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The Long and Winding Road to EU Accession

  • Ukraine and Moldova's negotiation framework for EU accession has been released, but approval from EU member states is still needed.
  • The accession process could be lengthy and complex, as seen in the case of Albania and North Macedonia.
  • Minority rights, particularly those of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine, could be a significant issue during negotiations.
EU

Earlier in March, the European Commission sent over the so-called "negotiation framework" for Ukraine and Moldova to European Union member states for approval. The 19-page-document, seen by RFE/RL, covers both countries as they so far are paired in the EU enlargement process and outlines the basic principles of European Union accession talks.

One Ukrainian official described it to me as "very broad," adding that "as of now, it causes no concerns to us as there is nothing particularly good or bad in it." That appears to be a fair description as it is essentially a copy-and-paste of the negotiation framework that the European Commission wrote up for Albania and North Macedonia in 2020.

The big issue now is when the 27 EU member states, via unanimity, will approve the framework. Here Albania and North Macedonia offer a sobering tale. For Tirana and Skopje, it took two years to get the approval, largely as Bulgaria was raising bilateral historic and linguistic disputes with the latter that in fact still aren't fully resolved. So, while the frameworks were amended by EU member states to reflect Sofia's worries and then passed in 2022 as accession negotiations were officially launched, neither North Macedonia nor Albania have to date opened any of the 33 negotiation chapters.

Skopje's inability to include references to Bulgarians as a founding people in its constitution, coupled with a bilateral Greek-Albanian spat over the imprisonment of an ethnic Greek mayor in the southern Albanian town of Himare, has prompted a double veto that so far has meant that neither of the Western Balkan couple has advanced on their respective EU path.

Deep Background: For Ukraine and Moldova, the hope among diplomats in Brussels I have spoken to is that EU member states will give a green light at the end of June. The draft right now doesn't offer any concrete hints of what member states might object to, if anything, but it does give plenty of indications that the enlargement process will be far from smooth sailing.

The paper immediately points out that "by their very nature, the negotiations are an open-ended process whose outcome cannot be guaranteed beforehand" and adds that "the pace of accessions must take into account the union's capacity to absorb new members" -- a perennial discussion that the bloc first must look after its own functioning, especially regarding decision-making in various institutions before additional countries can join.

There are also no surprises in terms of the demand that a new member state must adopt the euro as its national currency but that the decision when that will happen depends on the country fulfilling all necessary economic criteria.

As an example, look at Croatia joining the EU in 2013 but only adopting the currency a decade later. Or take membership into the passport-free Schengen Area. It is clearly stated Ukraine and Moldova will have to adopt all relevant EU laws in the field of home affairs in order to become EU members, but other member states and the European Commission will decide when they are ready for Schengen. Here, you can take Bulgaria and Romania as examples, both having joined the EU in 2007 but only partially joining Schengen at the end of March this year.

Drilling Down

  • So, what are the problems that tend to slow down the negotiation process? The EU's Copenhagen criteria, which sets down key requirements for membership, states that any new member state must guarantee "respect for and protection of minorities." For many years now, Budapest has been vocal about what it sees as reduced rights for the ethnic Hungarian minority in Ukraine.
  • That is likely to continue. In a debate held last week in the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, Hungarian Foreign Ministry State Secretary Peter Sztaray hammered home that the issue of Ukraine's Hungarian minority is not a bilateral issue but "an issue of human rights and security."
  • In a Hungarian government discussion paper -- seen by RFE/RL and circulated to fellow EU member states at the same time the European Commission was distributing the negotiating framework -- Budapest made clear that it will continue to press the minority issue. "Since 2015 there has been a shift in the policy of Ukraine regarding the rights of national minorities that resulted in narrowing, or in some cases even annulling the rights of national minorities previously guaranteed in the Ukrainian national legislation or in Ukraine's international obligations. We expect the national minority rights of the Hungarian community in Ukraine to be restored to the same level as they were before 2015."
  • The ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine are essentially demanding three things: restoring the status of the national minority school system; restoring some language rights when dealing with state authorities; and restoring the right for political representation on a regional as well as national level.
  • Broadly speaking, Budapest fears that more than four subjects in schools could become obligatory in the Ukrainian language. Another concern is the reshaping of administrative units in Ukraine that has reduced the number of Hungarians below the 10 percent threshold to claim language rights. Hungarian officials also want to secure an automatic delegate in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament.
  • The issue of minority rights is one of the four remaining conditions set out by the European Commission for Ukraine to complete before proper accession talks can be launched. The main demand was that all of the Council of Europe's Venice Commission recommendations on Ukraine's law on national minorities and on media and education be addressed.
  • Several EU member states, as well as Ukraine, believe this has already happened. But the European Commission -- and notably the EU Commissioner for Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi, who is Hungarian -- noted in a speech to EU member states earlier in March that these steps haven't yet been fully completed.
  • According to several Brussels sources I spoke to on background, the European Commission will still monitor implementation of the Ukrainian laws. Another report on these matters by the Venice Commission is due in June. Regardless of what it says, it is to be expected that Budapest will want the negotiation framework to reflect these minority rights concerns.

