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The thinking this time around -- at least among some member states -- is that it could be useful to have Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Macedonian capital for the OSCE meeting.
The thinking this time around -- at least among some member states -- is that it could be useful to have Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Macedonian capital for the OSCE meeting.

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 an upcoming OSCE meeting in Skopje, which is likely to be contentious, and whether the EU will be able to keep warm this winter.

Brief #1: With The Ukraine War, The OSCE Is At An Impasse

What You Need To Know: Two big questions loom over the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) ministerial meeting in Skopje on November 30-December 1, which will bring together the foreign ministers from the 57 members of the Vienna-based organization.

Firstly, will one of them -- Russia's Sergei Lavrov -- show up? And secondly, who will take over the one-year OSCE rotating chair for 2024 after North Macedonia?

The two questions are somewhat linked. Lavrov was barred from attending the ministerial meeting in the Polish city of Lodz last December, with Poland -- the organization's chair that year -- justifying the ban by saying that he was on the EU sanctions list after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The thinking this time around -- at least among some member states -- is that it could be useful to have Lavrov in the Macedonian capital. The OSCE remains the only larger political organization in Europe in which Russia is still a member, having been expelled from the Council of Europe last year.

Apart from potentially confronting Lavrov over Ukraine, OSCE diplomats might desire the Russian foreign minister's presence in Skopje to help solve the problem of who should take over the chair of the organization next year.

Estonia is the only candidate -- having applied already back in 2020 -- but Russia has always rejected this and is set to do so again this year. The argument Moscow has put forward is that it doesn't want another NATO country as chair -- following on from North Macedonia and Poland -- and has accused both countries of constantly bringing up "Russia's ongoing aggression against Ukraine" at the weekly OSCE Permanent Council, where ambassadors to the organization meet. In various OSCE forums, North Macedonia and Poland have rejected the idea that there can be "business as usual" as long as the conflict goes on.

Deep Background: Normally, the chair is decided at least a year in advance via unanimity among member states. It would be unprecedented for the OSCE to enter a new year without a country at the helm -- a scenario that could even usher in the demise of the entire organization.

It has already been decided that Finland will chair the OSCE in 2025, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) -- the predecessor of the OSCE -- that aimed to improve relations between East and West and which committed the Soviet Union to formally observing human rights and international law. The decision for Finland to chair in 2025 was made well before the country became a NATO member.

So, how to solve this impasse?

Estonia is so far not withdrawing its candidacy and has received full backing from the other 26 EU member states -- including the bloc's foreign ministers when they met in Brussels on November 13. Speaking to RFE/RL after the meeting in Brussels, Estonian Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna said: "We cannot normalize relations with the aggressor. We must continue the international isolation of Russia and must not submit to its provocations and blackmail. I am glad that the EU unanimously supports Estonia."

It will be interesting to see if this position prevails in the run-up to the Skopje meeting. The united EU stance on Estonia has so far prevented the search for alternative chairs, especially among non-NATO EU members. Perhaps the most natural choice would be Austria, as it already hosts the organization in Vienna. But there have also been talks between 2024 chair North Macedonia and Malta about the possibility of Valletta picking up the OSCE baton at the last minute, even though the country's small diplomatic service might struggle.

From what I understand from sources familiar with the issue who wish to remain anonymous, it appears that Russia has rejected another possible candidate, Kazakhstan, from chairing, or North Macedonia continuing in the hot seat for another year. If Russia doesn't get its way, then it could walk away from the OSCE, a scenario that many member states are keen to avoid.

One concern is that if Russia left, other countries -- particularly from the former Soviet bloc -- could follow, in solidarity with Moscow. At the same time, the organization is also keen to avoid being without a chair, especially as the yearlong role is key for the daily functioning of the organization.

Drilling Down

  • Ahead of the Skopje meeting, pressure could increase on Estonia to withdraw its candidacy. A policy note from the United States directed to EU member states, which was seen by RFE/RL, underlines that "the United States appreciates Estonia's willingness to serve as 2024 chair and supports Estonia as a principled and capable candidate for a future chairpersonship." The note adds that "Russia has made clear it will not join consensus on another NATO member as chair" and that the "OSCE urgently needs to identify a country capable of gaining consensus to serve as chair in 2024. A failure to do so is a victory for Russia."
  • It is also worth considering the presence of Lavrov himself at the ministerial meeting in Skopje. Last year, Poland acted on its own and stopped him from entering the country several weeks in advance, saying he was on the EU's sanctions list. The same could apply to North Macedonia, which as an EU candidate country has aligned with the EU's sanctions on Russia. But there's a catch: The EU has only imposed an asset freeze on Lavrov and not a visa ban. And even if there were a visa ban, this can be waived by EU member states and aligned countries in order for the Russian foreign minister to attend international conferences. Lavrov could, in other words, be welcome in North Macedonia without the country violating any legal or political obligations.
  • EU foreign ministers also discussed Lavrov's presence in Brussels last week. Some -- notably from the Baltics states -- expressed shock at his potential invitation, but others -- such as Germany -- said that everyone should be there and everyone should speak to him.
  • Some OSCE members, particularly from Western Europe, are hoping that Lavrov's presence would be an opportunity for dialogue, even if it's just discussions on internal OSCE matters, such as the question of extending the mandate of the secretary-general.
  • Ukraine and others, however, are warning of giving in to Russian pressure. They have noted how Moscow has obstructed several important OSCE initiatives in recent years, such as blocking three field missions to Ukraine and, for the last two years, the entire OSCE budget.

