Hungarian Conservative

EU Enlargement: Is Ukraine Overtaking the Western Balkans on a Bend?

The national flags of (L-R) Kosovo, Montenegro’s North Macedonia, Serbia, and the European Union are set up on a stage for a group photo during the Western Balkans Summit at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin, Germany, on 21 October 2022
The national flags of Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and the European Union (L-R) at the Western Balkans Summit at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin, Germany, on 21 October 2022
Odd Andersen/AFP
The integration of the countries of the region into the EU is a decades-long process, the positive outcome of which is still to be seen. Thus, the number of Eurosceptics in the region has multiplied in recent years. As a consequence of the protracted accession negotiations, which have not even started for several Western Balkan states, some countries in the region have forged closer economic, political, and cultural ties with non-EU actors.

The following is a translation of an article written by Tímea Zsivity, a researcher at the Europe Strategy Institute of the University of Public Service, originally published on the Five Minutes Europe blog of Ludovika.hu.


Hungary took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union on Monday, 1 July. The Member States holding the presidency work closely together in groups of three, known as the Trio Presidency. The system of Trio Presidencies was introduced by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. The members of the Trio set long-term objectives and prepare a joint programme identifying the themes and key issues that the Council will address over the 18 months.

Based on the programme, each of the three countries prepare its own more detailed six-month plan. The current trio is made up of the Spanish, Belgian, and Hungarian presidencies. In their joint ‘action plan’ for the period from 1 July 2023 to 31 December 2024, the three Member States said that the Russo–Ukrainian war and growing global uncertainty require the European Union to increase its resilience and strategic autonomy. In its programme, the Trio underlined that it intends to conduct accession negotiations according to the new enlargement methodology, taking into account the European Commission’s reports on candidate countries, compliance with the Copenhagen criteria, and, above all, the Union’s capacity to absorb new members.

Spain, Belgium, and Hungary jointly set out four priorities in their programme: making the EU more competitive economically, guaranteeing the freedom and security of EU citizens, building a greener and fairer Europe, and promoting Europe’s interests and values in the world.

Belgium handed over the rotating EU Presidency to the Hungarian Government on 30 June, following the first intergovernmental conference at the ministerial level on Ukraine’s accession to the EU on 25 June 2024 in Luxembourg, which marked the official start of accession negotiations with Ukraine. The EU’s main expectations for Ukraine are full compliance with accession chapters 23 (judiciary and fundamental rights) and 24 (justice, freedom, and security), the implementation of judicial and administrative reforms—including the eradication of organized crime and corruption—, economic catch-up, and the protection of national minorities.

EU accession negotiations have typically taken several years, even for countries that are socio-economically and politically prepared. The opening of accession negotiations with Ukraine can be seen as a symbolic gesture, a signal to Russia and its allies that the EU is capable of acting as one to defend its interests and values if necessary. However,

the EU’s move has intensified criticism against it in the Western Balkans.

The integration of the countries of the region into the EU is a decades-long process, the positive outcome of which is still to be seen. Thus, the number of Eurosceptics in the region has multiplied in recent years. As a consequence of the protracted accession negotiations, which have not even started for several Western Balkan states, some countries in the region have forged closer economic, political, and cultural ties with non-EU actors. China, Russia, Türkiye, and the Gulf states have recently gained increasing influence in the region. During the accession negotiations, the EU stipulated that all agreements negotiated by the Western Balkan countries must ensure compatibility with EU standards. The Community’s position is that all agreements with third countries should include sunset clauses to guarantee that countries can terminate agreements upon EU accession. In the European Commission’s 2023 report, Brussels expressed ‘strategic concerns’ about the agreement concluded between Serbia and China in October 2023. The free trade agreement between the two countries entered into force on 1 July 2024, the first day of the Hungarian presidency, under which the two sides will gradually eliminate 90 per cent of tariffs on trade between Serbia and China. More than 60 per cent of the tariffs will be eliminated immediately, according to a statement by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce last week.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, national tensions have reached a peak following the adoption of the UN resolution on Srebrenica. Milorad Dodik, the leader of Republika Srpska, announced at the end of June that a proposal for a ‘peaceful separation’ had been drafted and would be sent to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina for its opinion. According to Dodik, the separation would take place in three to five years, during which time the two entities would decide on the dissolution of Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state by agreement. US Presidential National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan confirmed that the White House is concerned about Milorad Dodik’s secessionist ambitions, which are interpreted as an attack on the Dayton Peace Agreement. He announced that the US administration would respond to these threats, which could even include the imposition of new sanctions.

The adoption of the UN resolution on Srebrenica has provoked strong reactions in Montenegro, as well as in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia. As a result, the Montenegrin Parliament adopted the Jasenovac Resolution at the end of June, despite strong protests from Croatia. Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, is believed to have cancelled his planned visit to Montenegro on 2–3 July because of this. Subsequently, Montenegrin President Jakov Milatović travelled to Brussels. After the meeting, the European Council leader said that ‘Montenegro must stay on the European path’.

The above is a good example of the fragility of peace in the Western Balkans, a situation that can easily be exploited by non-EU actors for their own ends and interests. It follows that

the EU needs to invest more resources in the integration of the Western Balkan countries than it is currently doing, and to adopt a much more supportive attitude.

The Hungarian presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2024 will focus on seven thematic areas: increasing the EU’s competitiveness, strengthening the EU’s defence policy, a coherent and merit-based enlargement policy, curbing illegal migration, shaping the future of cohesion policy, promoting a farmer-centred EU agricultural policy, and addressing demographic challenges. Enhancing competitiveness, defence policy, a merit-based enlargement policy, and the proper management of migration are closely interlinked and interdependent priorities.

In a fast-changing international arena, the EU has a vital interest in making the Western Balkans more stable. It is also important for the EU that the Community remains the region’s first economic and political partner. Hungary, as President-in-Office of the EU Council, has the opportunity to act as a mediator to keep the countries of the region on the path to EU integration, and to make enlargement in the Western Balkans a dynamic and high-priority of EU policy. Thirdly, based on its own experience of accession in 2004, it can make proposals to the Commission on how to make the integration of the Western Balkans smoother, while maintaining the competitiveness criteria for the countries concerned, through transitional arrangements that draw on the lessons of the previous enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe. Hungary has a special responsibility—and can use the opportunities offered by its Presidency—to take the initiative in developing an EU system for the protection of minorities. A minority protection system within the EU could be a guarantee that ethnic conflicts in the integrating Western Balkans do not undermine the security of the entire continent.

Last but not least, Hungary now has the opportunity to draw attention to the geo- and security risks of the Western Balkans remaining outside the EU. These risks include, in addition to growing organized crime and corruption, the issue of migration, the spread of disinformation, and the rise of China, Russia, Türkiye, and the Gulf states in the region.


Read more on the EU enlargement of the Western Balkans:

What the Hungarian EU Presidency Can Mean for the West Balkans
The Enlargement of the Western Balkans as an EU Strategic Goal
EU Leaders Plan to Punish Hungary over Resistance to Ukraine’s Accession

Click here to read the original article.

The integration of the countries of the region into the EU is a decades-long process, the positive outcome of which is still to be seen. Thus, the number of Eurosceptics in the region has multiplied in recent years. As a consequence of the protracted accession negotiations, which have not even started for several Western Balkan states, some countries in the region have forged closer economic, political, and cultural ties with non-EU actors.

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