken to are confident that both countries will manage to fulfill all the conditions by that time.
  • But it does give EU member states one more chance to potentially stop the process if they want to. Hungary has already voiced the opinion that Kyiv isn't doing enough to ensure the rights of the ethnic Hungarian minority in the country, notably regarding the use of the Hungarian language.
  • This also means that de facto accession negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova won't really start until spring 2024. There could be a "symbolic" opening of talks as soon as December, when EU member states will decide on the recommendations -- provided all 27 of them agree, that is.
  • For Georgia, which remains one step behind Moldova and Ukraine, the recommendation is to award the country candidate status provided certain steps are taken. The report then outlines nine conditions. Most of them are repackaged conditions from 2022, such as fighting "political polarization" and judicial reform. However, there are three new ones: fighting disinformation; greater alignment with EU foreign policy decisions; and ensuring "a free, fair, and competitive electoral process" for parliamentary elections in the fall of 2024.
  • What that probably means is that Tbilisi will get its candidate status in December (again, if all EU member states agree) regardless of how much progress is made on reforms. Fulfilling the conditions will be more about moving to the next stage: starting accession talks. And it's not clear when that might be. Normally, there would be a new enlargement report in the fall of 2024, offering assessments and policy recommendations; but given that there might not be a European Commission in place by then, the report might have to wait.

Brief #2: And Then There's The Western Balkans...

What You Need To Know: If the enlargement report was a joyous affair for the three eastern hopefuls, it was predictably disappointing for the six Western Balkan countries -- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. For at least two decades, they have all expressed hope of joining the bloc one day but have been left frustrated for years -- by both by the EU's unwillingness to move forward and their own inability to carry out necessary reforms. It's a stark reminder for countries like Ukraine and Moldova that EU accession is rarely straightforward once negotiations with Brussels start.

In fairness, there perhaps wasn't much the EU could announce. Montenegro and Serbia opened accession talks in 2012 and 2014, respectively, and Albania and North Macedonia last year. Yet things are going at a snail's pace. The political turmoil in Montenegro over the last two years has meant little progress on reforms. While all 33 negotiation chapters with Brussels are open, only three have been completed, the last one back in 2017. Serbia remains stuck due to scant progress on the normalization process with Kosovo and its failure to align with EU sanctions on Russia.

North Macedonia's and Albania's paths currently remain blocked after bilateral spats with EU members Bulgaria and Greece, respectively. And then there's Kosovo, whose independence still isn't recognized by five EU member states, and which only applied to join the bloc in December 2022. Kosovo's application is still languishing in the European Council, where the member states sit, and won't be sent over to the European Commission for an official opinion unless there is consensus to do so. With Spain -- an ardent nonrecognizer of Kosovo -- currently holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, there seems to be little chance of any progress for Pristina, at least this year.

Deep Background: That leaves us with Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was perhaps the toughest nut to crack for European Commission officials drafting the enlargement report. According to sources familiar with the process that I spoke to on condition of anonymity, most of the discussions in the run-up to the publication of the enlargement report -- among the heads of the personal offices of the 27 European commissioners and the commissioners themselves -- were focused on what to offer Sarajevo.

Bosnia received official EU candidate status in 2022 -- a decision that raised a few eyebrows, given that the country had failed to make many meaningful reforms and, as one EU official told me, just "didn't deserve it at all." Yet the decision was made last year, largely as a knock-on effect of the war in Ukraine and the enhanced EU perspectives of Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.

Bosnia's case is being pushed hard by Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, and Hungary, with the argument that if the bloc gives green lights in the east, the Western Balkans -- notably Bosnia -- should be given a nudge in the right direction as well. Especially since these countries have been waiting in the EU antechamber for two decades already, compared to the trio of eastern newcomers. The same arguments are at play again. If the European Commission recommends the opening of accession talks with Kyiv and Chisinau, there should be something on the table for Sarajevo as well. The question is what that something should be.

