The successful EU bids of Ukraine and Moldova have sent a powerful message – but Kosovo’s own application for candidate status might be too late for the party.
The controversy at the last European Council Summit, on June 23 and 24, did not dampen the expectations of Ukraine and Moldova, both of which received EU candidate status in what was considered a historic agreement.
It was less historic, however, for the countries of the Western Balkans, whose leaders traveled to Brussels only to again encounter a closed door.
Accession talks were not opened with North Macedonia and Albania – which had to wait over a month to eventually see Bulgaria eventually drop its veto – and candidate status was not awarded to Bosnia and Herzegovina either. Nor was the Schengen visa regime lifted for Kosovo citizens.
All this in spite of seemingly conclusive signs, judging from the subject of the Brussels talks on the eve of the meeting, that the 27 EU Member States would deliver on some of these promises, if not on all.
Perhaps it was naivety, or perhaps it simply was too much to ask for. “The spirit of enlargement is totally crooked”, scolded Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, “It has gone from a shared vision of an entire community to the kidnapping vehicle of individual Member States, under the watch of 26 countries that are totally impotent altogether. I feel sorry for the European Union.”
The blockade by Bulgaria, which kept Skopje’s and Tirana’s accession processes at a standstill for months, added to the EU’s helplessness, was criticized heavily by Western Balkan leaders.
Even after a breakthrough agreement between North Macedonia and Bulgaria, under France’s mediation, Sofia is not bound to drop its requirements unconditionally.
Despite the disappointment and the bittersweet feeling, however, as if oblivious to the never-ending enlargement fiasco, Kosovo announced earlier this spring that it would submit an application for EU candidate status at the end of 2022.
“We still aspire to the status of EU candidate and plan to apply at the end of this year,” Prime Minister Albin Kurti told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in June.
The political dimension of EU enlargement has in recent times overshadowed the technical nature of a process that should, for the most part, measure progress through achievements and tangible reform.
The highly political essence of the new enlargement methodology, unveiled in 2020, which enshrines an enhanced role for Member States at its core, is bound to pose serious obstacles to the accession process – which can easily be halted by any Member State on domestic grounds. Ukraine and Moldova will be no exception to this unwritten practice.
As Kyiv and Chisinau have jumped onto the EU accession train, immediately spared the painful limbo of potential candidacy, Kosovo has decided to pass this time around and wait for a few more months.
Whether this was a smart move by Kurti’s government, we have still to find out. However, a few clues might help map out potential scenarios.
Kosovo’s EU bid could be boosted by its application to the Council of Europe, submitted earlier this year.
If that eventually succeeds, a seat at Strasbourg could catapult Prishtina’s chances of being seen – and ultimately legitimized– as a reliable and trustworthy aspiring candidate by the 27 Member States, and thus be granted EU candidacy.
Kosovo could reap plenty of benefits from its potential Council of Europe membership, not least if it is promoted as a big victory for liberal-democratic restoration following the expulsion of Russia from the organization.
The road to such a scenario could well involve an uncomfortable detour, however, if Member States agree to award EU candidate status to Kosovo only upon the fulfillment of certain preconditions.
This has been the case for Bosnia and Herzegovina, the only other potential candidate country, which formally applied for membership in 2016 but was turned down by the European Commission’s unfavorable opinion.
As of now, Bosnia’s candidate status remains conditional on implementation of 14 key priorities, which were reaffirmed in the framework of a recent EU-brokered political agreement.
The Member States will only be asked to make a decision on Bosnia’s status after the Commission’s evaluation of these reforms.
The less positive assessment of Kosovo’s decision, and perhaps the most realistic one, is that the momentum is already over.
Prishtina’s deliberately delayed EU application will, almost unavoidably, encounter the risk that the short-lived spike in enlargement enthusiasm that opened the door to Ukraine and Moldova will be dead by the end of 2022.
The decision by EU leaders to grant candidate status to Kyiv and Chisinau has come as a direct result of Russia’s invasion, and the unprecedented security context in Europe should not be interpreted as a revival of EU enlargement.
What is more, this political gesture will not exempt skeptical Member States from torpedoing the process over and again in the future, either to please a domestic audience or to force a deep Union-wide reform.
Against this backdrop, Kosovo’s chances are slim. All this while the question of visa liberalization for its citizens remains unanswered since 2018, despite the green light from the European Commission and persistent calls from the European Parliament.
With this in mind, it is even harder to believe that the question of awarding Kosovo candidate status will gather the traction necessary among the Member States to be successful.
Positive political developments in the framework of the dialogue with Serbia or significant progress in the realm of reforms are some steps forward that could push the issue back onto the negotiating table, but no major breakthrough should be expected.
In all, Kosovo’s expectations should still be built around the hope that Ukraine’s and Moldova’s EU leap has not been a mirage, or an exception, and that its application will profit from a small window of opportunity in the months to come.
However, Kosovo should also be prepared at best for political sluggishness, and, at worst, an extended period of screaming into the void. Sadly, the country’s vocal cords are well trained on this.
Alejandro Esteso Pérez is a political analyst and researcher. His research focuses on EU enlargement, corruption, elections, and party politics in the Western Balkans.
The article is part of a research project produced within the framework of Kosovo Research and Analysis Fellowship, supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society.