European Commission: This Is What's Needed For A Bigger EU

What You Need To Know: Without much fanfare, the European Commission on March 20 published its ideas on what reforms the bloc needs to undertake in order to take in more members. Numbering only some 22 pages, it is far from comprehensive. Rather, it gathers some initial thoughts ahead of several upcoming reviews in various policy fields that the commission will undertake later in 2024 and in 2025. Once again, EU enlargement appears to be enjoying some momentum as EU leaders in recent months have decided that membership talks should commence with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Moldova, and Ukraine.

Deep Background: The document starts by tackling the perennial question for Brussels officials and wonks: whether to first add new countries to the club or to start by changing internal EU rules.

"The EU must deepen as it widens. We must start preparing today for the union of tomorrow and use enlargement as a catalyst for progress," the paper states.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the text concerns the commission's thoughts on EU governance going forward. Debates have raged for years as to whether the EU needs a treaty to change to accept more members or not. Here, the document appears to come down in favor of the latter by noting that "while the commission has indicated its support [for] treaty change, "if and where it is needed," it believes that the "EU's governance can be swiftly improved by using to the full the potential of the current Treaties."

This is the view held by most EU member states as well, no doubt shaped by the trauma from when Dutch and French voters rejected a new EU constitution in referendums held in 2005, and then Irish voters did the same for a revised treaty a few years later. It's a Pandora's box few want to open again.

The main issue, as always when it comes to the running of the EU, is the question of unanimity. Most decisions are these days taken by a qualified majority (55 percent of member states representing 65 percent of the total EU population), but unanimity remains in crucial areas such as foreign policy, taxation, and, notably, enlargement policy. The paper notes that "in a larger union, unanimity will be even more difficult to reach, with increased risks of decisions being blocked by a single member state."

Drilling Down

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  • So, what can be done without actually rewriting the entire EU rulebook? The European Commission notes that so-called passerelle clauses in the current EU treaty would allow for the shift from unanimity to qualified majority voting (QMV) in all sorts of fields. But for that shift to happen, you need to have unanimity. In other words, a vote of unanimity to end unanimity.
  • This is a circle that will be hard to square as it is precisely the veto that makes smaller member states as relevant as the bigger ones in practice. And it's via the threat of vetoes that EU member states can "bargain" to get something in other policy fields. Hungary angling for more EU money withheld from it due to rule-of-law concerns while blocking decisions in other fields is a prime example. Why would Budapest -- or anyone else for that matter -- give up such a powerful tool?
  • The document doesn't quite answer that, although it tries. One is the use of "constructive abstentions" -- meaning that a country doesn't actively say "no" or "yes" but lets the decision pass. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban simply leaving the room at a recent EU summit when leaders decided to open accession talks with Ukraine is a good example. But can that happen on a more regular basis?
  • Another idea floated is to provide for the possibility for one or several member states to invoke exceptional national interest grounds to continue discussions in order to reach a satisfactory solution on an issue. Yet, this raises the question of how long this could go on and if this really would make the bloc move faster on crucial policy files.
  • There are also some ideas on how to speed up the enlargement process as well -- perhaps the most cumbersome of all EU policies and beset with veto opportunities. Every time one of the 33 policy chapters -- the bones of the accession process -- is opened, unanimity is required from the 27 EU member states. And so does their closing, as well as interim benchmarks in some of the chapters. That means that for each country's accession process, there are well over 70 opportunities to block the whole process. Albania and especially North Macedonia are perfect examples of EU hopefuls seemingly stuck forever in the waiting room, simply due to various single-country vetoes.
  • The European Commission proposes doing away with unanimity for opening chapters as well as interim benchmarks but keeping them for closing chapters and for the final decision on the actual accession of a new member to the European Union. So, this would reduce the veto opportunities by more than half.
  • The bigger question, however, remain if member states wanting to slow down the enlargement process -- either due to bilateral spats with a candidate country or just to squeeze out a more favorable deal in a completely unrelated policy field -- will continue to take advantage of the remaining veto opportunities. In short, reforming the EU and letting new countries join is no cakewalk.

Looking Ahead

Look out for the meeting of EU agriculture ministers in Brussels on March 26. Several EU member states have been rocked by farmers' protests in recent months over rising production costs in the bloc and the influx of cheaper agricultural products from abroad. The ministers will look into ways to channel more EU funds to farmers and cut red tape.

This issue is also high on the agenda as the Polish and Ukrainian governments meet in Warsaw two days later. Polish farmers have for months blocked Ukrainian farm produce from entering the country, and it will be a hot button issue when Poles vote in local elections on April 7.

By RFE/RL 

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