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Ukraine and Moldova Poised for Formal EU Accession Talks

  • Ukraine and Moldova to have ceremonial IGCs with EU in June.
  • Actual negotiations to begin in 2025, requiring unanimous approval from all 27 EU member states.
  • Hungary's veto and concerns about minority rights in Ukraine could complicate the process.
EU

Both Ukraine and Moldova are expected to formally open EU accession talks in the final week of June. Several diplomats that RFE/RL spoke to on condition of anonymity are confident that a “ceremonial intergovernmental conference” (IGC) will be held in Brussels with the pair just before Hungary takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the EU on July 1.

They also said they expected the negotiation frameworks with both countries to be adopted by EU member states at the same time. You would be forgiven for thinking that talks with Ukraine and Moldova had already started, recalling that EU leaders in December 2023 green-lighted the kickoff of negotiations. That, however, was just a political opening shot in a long and arduous process of accepting new members to the club in which unanimity by the 27 current member states will be required at many stages. And it is a process that both politicians and the media are rather confused about.

Deep Background: Just take the question of what actually constitutes the start of EU accession talks with an EU candidate country. It’s complicated, as the answer might differ depending on who you ask. There are, in fact, three correct replies to that query. Some say it is when EU leaders say they give a green light; in other words, what happened for Ukraine and Moldova at the end of last year. Others in Brussels would argue it is when the first IGC takes place, which is what Kyiv and Chisinau are expecting at the end of next month.

But there are also officials in the EU capital who claim that the negotiations only start in earnest once the first of around 33 accession chapters (covering EU rules in everything from agriculture to foreign policy that candidates need to adopt) is officially opened. And this is not expected to happen for either Ukraine or Moldova in June, as the IGC is expected to be a “ceremonial” one and not what Brussels types refer to as “political IGCs,” in which chapters are opened or closed.

At best, this could happen sometime in 2025. And, as always, all EU member states must agree to such a move, which isn’t always a cakewalk. To illustrate this, take the examples of North Macedonia and Albania. In March 2020, EU leaders decided to open talks with that Western Balkans pair, and in July 2022 they had their respective ceremonial IGCs. But they haven’t actually opened and/or closed any chapters yet.

The main reason for this is bilateral issues with EU member states. North Macedonia needs to change its constitution to include language on Bulgarians as a founding people. Albania’s path remains blocked by Greece over a nearly yearlong spat over the imprisonment of an ethnic Greek mayor in the southern Albanian town of Himare.

So, Ukraine and Moldova would essentially move into the same “category” as Tirana and Skopje at the end of June: EU leaders have green-lighted the start of talks and ceremonial IGCs will have taken place, but the nitty-gritty matters of actually negotiating stuff in various policy fields are yet to take place.

Drilling Down

  • Why does the EU conduct these “ceremonial IGCs,” then? In a sense, to encourage EU hopefuls. Montenegro, for example, had one in January. This despite the fact that it had previously both opened and closed chapters and is the most advanced of all EU candidate countries in this exercise. Brussels essentially wanted to give Podgorica “a tap on the shoulder,” indicating that the country is slowly heading in the right direction again after a few politically turbulent years.
  • But the real reason is also to avoid vetoes. Hungary has made clear that it opposes Ukrainian EU membership for the moment. Budapest will reportedly be OK with lifting its veto in June for Ukraine (and by extension Moldova, as it is paired with Kyiv) because it knows full well that it doesn’t mean that negotiations chapters will be opened.
  • It also means that Hungary doesn’t have to give Ukraine any “carrots” during its presidency in the second half of this year. I have also heard from sources in Brussels that Ukraine is being encouraged not to make too much of a fuss over the potential IGC in June -- mainly to avoid needlessly provoking Hungary.
  • Budapest has on numerous occasions voiced worries about the rights of the Hungarian-speaking minority in Ukraine, and that’s still an open question. When the European Commission presented so-called “oral updates” to EU member states on the progress made by Ukraine and Moldova so far on necessary reforms, the European Commission found that Kyiv still had not completed all necessary legislative changes pertaining to laws related to national minorities.
  • Several EU member states, however, believe that Ukraine has done its homework and that the European Commission’s assessment is colored by Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, a Hungarian with close ties to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
  • This discrepancy in interpretation has meant that there won’t be another European Commission assessment on Ukrainian progress (or lack thereof) in June, as it would provide Hungary with another opportunity to block. But it also means that Budapest can, of course, and probably will, use its veto further down the road if it isn’t satisfied with Kyiv’s reforms.
  • And in June, Hungary will most likely also use its threat of a veto to “leverage” progress for some of its friends among candidate countries in the Western Balkans: Montenegro, and possibly Serbia.
  • The former is set to close a few accession chapters in June, and it could be that Belgrade is likely to open some. Serbia has essentially stood still on its EU path for the last few years, as several EU member states have questioned its refusal to align with EU sanctions against Russia since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
  • It could well be that the Russia hawks such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have to lift their vetoes for Belgrade in order to secure an IGC for Ukraine. The Brussels horse-trading over enlargement decisions could, in other words, still be in full swing.