Drilling Down:

  • The European Commission report notes that "the commission recommends the opening of EU accession negotiations with Bosnia-Herzegovina, once the necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria is achieved." Then, just as with Ukraine and Moldova, it will report back to member states on the progress by March 2024 at the latest.
  • Now, with Ukraine and Moldova, there were very concrete and tangible conditions. But for Bosnia, it will be much harder for both the European Commission and the member states to determine if this "necessary degree of compliance with the membership criteria" has in fact been met.
  • In 2019, the European Commission set out 14 key priorities for Bosnia. They include improving the functioning of state institutions across the country -- easier said than done when the country is divided into two entities -- reforming the Constitutional Court, fighting corruption, and promoting reconciliation after the war in the 1990s. Sarajevo has hardly delivered on any of this since 2019, largely due to the country's persistent political paralysis. Not much is expected to happen in the next few months before the commission reports back in March.
  • Whether to open EU accession negotiations with Bosnia will probably be a political decision, not one based on merit. The question now is how hard Bosnia's supporters among the EU member states will push for the country to actually open accession talks.
  • And will the countries pushing for Bosnia's accession try to leverage their green light for Ukraine and Moldova to get a green light for Sarajevo as well? With decisions made by unanimity, this is a real possibility -- in December, when they meet to make decisions on the commission's recommendations, or in March when the commission reports back on all three again.

Looking Ahead

EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels on November 13. While the war in the Middle East is likely to take up most of their attention, they will also discuss two things that I wrote about a month ago: how to improve relations between Brussels and Armenia, including upgraded political ties and more Brussels cash going to Yerevan; and a new Russia sanctions package, which the European Commission will present to member states this week.

Two days later, on November 15, the Europe ministers of the 27 member states will gather in the EU capital. They will already start preparing for the key EU summit on December 14-15, at which leaders are expected to make the final decisions on the abovementioned European Commission recommendations on Bosnia, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. The meeting could get heated later that day, when discussions turn to the rule-of-law situations in Hungary and Poland. No decisions will be made, but both Budapest and Warsaw will push back vigorously on any form of criticism.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen briefs reporters last year on the EU membership applications of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, which should soon know their EU futures.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen briefs reporters last year on the EU membership applications of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, which should soon know their EU futures.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's new newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe's Eastern neighborhoods.

I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on the European Commission's upcoming enlargement report and Sweden's final steps in its bid to join NATO.

Brief #1: The EU's Big Enlargement Decision Is Looming

What You Need To Know: The European Commission's long-awaited annual enlargement report is set to be released on November 8. The release has been constantly postponed, as the report was originally expected to come out in early October.

The delay was due to a number of factors. Firstly, there was a wish from EU member states that the enlargement report wouldn't be released ahead of the EU summit in Brussels on October 26-27, with fears that it could "hijack" discussions on other issues such as the bloc's budget and migration.

Secondly, the enlargement report is huge, with assessments on 10 countries -- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey, and Ukraine.

There is a lot of ground to cover and EU member states -- the ultimate arbiters in the enlargement process -- have to study the documents before making a decision.

Member states will vote on the enlargement questions at the EU's General Affairs Council, which brings together the bloc's foreign ministers, in Brussels on December 12.

A potential decision will then need to be rubber-stamped at the EU summit in Brussels two days later.

Finally, the enlargement report has been delayed partly because the European Commission has been generous with the time it has allowed several countries to fulfill certain conditions and reforms that Brussels has set for the EU hopefuls.

Deep Background: According to various media reports, the European Commission will recommend the opening of accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova.

An EU source familiar with the enlargement report who could only speak on the condition of anonymity told me that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wouldn't have traveled to Kyiv on November 4 if there hadn't been "positive signals" from Ukraine.

Regarding Ukraine and Moldova, it's important to note the conditions and timelines -- and how those requirements and targets might be referred to in the reports.

