In the nearly two decades I have spent covering the European Union and NATO’s relations with its eastern neighbor, the Western Balkans, 2022 has been the most interesting and dynamic year I have ever seen. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is, of course, at the center of all this. In many ways, the war has renewed the raison d’etre for both organizations after several tough years.
Brexit, the chaotic presidency of Donald Trump, the French President Emmanuel Macron calling NATO braindead, Turkey becoming an increasingly awkward ally and partner, the EU’s slow and chaotic COVID-19 vaccination rollout — there were plenty of questions and uncertainty surrounding both institutions going into 2022.
But now, at the end of the year, it is noticeable that both the EU and NATO have come out stronger. In a truly historic decision, both Finland and Sweden decided to join NATO. And in an equally symbolic move, the EU agreed that Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine could become members of the bloc and even bestowed official EU candidate status on the latter pair.
In the Western Balkans, things also started to move. Bosnia-Herzegovina got the same EU candidate status as Ukraine and Moldova, Albania and North Macedonia launched EU accession talks over the summer, and Kosovo applied for EU membership and finally got the highly prized thumbs-up from Brussels that its citizens can enjoy visa-free travel to the bloc by 2024.
The Expansion Of NATO
Deep Background: For a while, Sweden and Finland have been the two NATO partners closest to the alliance without the political or popular backing to join. Both countries were heavily influenced by their history.
To date, Sweden had enjoyed over 200 years of military nonalignment and Finland was still living in the shadow of its unique Cold War status, which led to the coining of the term “Finlandization,” where the Soviet Union allowed the country independence in exchange for Helsinki not opposing its bigger and more powerful neighbor’s foreign policy.
The Russian attack on Ukraine and the pronouncement before the outbreak of the war by Russian President Vladimir Putin that he didn’t wish to see any more NATO enlargement changed all that.
In the spring, there was already a firm majority in both Nordic countries’ parliaments and among the populace for joining the military alliance. In May, their NATO applications were lodged in Brussels, and, in June, they were invited to join at the NATO summit in Madrid.
- The hopes for a speedy ratification from the current 30 members over the summer and early fall were quickly dashed. Hungary dragged its feet and announced that its parliament will deal with the issue in February 2023.
- All eyes have always been — and will continue to be — on Turkey. Turkey agreed to give a green light to invite the Nordic pair, as long as they both took a number of what Ankara sees as anti-terrorism measures. On that, there has been some progress. Sweden’s 2019 arms embargo on Turkey was lifted in September and there have been moves to stop Swedish financing for Kurdish groups in Syria, which were two of Turkey’s key demands.
- For Turkey, that isn’t yet far enough. Sweden, with an estimated 100,000 people of Kurdish origin living in the country, had also promised to clamp down on Turkey’s foe, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), plus extraditing people that Turkey deems to be terrorists.
- There has been progress on that, too, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has on numerous occasions said Stockholm (and by extension Helsinki) has done enough to join. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be the final judge. He’s set to fight a tricky presidential election in June, and it’s possible that the Nordic NATO question could become a key issue.
- Sweden and Finland will almost certainly become NATO members in 2023, and the alliance will change radically. The entire Baltic region, with the exception of Russia, will soon be NATO territory. Finland’s 1,300-kilometer border with Russia will become the military alliance’s longest, with what is currently its biggest adversary.
- Updated NATO defense plans are under way. As partners, the Nordic pair has already participated in numerous joint exercises with NATO, but now the alliance needs to figure out how to jointly defend two of the largest countries in Europe with numerous islands and archipelagos, mountain ranges, and deep forests.
- The two countries will also be security providers. Finland already meets NATO’s 2 percent defense spending target and will have one of the alliance’s biggest armies; Sweden is a big arms producer. In the future, it’s likely both will help bolster NATO’s eight battle groups active in the eastern part of the alliance — a reassurance measure against further possible Russian military advances.
Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine Move Closer To EU
Deep Background: Only five days before the June Madrid summit, the European Union took the equally momentous decision in Brussels to confirm that Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine had a so-called European perspective, an EU term indicating that one day they can become members of the club. For the trio, which had previously concluded visa liberalization deals and association agreements that included trade pacts with Brussels, this was a pipe dream coming true.
But for Ukraine and Moldova, it didn’t stop there. The EU also agreed to bestow them the title of EU candidate countries, putting them on the same level in their path to accession as many EU hopefuls in the Western Balkans. Because of Brussels’ serious concerns about democratic backsliding, Georgia was placed one rung lower as a potential candidate country.
In truth, these titles and statuses are highly symbolic and don’t mean anything for certain. The countries might not necessarily get more money from the EU budget, and there is no concrete timeline for when they can become members.
However, it reverses years of hesitancy in Brussels about the further enlargement of the bloc. It was only last year that some western EU countries were skeptical even about including the word “enlargement” when referring officially to the Western Balkans — despite Brussels, for nearly two decades, repeating that those countries will become members one day. (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia are all official candidates to join the EU. The newest wannabe, Kosovo, has been given the status of a potential candidate.)