Brief #2: What Central And Eastern Europeans Think About NATO And The EU

What You Need To Know: On May 2, perhaps the foremost think tank in Central Europe, GlobSec, published its annual survey of political attitudes among seven Central and Eastern European countries that joined the EU 20 years ago -- the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia -- as well as Bulgaria and Romania, which became members of the club in 2007. In other words, a club of nine former Warsaw Pact members or Soviet republics that now are anchored in Western institutions and organizations and playing an increasingly prominent role in them.

Titled Globsec Trends 2024 – A Brave New Region, the survey quizzed respondents in February/March about their attitudes to EU and NATO memberships of their home countries, the war in Ukraine, and relations with big powers, among other things.

Deep Background: Support for EU and NATO membership remains strong across the nine countries polled. On average, 78 percent of the respondents want their country to remain in the EU, a number similar to previous years; for NATO membership, the regional average is 81 percent -- a surge from 73 percent in 2021, likely triggered by the Russian invasion in nearby Ukraine and the appreciation of being part of a bigger military alliance.

Digging deeper into the numbers, some interesting things pop up. Only 71 percent of Czechs want to stay in the EU -- the lowest figure among the nine countries. No explanations are offered, but it might stem from Brussels-bashing ex-presidents like Vaclav Klaus and Milos Zeman or the enduring legacy of the right-wing Civic Democratic Party (ODS), for decades arguably the most influential party in the Czech Republic and a staunch member of the mildly Euroskeptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) political grouping in the European Parliament.

Interestingly, the highest level of support for EU membership is in Hungary with 86 percent (tied for first with Lithuania). An enigma perhaps, considering that Hungarians for over a decade have opted electorally for Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party, which are in a seemingly perpetual struggle against Brussels in many areas.

You also have Slovakia, in which 72 percent of people want to stay in the EU. That figure is still quite high, but when you consider that it was 93 percent when the country joined the bloc 20 years ago, that’s quite an alarming slide and possibly something that the recently returned left-wing populist Prime Minister Robert Fico has tapped into.

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Or take Bulgaria, which is the only country of the nine in which respondents don’t believe that their country has a greater influence in global affairs thanks to its EU membership; on the contrary, a whopping 73 percent of Bulgarian respondents thinks Brussels dictates what to do without Sofia having the power to influence it.

Drilling Down

  • Wading more deeply into the numbers, you’ll quickly notice that there is substantial evidence that Bulgaria and Slovakia, and to a certain extent Hungary, are proper outliers compared to the other six countries.
  • Twenty-seven percent of Bulgarians and 24 percent of Slovaks still express a desire for their countries to leave NATO -- much higher than in the other countries -- potentially reflecting decades of anti-Western and even Russia-friendly sentiments.
  • Forty-one percent of Slovaks see the United States as a threat, as do 33 percent of Bulgarians; some 44 of Slovaks and 32 percent of Bulgarians see “Western society and their way of living” as a threat.
  • What about the Russia of today, then? Again, the opinion of the trio sticks out. Twenty-seven percent of Slovaks see Russia as a strategic partner, as do 23 percent of Bulgarians and 22 percent of Hungarians; however, the numbers in all three countries have decreased considerably compared to 2021, when it was close to half. By contrast, only 3 percent of Poles and 2 percent of Lithuanians see Russia in a similarly positive light.
  • Thirty-four percent of Hungarians see China as a strategic partner, with Slovakia a distant second at 16 percent -- surely reflecting Budapest’s open courtship of Beijing in recent years. (Chinese President Xi is making Hungary one of his three stops this week on his first European trip in five years.)
  • In seven out of the nine countries polled, Germany was seen as the most important strategic partner, probably reflecting the economic clout of Berlin in the region. Only in Poland and Romania was the United States considered a bigger partner -- which comes as no surprise considering general pro-American sentiments and considerable U.S. military presences in the two countries.
  • Relations with Ukraine and opinions on the war there also reflect Bulgaria’s, Slovakia’s, and to a lesser extent Hungary’s alternative views. In the former two, fewer than half of the respondents viewed Russia as the main perpetrator of war. Thirty-four percent of Bulgarians instead thought that the West provoked Russia into conflict, and 31 percent of Slovaks were of the same opinion.
  • Interestingly, in the entire region there is no country where the absolute majority of respondents envision Ukraine as a member of both the EU and NATO -- the stated geopolitical goal of Kyiv and something that is backed by most Ukrainians.
  • Forty-nine percent of Latvians and Lithuanians think Ukraine should be members of both organizations. In Estonia, 48 percent backed this, as did 40 percent of Poles and Romanians.
  • More worryingly for Ukraine, a full 57 percent of Hungarians think theirs should be a neutral country, as do 49 percent of Slovaks. Surprisingly, 36 percent of Czechs held the same view, with only 35 percent wanting it to be a member of both main Western alliances.
  • Considering that the decisions to accept members to both the EU and NATO require unanimity, the relatively low support for Ukraine among some of its neighbors can spell problems for the country’s political future.

By RFE/RL

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