Moldova and Ukraine have not yet fulfilled all the priorities set out by the EU in the summer of 2022. That could mean some sort of diplomatic fudge.

While EU member states might decide to open accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova in December, the actual opening of talks -- which involves the "screening" of all the EU legislation that countries need to adopt to become members -- will take place in early 2024. And all bets are off as to how long the whole process will take, as accession talks can sometimes drag on for years.

Drilling Down

  • The most difficult decisions for the European Commission will be whether Georgia gets EU candidate status and whether Bosnia will be given the green light to start accession talks. These decisions are likely to go to the wire: first on November 6, when the heads of cabinet of the 27 EU countries meet to dissect the enlargement report; and then, on November 8, when European commissioners meet to smooth out any final wrinkles.
  • It's also possible that the European Commission's report will not give any clear recommendations. That would make sense in one crucial way: In the end, it isn't the European Commission that decides on candidate status or the opening of accession talks but rather the 27 member states via unanimity.
  • There has also been a precedent of members states rejecting the European Commission's recommendations. In 2009, the commission recommended that North Macedonia (then just Macedonia) start EU accession talks. And despite the commission recommending the same every year, EU member states didn't give North Macedonia a green light for talks to start until 2020.
  • For Georgia, there is still much uncertainty, with widespread concerns in Brussels and among EU member states about the country backsliding on democracy. Despite warnings from the EU, Georgian politics is still deeply polarized. The government has been criticized internationally for its attempt to pass a controversial "foreign agent" law and for the recent impeachment of the country's president for traveling to see EU leaders without government approval.
  • My understanding is that, in the end, Georgia will get candidate status. EU diplomats familiar with the file have said there is plenty of momentum for enlargement within the bloc right now and, with European elections and a change of guard in the European Council and European Commission in 2024, there is a sense that Brussels wants to move the process along as quickly as it can for as many EU hopefuls as possible. There are also concerns about separating Georgia from Ukraine and Moldova. With the latter pair further down the enlargement road and likely to start accession talks soon, even if Georgia does get candidate status, the country will still be behind.
  • For Bosnia, things are even more uncertain. It was already quite controversial that the country was granted candidate status last year, considering that it had barely fulfilled any of the 14 conditions that the European Commission laid out. Still, a handful of countries -- notably Austria, Croatia, Hungary, and Slovenia -- are pushing for accession talks to start with Bosnia, saying that there is a need for candidates from the east and from the Western Balkans to move in unison.
  • Come December, this will inevitably result in a good deal of horse-trading among member states. Most countries are prepared to give the green light to start EU accession talks with Moldova and Ukraine, although Hungary still has concerns about how ethnic Hungarians are being treated in Ukraine. Budapest may try to bargain, only approving Kyiv's bid if other countries sign off on Georgia -- which has developed strong ties with Hungary -- getting candidate status.

Brief #2: Will Sweden Finally Join NATO This Year?

What You Need To Know: Sweden took a big step closer to becoming NATO member No. 32 when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan submitted a bill on October 23 to the Turkish parliament approving the Nordic country's membership of the military alliance. With his Justice and Development Party (AK) having a majority in the Turkish parliament, the bill is expected to pass in a few weeks' time and will then be considered by the foreign affairs committee in the unicameral chamber.

The hope in Brussels is that Sweden will officially become a member of the bloc around the time of the NATO foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels on November 28-29. But no one is daring to set any firm dates, given just how drawn out this process has become.

Most NATO officials expected both Finland and Sweden to join in the fall of 2022 after having applied for membership shortly after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Apart from Turkey and Hungary, 28 out of 30 countries ratified the Nordic pair's accession bids a year ago.

Ankara wanted to see progress -- notably from Sweden -- in fighting terrorism, lifting an arms embargo on Turkey, and fulfilling extradition requests, mainly Kurds accused by the Turkish state of terrorism.

