2022: Enlargement on life support

This article is part of our special report What to expect in EU policymaking in 2022.

Enlargement is stalled, and EU governments can barely agree on a common strategy to bring in the six membership hopefuls — Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, and North Macedonia.

Bulgaria’s new government seems open to turning a page in negotiations with North Macedonia over language and history disputes that led to Sofia’s firm veto on Skopje’s EU accession path. For one, Bulgarian President Ruman Radev suggests that the country change its constitution again.

Albania, whose fortunes are tied to the outcome of the Macedonian process, is left in the EU waiting room as well. Some, including Bulgaria, suggest Tirana’s EU progress should be decoupled from North Macedonia. That would likely spell further trouble for Skopje.

Meanwhile, progress in accession negotiations with Montenegro and Serbia, the supposed frontrunners of the process, are moving at a glacial pace, if at all.

Podgorica, which started accession talks with the EU in 2012, has opened all topics under discussion, called chapters, in the negotiations but has closed only three.

On the other hand, Serbia managed to open four new chapters focused on sustainability after a two-year stall. However, many question the government’s commitment to democracy.

Another roadblock on Serbia’s accession path is its dialogue with Kosovo to find a legally binding comprehensive settlement deal and normalise relations, a precondition for accession for both countries.

For now, talks are going nowhere. Floating ideas about a possible unification of Kosovo and Albania are only bound to further deteriorate relations between Belgrade and Pristina. Meanwhile, Kosovo’s frustrations with Brussels simmer over the bloc’s failure to deliver on visa-free promises.

And Bosnia and Herzegovina is, for lack of a better word, a mess.

The following months will see if the country will disintegrate after the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska (RS) adopted a roadmap to withdraw from joint key institutions, including the military, tax system, and judiciary.

RS and the Bosniak-Croat Federation, both highly autonomous, make up post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a weak central government

Needless to say, the EU condemned the move, and some member states, including Germany, are now calling for sanctions against Serb leader Milorad Dodik.

However, recent media revelations suggest the secessionist vote, which promised to come up with draft laws in six months to replace country-level legislation, happened at a legislative assembly reportedly held with the blessing of EU enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi. The reports were described as “shocking” by one diplomat in Brussels to EURACTIV.

Finally, Turkey remains an EU candidate country in name only.

As for other EU candidate countries down the line? The list of hopefuls is substantial, notably Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, which have recently banded together to speed up their integration into the bloc. Tbilisi even announced it is planning to submit its membership bid by 2024.

However, as calls for enlargement will inevitably fall on deaf ears in Brussels and across EU capitals, the number of those sincerely looking to join the bloc may begin to shrink.

All in all, lack of backsliding may be all the progress on enlargement we can hope for in 2022.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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