EU to Soon Welcome New Member State

"I think that by the end of the next Commission mandate there may even be new member states," Oliver Varhelyi told Magyar Nemzet in an interview. The European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement said that for an entire Commission term, EU enlargement has been a neglected issue that not only halted, but in fact set back the progress of the Western Balkans. Although the EU has shown no motivation to enlarge during this period, the framework has now shifted significantly. Russia's aggression against Ukraine has given major impetus to enlargement, and under the Hungarian commissioner, new initiatives are accelerating accession negotiations.

2024. 03. 16. 18:30
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Bosnia and Herzegovina was granted candidacy in December 2022. Can this be considered a success that the Commission has now recommend the opening of accession negotiations? 'Of course, further progress is needed to join the EU,' said the Commission president, so what more progress does the country need to achieve?

The whole accession process consists of several steps. Now the next step is approaching, which is the start of accession negotiations. Obviously, all the conditions for accession must be fulfilled. In the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina, there were such conditions. Last December, the European Council, in other words European leaders, sent a clear message that if Bosnia and Herzegovina reach a critical level of progress regarding EU requirements, the decision to start accession negotiations will be brought. 

It is clear that the legislative, political and executional work that Bosnia and Herzegovina's new coalition has implemented has already reached the stage where accession negotiations can be started. 

In particular, we are talking about long-neglected areas such as the rule of law and judicial reform, as well as the fight against corruption, money laundering and organized crime. In all these areas a stage of progress has been reached. That was the proposal that the Commission itself made. The phrase you quoted that the Commission President made in the European Parliament was to indicate that no one should sit back and relax.

So, from now on, the Bosnians will have more work to do at a faster pace and deliver more.

So far, experience shows that progressing on the mentioned steps is a slow process. Montenegro has been a candidate for membership since 2010, and the last time an accession chapter was closed was six years ago. Accession negotiations with Serbia have been open since 2014, but they are not making headway particularly quickly either. Has the true intention of enlargement been waning or have the countries of the Western Balkans not been doing their homework?

I recommend that we approach this issue from the perspective of member states. If we go back in time, we see that there was a big wave of accession in 2004, followed by two more enlargements. After that, a Commission took over that was comprised of people who decided that they do not want to deal with enlargement for the duration of their mandate, citing that there was enlargement fatigue. You yourself mentioned 2010, and if you deduct from the time since the five-year mandate that the previous commission missed, you can see that this in itself is a major reason for the delay. But another reason for the delay is that, in the world of politics and international relations, if certain work processes are halted, the achieved results are in many cases prone to backsliding.

With motivation lacking in the EU, that of the Western Balkan countries has also clearly faded.

This has also led to a slowdown in the reform process. We had to take over the baton from there. The most spectacular failure came in October 2019, when two member states said that enlargement was not needed. In comparison, we can now see that enlargement is not only back on the top of leaders' agenda, but I think it is now clear that enlargement is necessary and will happen in the foreseeable future. Indeed, the Western Balkans have been waiting unjustifiably for more than a decade.

Does the region receive a clear set of conditions from the Union?

In this mandate I have worked to make that happen. We needed to make clear to the Western Balkans what Europe wants. Europe wants to see the Western Balkans in the European Union. To do that, we need to jointly speed up the process. That is why we have taken a lot of new initiatives, which have now made it possible to speed up the accession process. We have introduced a new negotiating methodology, we have come up with a new investment and development plan, and the latest instrument to speed up the negotiations is the so-called growth plan. I very much hope that we will witness a major breakthrough in the first half of the year in Montenegro, Serbia, Albania or the post-election Northern Macedonia. 

Of course, it cannot be denied that Russian aggression against Ukraine has also accelerated the enlargement process in Europe.

So the message to our colleagues in the Western Balkans is always to take advantage of the opportunity, the door is wide open, so let's move forward.

Could this announcement give impetus to the accession negotiations of Ukraine and Moldova? At the end of last year, the leaders of the member states finally approved the start of accession negotiations for both countries.

Accession is a merit-based process, with each state moving on its own path. But looking at the political process from the European Union's perspective, it looks as if member states are now preparing to welcome new members. I believe that by the end of the next Commission mandate, there could be new Member States.


There are different arguments in favor of EU enlargement. One school of thought says that it would simply serve the economic interests of the European Union to expand to include certain member states. Others believe that it is in the geopolitical interest of the Union to expand, because if it does not secure its influence over a larger area, then other actors will do so. The third argument that often appears is the so-called democracy export, which is based on the fact that the enlargement of the EU presupposes the strengthening of the democratic institutions and rule of law of the joining countries. Which do you prioritize?

All of these together, because they are all strong and interdependent aspects. Let's start with geopolitics. In Europe, geopolitics is about peace, security, stability and prosperity.

This is in Europe's geopolitical interest, preferably continent wide and, as far as possible, in its immediate neighborhood. Achieving this leads directly to economic interests. The economic interest is not only about whether the member states of the European Union can benefit economically from this, but also whether the economy is able to trigger stabilization processes that politics cannot or cannot always achieve.

In other words, it is through the economy that cooperative relationships can be created, which consolidate trust between people and between countries. This in itself promotes stability and security in the region. Only the European Union can provide the means to achieve this, because it is the European Union that can bring a common set of rules and regulations, provide economic opportunities by allowing access to its own markets, and bring investment opportunities, jobs and growth to the region through its companies and its economy. And this brings us to the third point, which is the so-called exporting of democracy, or rather the expansion of the European community of values.

You can call it exporting democracy, if you like, because, of course, the only way to join the European Union is to adopt the same set of values and rules. Hungary has done the same, and so have all those who have joined earlier.

This European community of values - my preferred terminology - means certain basic principles, for example, that there should be a predictable investment environment. But this can only be achieved through stable, rule of law states. It is also important, of course, that functioning democracies tend to operate on the basis of a market economy, so a functioning democracy is also a guarantee for the long-term existence of a market economy. The above approaches are not exclusive, but all of them apply simultaneously. But this only works if there is mutual interest. The war has shown that this is in both our interests, because it is the way to ensure long-term stability and peace in the Western Balkans, which also guarantees our long-term peace and security.

That is why it is imperative to expand and as quickly as possible.

Cover photo: Oliver Varhelyi, European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement (Photo: European Union/Alex Halada)

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