While Sweden has approved legislation on the first two points, the multiple Koran burnings and Kurdish demonstrations in the country have killed any hopes of a quick Turkish ratification. (Finland "decoupled" its accession process from Sweden and joined NATO in April.)

At the NATO summit in Vilnius in July, there was some sort of deal between Turkey and Sweden that would supposedly pave the way for Turkish ratification. Ankara, however, was in no hurry to do it in July and waited until after the parliamentary summer recess ended in early October.

Deep Background: According to several NATO officials I have spoken to, they expected Erdogan to send the bill to parliament in early October. Two events, however, prevented that: an October 1 suicide bombing in Ankara, which the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) claimed responsibility for; and an incident a few days later, when U.S. forces shot down a Turkish drone in northern Syria.

With Erdogan winning the presidential election in May -- partially on a platform of being tough on terrorism -- the Turkish leader has had to tread carefully on green-lighting Sweden's NATO bid. And there are certainly questions about how much Sweden has done to address Turkey's concerns. Erdogan initially wanted several hundred people -- mainly Kurds -- extradited from Sweden, but last year only four were sent back to Turkey and there will likely be a similar number this year.

Drilling Down

  • The other issue tied to Turkey's ratification of Sweden joining NATO is the potential U.S. sale of F-16 fighter jets to Ankara in a deal worth $20 billion. The deal is still waiting for a green light from the U.S. Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations and Turkey will be watching very closely.
  • Regarding Sweden and NATO, Hungary is still a bit of an unknown quantity, with Budapest not yet ratifying the country's accession bid. When Turkey said it was ready to ratify Finland joining NATO on March 17, Hungary quickly followed suit and Budapest has said that it won't be the last country to approve Sweden's accession. This now appears to have changed. When Hungarian opposition parties asked for a vote on Sweden in the wake of Erdogan's October 23 announcement on ratification, the ruling Fidesz party, which holds a solid majority in parliament, refused to put it on the agenda.
  • Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto recently said that the country's lawmakers "will make a sovereign decision on this issue" regardless of what Turkey does. Earlier in the fall, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban noted that there was "little chance" that parliament would ratify Sweden's accession in 2023.
  • In recent years, Sweden has irked Hungary, notably with a TV report first aired in 2019 by the Swedish Educational Broadcasting Company. The 10-minute video, titled The EU And Democracy, is part of a series focusing on the European Union, which has also covered Brexit, lobbying, and asylum rights in the bloc. The episode on Hungary airs several interviews with critics of the current government, including members of the European Parliament, a political activist, Hungarian high school students, and a Swedish lecturer from Budapest's Central European University, which now largely operates out of Vienna after political pressure from Fidesz.
  • It's still not clear what Hungary wants -- in its response to the Swedish video and more broadly. Budapest has not officially demanded that the video be removed and the Swedish educational broadcaster is standing by it. It could be that Hungary is treading with care as it seeks Sweden's approval of frozen EU funds going to Hungary by the end of the year -- in exchange, of course, for Hungary's nod to NATO on Sweden.

Looking Ahead

On October 8, the legality of EU sanctions against Russia will be tested as the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice will hand down a ruling in the case of Dmitry Mazepin.

The Russian oligarch, who made a fortune in the chemical industry, was targeted with an asset freeze and a visa ban by the EU shortly after Russia's attack on Ukraine in 2022.

Like many other Russian businessmen, Mazepin has challenged this decision in the European Court of Justice -- even though only a few have won similar cases.

Members of the European Parliament are used to being addressed by famous political leaders but not by Academy Award-winning actors. On November 8, Cate Blanchett spoke to the full plenary on November 8.

The Australian Hollywood star, who is a UNHCR goodwill ambassador, has been vocal about helping refugees from Syria and is likely to touch upon the need to support those fleeing the ongoing war in the Middle East.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here.

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About The Newsletter

Wider Europe

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

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