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I'm RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I'm drilling down on two major issues: a possible political deal between Serbia and Kosovo, and the many hurdles facing Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine before they can become members of the EU.
Brief #1: Serbia-Kosovo: Is A New Agreement Imminent?
What You Need To Know: The situation in Kosovo threatened to boil over at the end of 2022, with roadblocks set up by ethnic Serbs in the northern part of the country. The protesting Serbs were outraged over the arrest of a former Serbian police officer, Dejan Pantic, in Kosovo.
After pressure from both the United States and the European Union, Pantic was eventually placed under house arrest in order to defuse the tension. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic then promptly promised, on December 29, that all barriers and roadblocks would be removed.
The flare-up was similar to one in November following the walkout of hundreds of ethnic Serb police officers, judges, and prosecutors protesting the decision by Pristina to ban Belgrade-issued license plates inside Kosovo.
This latest crisis even reached the higher echelons of NATO, with Serbia at one point fielding a request to the military organization's KFOR peacekeeping mission for permission to deploy its troops in Kosovo. The international force, which has been present in Kosovo since 1999, ignored the call and stated publicly that it had sufficient capabilities to enforce its UN mandate. The mission then helped in the removing of the barricades, with the last one dismantled on January 5.
Deep Background: While Brussels is worried about the situation and the near-constant white-knuckle moments in recent months, several diplomats I have spoken to take this as an indication that both Belgrade and Pristina are edging closer to some sort of political deal, possibly in the next few months.
The two countries have been locked in an EU-led dialogue to normalize bilateral relations since 2011, a process that has produced few concrete outcomes in recent years. However, the changing security landscape in Europe since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine appears to be changing the parameters.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, European diplomats noted that Serbia, which so far has refused to align with any EU sanctions on its traditional ally Russia, is feeling the squeeze as the Kremlin is bogged down and suffering huge losses in Ukraine. That has no doubt contributed to the EU's lack of enthusiasm for letting Serbia into the union.
For Kosovo, meanwhile, baby steps are being made to get closer to Brussels. At the end of the year, EU member states finally agreed to green-light EU visa liberalization for Kosovar citizens by January 2024, and Pristina officially handed in its EU membership application. The European Commission is expected to sit on Kosovo's application for a long while, though, with five EU member states still not recognizing the fledgling country's independence.
- Both U.S. and EU officials are traveling to the region in early January, and a French-German proposal that the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has been working on was presented to EU member states in Brussels before the holidays at the end of the year.
- A draft of the French-German proposal, seen by RFE/RL, doesn't include mutual recognition but is rather a potential building block to a much bigger and more comprehensive agreement further down the road. The document states that "while the present basic agreement constitutes an important step of normalization, both parties will continue with new impetus the EU-led dialogue process, which should lead to a legally binding agreement on comprehensive normalization of relations."
- Perhaps the most crucial part of the proposal is that "both parties shall mutually recognize their respective documents and national symbols, including passports, diplomas, license plates, and customs stamps." That is certainly a real carrot for Kosovo.
- Another part of the proposal likely to please Pristina is that Serbia will not object to Kosovo's membership in any international organizations -- a real bone of contention since Kosovo declared independence in 2008. There is also a call to exchange permanent missions, support each other's aspirations to join the EU, and that both parties can "proceed on the assumption that neither of the two can represent the other in the international sphere or act on its behalf."
- There are also sweeteners for Serbia. Pristina should formalize the status of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo and "afford strong protection to the Serbian religious and cultural heritage and religious sites."
- Crucially, the proposal also mentions the need to "ensure [an] appropriate level of self-management for the Serbian community in Kosovo, including the possibility for financial support by Serbia." For a long time, Serbia has bristled at Kosovo's stalling on the creation of a community of Serb municipalities in the north of the country, a central requirement of the 2013 Brussels agreement between the two countries. Still unimplemented, the French-German draft proposal requires both parties to fulfill the requirements laid out around a decade ago.
Brief #2: The Nitty-Gritty Of EU Enlargement
What You Need To Know: In June 2022, after a recommendation by the European Commission that the 27 member states swiftly endorsed, Moldova and Ukraine were granted EU candidate status, and Georgia was placed one rung below as a potential candidate country. This was only three months after the trio applied for membership in the wake of Russia's February invasion of Ukraine.
