Brussels Behind the Scenes: Neighbourhood watch

Brussels Behind the Scenes: Neighbourhood watch
Credit: EC


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Neighbourhood watch

Applications to join the EU have come in thick and fast over the last couple of weeks, but there are complex issues at play that go well beyond simply granting membership to anyone who asks for it.

Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova’s recent decisions to request EU membership have reignited what was a stagnant membership debate. Not since Croatia joined the bloc in 2013 has the 27-member club expanded its horizons.

Indeed, the UK’s 2016 vote to leave the EU is pretty emblematic of the wider issue: the momentum was in favour of shrinkage, not admitting new members.

Governments now face a number of tests that will likely define what the EU of the next few decades will look like and, more importantly, who will be included among its ranks.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

New faces

Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova’s applications were triggered by Russia’s brutal and ongoing invasion of the former. Official documents have been lodged with Brussels and the Commission is now working on assessing the three countries’ prospects.

Reports on all three will make recommendations to the Council about whether they are eligible for candidate status and then it will be up to governments to decide if the accession process should be started or not.

New polling suggests that Europeans are as a whole in favour of Ukraine joining but when the results are looked at country-by-country, the trend becomes much more difficult to plot.

The Commission will also have to indicate if the three nations should be coupled together so that their membership fortunes all depend on one another. This is the case with North Macedonia and Albania, perhaps to the detriment of the latter.

Bulgaria continues to block the opening of talks with North Macedonia, despite a new government taking over recently in Sofia. Disputes about minority rights and language mean Bulgaria is still unwilling to lift its veto.

That has prompted the Albanian government to mull asking for their application to be decoupled from its neighbour’s, so that talks could potentially be opened. The Commission is not keen on that idea.

June’s European Council summit is seen as the defining moment for those two sets of countries. A positive report for Ukraine could be accompanied by an agreement on starting talks with Skopje and Tirana.

But the unpredictable vagaries of backroom diplomacy may derail some or even all of those applications.

Support for Albania was reportedly only granted safe in the knowledge that North Macedonia would be going nowhere, while Ukraine’s potential membership is still viewed with caution by several governments.

Old faces

Ongoing talks with the likes of Montenegro and Serbia also add another dimension to the enlargement question.

A new government in Podgorica promises to speed up EU-integration and undo the backslide in reforms that the previous pro-Serbian administration had overseen before its ouster in February.

Montenegro’s volatile political landscape makes its prospects difficult to predict and Prime Minister Dritan Abazović’s minority government is reliant on the support of other lawmakers to stay in power.

Serbia, meanwhile, insists that it is staying on its ‘European pathway’ but reelected President Aleksandar Vučić has proven time and time again that his priorities shift depending on which way the prevailing winds are blowing.

His unwillingness to align Serbia’s Russian sanctions policy with that of the EU’s and a delivery of missiles by the Chinese government are just two recent examples of how Brussels and Belgrade are far from being on the same page.

That is why the EU has to be careful with how it approaches Ukraine’s membership wishes. If the rulebook is rewritten to speed up its application and this is not applied to those already in the queue, it could do a lot of damage to the procedure.

Emmanuel Macron’s long-held musings about a ‘two-speed Europe’, where benefits of membership are slowly drip-fed to applicants to help boost reforms, could yet gain political backing. How it would actually work though is a headache-inducing technical challenge.

The other EU-aspirants – Bosnia, Kosovo and Turkey – are all in separate situations. Bosnia is embroiled in ongoing institutional turmoil linked to the political choices of the Serbian entity, while Kosovo's non-recognition by a number of EU countries still poses a big hurdle. Brussels will be all to happy to leave Turkey's stalled application on ice.

Old friends

EU membership is one thing, maintaining close relationships is another. It is nearly one year since Switzerland, the bloc’s odd neighbour, pulled out of talks aimed at brokering a big deal between Brussels and Bern. 

Swiss politicians baulked at the notion that the new pact – which would codify lots of separate mini deals into one agreement – could impact the government’s sovereignty over issues like migration and the labour market.

The political stalemate between the two sides has meant Swiss involvement in programmes like the €95 billion Horizon Europe research initiative has been suspended. There is as yet no light at the end of the tunnel.

Universities, institutes and think tanks have all urged the Commission to admit Swiss and UK-based researchers at least on an interim basis, to no avail. It is an example of the EU technically being in the right but making things worse through a misguided adherence to its own rules.

The UK is of course locked out because of Brexit and the Conservative government’s ongoing rhetoric about the Northern Ireland Protocol, a set of rules it helped negotiate and which its politicians supported in a vote.

Elections this week in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have also reignited the debate about a unified Ireland as, at time of writing, republican party Sinn Fein was on track to become the biggest party for the very first time.

Sinn Fein is committed to holding a referendum on Irish unity and how it would decide to go about that process remains to be seen. Votes on both sides of the border would be needed to unify the island of Ireland into one country.

Irish politics notwithstanding, it poses an interesting – if only hypothetical scenario for the time-being – for Brussels. Ireland is an EU member, Northern Ireland is not, so what would become of the unified Ireland?

EU leaders voted a number of years ago on a Brexit resolution that included what some people called a ‘GDR clause’, in reference to East Germany and its de facto joining of the then European Communities when it unified with West Germany.

So in theory, if it ever got to that stage, Big Ireland™ would be an immediate member of the EU. But any of us who have spent any amount of time watching European politics unfold know: things are rarely straightforward.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.

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