Enlargement agenda: Investment plans, reforms and elections

This article is part of our special report All aboard: EU policy train builds up steam after summer.

In the wake of an “enlargement summit” in May that omitted the word enlargement altogether, the Western Balkans region is set to stay high on the Brussels agenda this autumn and possibly even mark one or two milestones in the drawn-out process.

The Commission, armed with a shiny new methodology for joining the bloc, is expected to publish in the autumn its long-delayed enlargement package that will analyse the entire process and contain detailed country-specific reports on the progress of the candidates and EU hopefuls.

The executive is also expected to present its investment programme for the Western Balkans, initially envisioned for May, which is touted to focus on energy, transport, green and digital agendas, with an aim to thwart brain-drain and bring the region as close as possible to the EU economy.

The Commission will have less budgetary space to manoeuvre after the Council slashed the proposed €10.5 billion top-up to the Neighbourhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) that will channel the biggest share of external action funds. It also shaved off an additional €4.7 billion from the executive’s proposal to reduce the overall funding for the instrument to €70.8 billion.

Those who see the glass as half-full, however, point out that the European leaders did agree on a €12.6 billion envelope of pre-accession assistance for the next seven-year budgetary period, still subject to the European Parliament’s approval.

Elections in North Macedonia, which many said would set the pace of EU accession, led to another premiership for Social Democrat leader Zoran Zaev, who delivered the domestically divisive name deal that resolved a long-running dispute with Greece and opened the doors to EU membership.

The recent coalition pact with a party representing the country’s Albanian ethnic minority — which includes a promise to hand over the premiership to an Albanian for the first time during the last 100 days of the government’s mandate — suggests North Macedonia should formally kickstart accession talks under the German presidency of the EU Council towards the tail-end of the year. The risks are linked to what Bulgaria sees as persisting attempts by some circles in Skopje to “falsify” the common history of the neighbouring countries.

More conditions still weigh on Skopje’s western neighbour Albania before it can begin talks, after it got the coveted enlargement green light this spring.

After praising Albania for passing electoral reforms, one of the pre-conditions, the EU was less than enthusiastic to hear of constitutional changes pushed through by the ruling Socialists, which the opposition said were politically motivated. Further delays to the start of EU accession negotiations appear to be in the offing.

Meanwhile, Montenegro edged closer to joining the club after this summer opening the final policy area of EU law implementation — competition — but the long journey is far from over with only three out of the 35 so-called negotiating chapters provisionally closed thus far.

Controversial parliamentary elections set for this Sunday (30 August), and continuing rule of law worries may yet put spokes in the wheels of the enlargement frontrunner.

Following the resumption of dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo this summer, positive signals may mean Belgrade and Pristina are edging closer to wrapping up a comprehensive legally-binding agreement to normalise their relations this year, though, as always, nothing is certain on this rocky road.

So far, Montenegro and Serbia have been treated as enlargement ‘frontrunners’, despite Montenegro being clearly ahead, and it remains to be seen if it will be allowed to progress alone or be kept back until Serbia catches up.

Eastern Partnership

In the East, all eyes are trained on Belarus, the enfant terrible of the EU’s prized neighbourhood policy, and sanctions are the word du jour.

Following a low-key summit between heads of state and governments as well as European institution leaders in June, and despite earlier promises to pay more attention to the bloc’s Eastern borders, no major developments are on the agenda south of Minsk.

In the South Caucasus, after securing the electoral reform deal, Georgia is headed into a heated campaign period in the run-up to general elections at the end of October, while after a flare up of tensions between arch-foes Azerbaijan and Armenia in July, the situation now appears to be stable.

Closer to the EU’s borders, while the fragile ceasefire in Donbas continues to more or less hold, expect a German push for a new round of so-called “Normandy Format” talks, with representatives of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia, on the implementation of the Minsk agreements, perhaps as early as the end of September. The Kremlin will have the last say.

At the 1 October EU-Ukraine summit, Kyiv hopes to finally sign the Common Aviation Area agreement that would liberalise access to the common market and set common standards. While Ukrainian representatives will likely push for a review of quotas under the country’s trade deal with the bloc, expect European officials to politely point out that if fully executed, the pact foresees the implementation of a vast majority of EU law.

The European Commission is also likely to follow closely the political developments in Ukraine, as eyebrow-raising high-level reshuffles, concerns of politically motivated persecution, accusations of systemic political pressure on independent institutions and press freedom fears continue to reach Brussels.

After the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) representative in Kyiv declined to say whether its programme with Ukraine is off-track, look out for the international lender of last resort’s review of its cooperation with Kyiv, which could come in the fall. The Commission is set to watch it closely.

And finally relations with Moldova are on the back burner since the country is governed by a pro-Russia cabinet.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Georgi Gotev]

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