For a process that normally takes well over a year, this was decided on at breakneck speed, partly due to some creativity by the European Commission. Firstly, the commission reversed the normal order of things, granting Kyiv and Chisinau candidate status immediately and then asking them to fulfill a number of reforms, notably regarding the rule of law, in order to proceed to the actual start of accession negotiations. For Georgia, though, the usual rules still applied: Take note of our recommendations, do your reforms, and only then can you become a candidate.
All three countries are now eagerly anticipating the European Commission's annual enlargement report in October, where a thorough assessment and recommendations will be made. As soon as this spring, the commission will give an update on how the trio is doing. And by the end of the year, EU member states could decide that Ukraine and Moldova can start to negotiate and that Georgia will become a candidate country, if the commission so recommends. But there does need to be unanimity among the 27 member states, which isn't easy when European capitals are often swayed by domestic events and popular opinion.
Deep Background: This past summer, the European Commission was creative in another regard. In assessment reports delivered on June 17 on Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, the commission repeated the political criteria needed to become a member. However, a second installment of the reports, due to be published this month, is much more technical and comprehensive. It looks at how aligned each country is with EU legislation in all policy fields -- from science and research to environmental protection and foreign and security policy.
The drafts for each of the three countries, which I have seen, are more than 50 pages of Brussels outlining what needs to be done across 32 policy fields (called chapters). They use an assessment scale to mark each country's progress: early stage; a certain level of preparation; moderately well-prepared; good level of preparation; and well-advanced.
- This is very much the nitty-gritty of EU enlargement. Once a country gets past the politically symbolic moves of getting candidate status and opening accession talks, this is where the hard work starts. And also, the part where many candidate countries get stuck. Take Montenegro and Serbia as examples. They have been negotiating with Brussels for the best part of a decade and have each "closed” (i.e. aligned with EU legislation) just a handful of the more than 30 chapters. Lack of administrative capacity or political will to undergo serious reform are often the reasons cited.
- If Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are hoping to become members of the EU within the next five to 10 years, the commission reports make for sober reading. Horrific war aside, Ukraine has a large administrative capacity and strong political will to join the bloc. Enthusiasm might not be enough, though. The European Commission notes that, for most policy chapters in Ukraine, there is only "a certain level of preparation," the second-lowest grade.
- It notes, among other things, that the "public procurement control environment is complex and weak due to lack of staff," that there is "no independent fiscal institution," and that the country should establish and manage a fleet register and a data collection framework for fisheries.
- Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ukraine scores the highest on foreign relations and security and defense policy, where the country receives "a good level of preparation" in both fields. It is also deemed to be "moderately well-prepared" in key areas such as customs, energy, and digitalization and media.
- For Moldova, the report is even tougher, with the commission deeming Chisinau to be at an "early stage of preparation" in the majority of chapters and at a "certain level of preparation" for pretty much all the rest, making it the worst performer of the three. An EU official with insight into the process who prefers to remain anonymous points to the fact that this is because previous Moldovan governments have failed to reform the country sufficiently.
- Georgia appears to have the strongest report, reflecting years of pro-EU and relatively reform-minded governments. In quite a few chapters, notably those related to economics and finance, it is deemed "moderately well-prepared," even though it is lagging behind in sectors such as justice, intellectual property, and agriculture.
After a couple of weeks of vacation, the Brussels machinery will start grinding again this week. European Union ambassadors will be busy rubber-stamping some of the decisions taken by EU leaders before the break. One of those decisions is the prolongation of all the bloc's sanctions on Russia by six months to July. The move will mean that all of the various restrictive measures taken against the Kremlin by Brussels throughout 2022, as well as the sanctions adopted back in 2014 for the annexation of Crimea, will now have the same expiry date.
EU diplomats will also look into the final details of the first proper big meeting of the year: the annual EU-Ukraine summit, slated for February 3. The initial idea was to hold it in Odesa or Lviv, but in the end the meeting looks set to be held in Kyiv, with the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, respectively, traveling to the Ukrainian capital.
That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak or on e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time,
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