Brief #2: Will EU Citizens Stay Warm This Winter?

What You Need To Know: It was supposed to be Russia's most powerful weapon against the EU after last February's invasion of Ukraine: the threat that the bloc's citizens would freeze over the winter.

While energy prices did soar at the end of summer and early fall in 2022, mostly due to a scorching heat wave and Russia squeezing gas supplies. The media was full of stories of how badly the EU would cope, painting dire scenarios for the winter of 2022-23 and warning about potential blackouts for private households and industries. Fast forward a year and the doom and gloom is nowhere to be seen -- neither in the media nor among political circles in the European Union. The consensus seems to be that EU citizens will be warm in their homes and workplaces this winter, in what could be described as one of the bloc's true success stories in recent years.

Deep Background: At the start of Russia's full-scale attack on Ukraine in 2022, imports of Russian gas by pipeline made up 40 percent of all EU gas imports. Today, that figure is down to 13 percent. The EU has blocked 90 percent of Russian oil from entering the bloc and is starting to completely phase out purchases of Russian coal. This created a price shock in the summer of 2022, with gas prices peaking at 294 euros ($320) per megawatt hour (MWh) in August that year and electricity prices reaching 474 euros per MWh around the same time.

So far this year, the average price in the EU for gas has been 44 euros per MWh and 107 euros per MWh for electricity -- a considerable drop that has led to the EU fulfilling its target of having its gas storages 90 percent full two months before the November 1 deadline. These storages are now around 99 percent full, making blackouts this winter unlikely, even in the event of a Russian cutoff or a prolonged cold snap.

How did the EU achieve this? Well, the bloc reduced gas demand by around 15 percent compared to last year. Partly this was due to households and companies consuming less due to higher prices, plus the winter of 2022-23 and fall of 2023 were fairly mild. Another contributing factor was the installation of over 3 million heat pumps across the EU in 2022 alone, which has helped to slowly lower gas consumption for the generation of power.

Drilling Down

  • The main challenge for the EU has been to find alternative energy sources to replace Russian gas. In this regard, Brussels has fared reasonably well. One of the issues that made the energy crisis so alarming over the summer of 2022 was that over half of France's 56 nuclear reactors were shut down due to maintenance work. Now, many of those are back online, alleviating the problem to a certain extent. According to the European Commission, there has also been record use of solar power and offshore wind farms. While these renewable sources are helping, the main lifesaver for the EU has been the purchase of liquefied natural gas (LNG), with imports from the United States increasing sixfold since last year.
  • The EU has driven LNG prices down by having the European Commission organize three rounds of joint purchasing of the gas, instead of having individual member states competing to bid. The EU has also been lucky that LNG demand in China has shrunk due to slowed economic growth there, meaning that tanks carrying LNG could quickly be rerouted from Asia to Europe.
  • This means that the EU now has excess reserves going into the winter, with some LNG tankers functioning as offshore storage facilities. Some gas is also being kept in Ukraine, which has some of the largest gas stores on the continent and are far from the front lines of the war.
  • The problem with the LNG market is that prices are volatile and sensitive to all sorts of external shocks. In recent months, prices have shot up due to strikes at Australian LNG facilities, repair work at a large gas processing plant in Norway, and the war in the Middle East, which has stopped work at a facility off the Israeli coast.
  • There is also increased fear of sabotage, something that both NATO and EU officials are monitoring carefully since it appeared that in October a Chinese-registered vessel damaged an undersea gas pipeline connecting Estonia and Finland. It hasn't been established yet whether this was intentional or not.
  • There is also an elephant in the room. While the EU has cut a lot of Russian pipelined gas, it has in the same period increased its purchase of Russian LNG by 40 percent. About 15 percent of all EU LNG imports now come from Russia, with Portugal and Spain using a considerable amount as the Iberian Peninsula is something of an energy island with very few interconnectors to the rest of the EU. The reality is that the Kremlin will continue to enjoy a share of the EU energy market. Despite repeated calls, Russian LNG will not be sanctioned by Brussels. In a proposal for new EU sanctions on Moscow, seen by RFE/RL last week, there are no proposed measures on Russian gas, whether it's shipped via pipeline or as LNG.

Looking Ahead

Keep an eye out for the Dutch parliamentary elections on November 22. Dutch politics tends to be notoriously messy, with over a dozen parties making up the chamber and months usually needed -- postelections -- to cobble together a viable coalition. These elections came about after the current coalition fell apart in the summer over how to handle increased migration, which ended with the resignation of Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Having run the country for 13 years, making him one of the longest-serving leaders in the EU, Rutte said he was leaving politics but didn't rule out the possibility of taking on a position such as NATO secretary-general or president of the European Council.

Current NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will tour the Western Balkans this week. He will first go to Bosnia-Herzegovina, which has been aspiring to join the military alliance for well over a decade but has failed to make much progress, largely due to objections from the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska. Stoltenberg will also visit Kosovo, home to the NATO-led international peacekeeping force KFOR, which was recently bolstered due to tensions between Serbia and Kosovo.

That's all for now. I'm off this week, so the next briefing will come out on December 4. 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

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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.

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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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