European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (e) speaks at a joint press conference with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine.
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BRUSSELS – European Union leaders are expected on Thursday to formally approve Ukraine’s candidate status to join the bloc – the first official step towards full membership.
The move reopened a difficult and delicate debate within the EU over expansion, as Brussels has not welcomed new countries since 2013, when Croatia joined.
This is in part a result of the bloc’s difficult political and economic environment: the shocks of the 2008 global financial crisis, its own sovereign debt crisis in 2011, and then a wave of refugees from the Syrian civil war in 2015. These events reinforced support for parties across the region, leading many member states to prioritize domestic issues over expanding EU membership.
But that has started to change, albeit slowly, after Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. A recent European Parliament survey found that European support for EU membership has peaked at 15 years.
The leaders of Germany, France and Italy visited Kyiv last week to express their support for Ukraine’s bid to join the bloc. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, then said that both Ukraine and Moldova were ready to take a step closer to membership, provided they implement various reforms.
But some EU countries have reservations about reopening the bloc’s doors.
Portuguese Prime Minister António Costa said that the EU runs the risk of creating “false expectations” with Ukraine’s candidacy for membership. In an interview with the Financial Times, he added that the EU should seek to provide immediate support to Kyiv rather than open “legal debates”.
Joining the EU is traditionally a lengthy process, as potential members have to align their political and judicial systems with those of the bloc. Furthermore, opening the door to one nation can mean opening the door to several others.
Several Western Balkan nations, located in southern and eastern Europe, have long pledged to join the EU, but negotiations have not yet started. Kosovo, for example, has been waiting for four years for the visa requirement to be lifted to travel to the European Union.
The risk for the EU is that it could be seen as giving Kyiv preferential treatment – upsetting other parts of the continent and potentially pushing them closer to Russia.
“We have to remain vigilant and give the Western Balkans and Ukraine the same priority,” Austrian ministers Alexander Schallenberg and Karoline Edtstadler said in a letter late last month. “We want and need these countries firmly anchored in our camp.”
For Kosovo, it’s a question of geopolitics.
“This is also an issue of EU credibility, and also the EU’s understanding that bringing the Western Balkans as a region, embracing it and bringing it to the table is also a strategic interest of the European Union itself, because like me said earlier, the more the EU diverts its attention, the more other evil actors will use that space, notably Russia,” Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani-Sdriu told CNBC on Wednesday.
His comments should be taken with caution, however, as Kosovo has a long history of conflict with Serbia, a strong Russian ally. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is recognized by 110 countries, including the United States, but not Serbia and Russia. It has not yet become a member state of the UN.
EU members Greece, Cyprus and Spain are also among those who do not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign nation, making its possible EU membership highly controversial.
“Now, in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is nothing more complex and more important than fighting autocratic and genocidal regimes, like the Russian regime, because the more space Russia is given to expand its influence on the European continent, the more worse will be for all of us, no matter if we are in the EU or outside,” said the president of Kosovo.
The topic will be debated among European leaders on Thursday. Whatever they decide and say to Ukraine will be watched closely in the Balkans.
Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of Germany, told CNBC on Thursday: “[The] the most important issue is that we all work together and that the states of the Western Balkans have good opportunities to become true members of the EU. They worked so hard.”
Albania and North Macedonia, which have changed their names in an effort to increase their chances of joining the EU, were previously granted candidate status but are still awaiting the start of accession negotiations.
“It is important how leaders explain enlargement to their people,” Osmani-Sadriu said, adding that EU leaders need to emphasize that the bloc’s expansion “is for the benefit of peace and stability across the European continent.”