Before this year, whenever any official EU text was to be negotiated with Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, it was always made abundantly clear that any wording alluding to future membership was most certainly off the table.
Once again, the war in Ukraine changed everything. The European Commission even suggested — and got all 27 member states onboard — changing the very process of EU enlargement. Before, an applicant country would wait for years and have to undergo serious reforms to become a potential candidate, let alone a candidate country. But in the case of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, they were given their statuses immediately but with the provision that they pass reforms later, notably fighting corruption and improving the rule of law.
- The conditions the EU gives to potential candidates are sometimes intentionally vague. How does one, for example, accurately measure “a proven track record in fighting corruption”? The ambiguity allows lots of wiggle room, which can help appease enlargement skeptics within the bloc. Some countries want this to take as much time as possible, arguing that the EU still isn’t ready to bring in new (and poorer) countries into the fold.
- An important thing to look out for in 2023 is the European Commission’s annual enlargement report in October, which will feature the eastern trio for the first time. Will the commission be ready to suggest opening EU accession talks with Moldova and Ukraine, and possibly even Georgia? Much will depend on political developments next year. A first indication will come in the spring when the commission delivers a midterm assessment.
- In the fall, Ukraine formally applied to join NATO, even though the country (together with Georgia and Bosnia) had been a NATO aspirant country for a long time. The decision, made in Bucharest in 2008, that Kyiv will one day be welcome to join the military alliance, officially still stands. But it won’t be anytime soon, as NATO is adamant that it is not a party to the war in Ukraine, something having Ukraine as a member would radically change.
- Another key moment to watch out for in 2023 will be NATO’s summit in Vilnius in mid-July. The host, as well as many other Central and Eastern European members, is very keen to give Kyiv (and possibly even Tbilisi) something tangible. It could be a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a sort of pre-accession NATO program of advice, assistance, and practical support tailored for a prospective member. To calm the nerves of the more reluctant members of NATO, however, that might be watered down to a “MAP in all but name.”
Meanwhile, In The Western Balkans…
Deep Background: While the Nordics rushed toward NATO and the eastern trio made confident strides toward the EU, it seemed for a while that the Western Balkans were being forgotten. Bosnia failed to get candidate status in June, when Ukraine and Moldova were given a green light.
But when EU leaders reconvened again in Brussels in December, Sarajevo finally got the thumbs-up — and that was despite the progress report on Bosnia presented by the European Commission in the fall that showed the glaring shortcomings of Sarajevo’s application and how much more work the country had to do.
Brussels did, however, recognize that the same “formula” given to Kyiv and Chisinau could work for Bosnia, as well. The candidate status was given along with eight very strict recommendations to fulfil before Bosnia can advance further. Few believe, though, that will happen anytime soon in the highly divided nation.
While EU leaders were green-lighting Bosnia’s candidate status in Brussels, Kosovo handed in its EU membership application in Prague on December 15. This will prove to be a real legal head-scratcher for Brussels going into the new year, as it will be the first time ever that a country that isn’t recognized by all EU member states is formally asking to become a member of the club.
The most likely scenario is that EU member states will quietly opt to send over the file to the European Commission to prepare an official legal opinion on Kosovo’s membership application — a process that will take years. That gift of time allows for the possibility that the political reality in Europe will change by the time it comes to Kosovo’s recognition.
Much of this is connected to the country’s EU-facilitated dialogue with Serbia, which has been stalling in recent years. But there is now a proposal on the table that, while not offering Serbian recognition of Kosovo’s statehood, at least calls for the mutual recognition of national symbols such as passports and support for each other’s EU bids.
- This year also saw EU member states finally give a green light to Kosovo, so its citizens can travel without visas to most EU countries. This has long been an irritant for Pristina, as all other Western Balkans states have already enjoyed this for over a decade.
- The new visa regime doesn’t start right away. Rather, it should enter into force at the same time as the European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS), which would mean November 2023 at the earliest. The implementation of ETIAS has been postponed several times before, so early 2024 is a much safer bet.
- Finally, North Macedonia (together with Albania) opened EU accession negotiations nearly 17 years after having been granted EU candidate status.
- This came after a compromise with Bulgaria to amend the Macedonian Constitution to recognize the Bulgarian minority, although many sticking points between Skopje and Sofia still remain. For years, Bulgaria had blocked North Macedonia’s path to the EU because the two countries disagree over a long list of linguistic and historical issues.
- North Macedonia offers a cautionary tale for just how difficult (and long!) the road to the EU can be, with the country being blocked by Greece, France, and Bulgaria at different stages for different reasons. This is the reality of what asymmetrical relations between EU members and those hoping to join look like.
- Crucially, the member states have to decide unanimously when EU accession chapters are opened and closed, plus add to that the interim benchmarks that also need to be approved. That means there are close to 100 potential vetoes for each and every EU country throughout the process. Amid all the enlargement euphoria of 2022, that is worth keeping in mind in the years ahead.
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