EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (l) speaks during a joint press conference with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine.
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BRUSSELS – The leaders of the European Union on Thursday are expected to formally approve Ukraine’s candidacy to join the bloc – the first official step towards full membership.
The move has reopened a fierce and delicate debate within the EU on the issue of enlargement, as Brussels has not welcomed any new countries since 2013, when Croatia joined.
That is partly a result of the bloc’s difficult economic and political environment: the shocks of the 2008 global financial crisis, its own sovereign debt crisis in 2011, and the subsequent was a wave of refugees from the Syrian civil war in 2015. Those events reinforced support for the populists. regional parties, causing many member states to prioritize domestic issues over EU membership expansion.
But this has begun to change, albeit slowly, following Russia’s gratuitous invasion of Ukraine earlier this year. A recent survey by the European Parliament found that European support for EU membership is at a 15-year high.
The leaders of Germany, France and Italy visited Kyiv last week to express support for Ukraine’s bid to join the bloc. The European Commission, the EU’s executive body, said at the time that both Ukraine and Moldova were ready to take a step closer to membership, provided they implemented some reforms.
However, some EU countries have reservations about reopening the bloc’s doors.
Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa said the EU ran the risk of creating “false expectations” with Ukraine’s bid to join. In one Interview with Financial TimesHe added that the EU should seek to provide immediate support to Kyiv rather than open “legal debates.”
Joining the EU has traditionally been a lengthy process, with potential members having to adapt their political and judicial systems to that of the bloc. Furthermore, opening up to one country can mean opening up to many other countries.
Several countries in the Western Balkans, located in southern and eastern Europe, have long been promised to join the EU, but negotiations have yet to begin. For example, Kosovo waited four years for visa requirements to be lifted to travel to the European Union.
The risk for the EU is that the EU could be seen as giving Kyiv preferential treatment – upsetting other parts of the continent and potentially pushing them closer to Russia.
“We must remain vigilant and give the same priority to the Western Balkans as well as Ukraine,” Austrian Ministers Alexander Schallenberg and Karoline Edtstadler said in a letter late last month. “We want and need those countries firmly anchored in our camp.”
For Kosovo, it is a matter of geopolitics.
“This is also a matter of EU credibility, and the EU also understands that it is in the European Union’s own strategic interest to bring the Western Balkans into its own, embracing it and bringing it to the table. because as I said earlier, Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu told CNBC on Wednesday, the more attention the EU gets, the more bad guys are using this space, mainly Russia.
However, her comments should be made with a degree of caution, as Kosovo has a long history of conflict with Serbia, a staunch ally of Russia. Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, and is recognized by 110 countries, including the US, but not recognized by Serbia and Russia. It has not yet become a member state of the United Nations.
EU members Greece, Cyprus and Spain are also among those that do not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state, making potential EU accession highly controversial.
“Now in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there is nothing more complicated and important than fighting autocratic, genocidal regimes, such as the Russian regime, because more space allows Russia to open up influence in mainland Europe, the worst will be for all of us, regardless of whether we are within the EU or outside the Union,” said the Kosovo President.
The topic will be debated among European leaders on Thursday. Whatever they decide and say to Ukraine will be closely watched across the Balkans.
Olaf Scholz, German chancellor, told CNBC on Thursday: “[The] The most important question is that we all work together and countries from the Western Balkans will have a good chance of becoming a true member of the EU. They worked very hard. “
Albania and North Macedonia, two countries that have changed their names in an attempt to boost their chances of joining the EU, have previously received candidate status, but are still waiting for accession talks to begin.
“It’s important for leaders to explain how the expansion is to their own people,” said Osmani-Sadriu, adding that EU leaders need to emphasize that the bloc’s expansion “will bring. interests for the peace and stability of the entire European continent”.