The European Union is facing a crucial year when it comes to its enlargement policy. The last country to join the bloc was Croatia back in 2013, and with the United Kingdom leaving in 2020, the EU has actually shrunk for the first time in its history. No countries are expected to join the current 27 member states anytime soon, but there is a real belief in Brussels that the EU enlargement process can be reenergized after nearly a decade of false dawns.
The raised and then dashed hopes in the past were partly because candidate countries -- and potential candidate countries -- in the Western Balkans struggled to implement reforms across various policy fields necessary for membership. Plus, Turkey -- another country aiming to join the bloc -- grew increasingly disinterested and even antagonistic toward the EU.
But another reason was that many established EU member states felt less enthusiastic about further enlargement. Some pointed to the difficult "absorption" of the 10 new member states from Central and Eastern Europe after the 2004 and 2007 enlargements as a reason to slow down further expansion. Others argued that the many crises the club had to grapple with in recent years -- Brexit, increased migration, eurozone wobbles -- took up most of Brussels' attention.
Deep Background: Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has created a new urgency in Brussels. Last summer, Albania and North Macedonia were finally given the green light to start EU accession talks. However, the biggest development was that the EU, within months of the invasion, recognized that Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine could become members in the future.
That decision in 2022 to grant the latter pair candidate status and Tbilisi potential candidate status was previously unthinkable. The new statuses came with several recommendations -- seven for Ukraine, nine for Moldova, and 12 for Georgia -- that the countries had to fulfill before moving to the next stage in the enlargement process.
An oral update on the three countries' progress is expected to be given by the EU's neighbourhood commissioner, Oliver Varhelyi, in early May before a much-anticipated European Commission enlargement report due in October. While that is still six months away, several people I have spoken to who are familiar with the drafting of the report but are not authorized to speak on the record have suggested that the commission will recommend moving to the next steps with all three countries in their respective paths.
- For Ukraine and Moldova, that would mean getting the green light to start accession talks. For Georgia, it would mean moving from potential candidate country to candidate country -- the place Kyiv and Chisinau are right now.
- While this seems to be the thinking right now in Brussels, the political situation in any or all of the three countries could worsen in the months ahead, potentially causing the recommendations to change.
- Regardless, all 27 member states need to be on board and give the final green light, most likely in December, to whatever recommendations the commission put forward. That is far from guaranteed, as unanimity for the decision is needed, and that has proven hard to secure previously. (For several years in a row, the European Commission recommended that North Macedonia should start accession talks, only for Greece, and then Bulgaria, to block.)
- While the trio are making confident noises that the policy recommendations handed to them last summer by the European Commission will be met as soon as possible, there are concerns in Brussels that not everything can be accomplished this year. In the case of Ukraine, that is especially true when it comes to reforms to the Constitutional Court and the implementation of anti-oligarch and media laws. Moldova still has plenty of work to do in the fight against corruption. And Georgia still has to make progress on tackling political polarization and ensuring an independent judiciary.
- Yet the sense in Brussels is that there is a need to make a "political statement" and give the trio a boost amid persistent political pressure from Russia, not to mention a war, in the case of Ukraine. While some member states are expected to point out various deficiencies in the reform processes, enlargement advocates hope that unanimity can be found quickly.
- This hope is based on two assumptions: Firstly, that 2024 will be a "lost year" politically in Brussels as it will be consumed by the European Parliament elections in May and then the change of the entire European Commission and selection of a new European Council president in the summer. There is, in other words, a need to make sure important policy decisions are made in 2023. Secondly, fears about the trio of countries not fulfilling all of their policy recommendations can be allayed by flexibility. More recommendations can be proposed for Georgia to move to the next step, and don't rule out that the European Commission could come with another "midterm" assessment of various conditions before Kyiv and Chisinau can embark on proper accession talks. Some of the worries, notably about judicial issues, can be addressed in further talks, which are expected to last for years.
- Many might question why Georgia should get candidate status, especially after ruffling feathers in Brussels recently about the near implementation of a Russian-style "foreign agents" law, which was put on ice after street protests. The thinking in Brussels is still that Tbilisi is one step behind Ukraine and Moldova and should remain there, but that the future offer of candidate status would be reasonable considering that Bosnia-Herzegovina achieved this status last year despite not fulfilling all of Brussels' requirements.
Brief #2: The EU Is Looking For Ways To Sanction Russia's Nuclear Industry
What You Need To Know: The European Union is slowly starting work on another sanctions package on Russia -- the 11th round of restrictive measures since Moscow's attack on Ukraine last year. Many EU officials privately concede that Brussels is running out of areas to sanction and that future measures most likely will focus on closing various loopholes; looking into how to legally use Russian assets frozen in the bloc -- for example, to help with paying for Ukrainian reconstruction; and making sure that more third countries align with the actions taken by the EU.
There is, however, one area that so far remains untouched by EU sanctions: the nuclear industry. Already last spring, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland proposed targeted measures against the Kremlin's civil nuclear capabilities, but they fell on deaf ears. Now, the four countries are trying again and have circulated a discussion paper among the 27 EU members, seen by RFE/RL, on how the bloc can target Russia's state-owned nuclear energy giant Rosatom by limiting imports of nuclear fuel, stopping new investment into power plants, and restricting exports to Russia that will benefit this industry.
Deep Background: One of the reasons why their proposal might fly this time is that the United Kingdom and the United States have already moved in this direction. Earlier this year, both slapped a visa ban and asset freeze on Oleg Romanenko, the director of the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine, which was captured by Russian forces in March 2022. Ever since, Rosatom has been in control of the plant, the largest in Europe, and the West has been increasingly concerned that Russian forces are using the entire complex as a military base.
Last week, Washington went a step further, sanctioning five entities and one individual associated with Rosatom (though not Rosatom itself), a move which U.S Secretary of State Antony Blinken described as a response to Moscow's use of energy exports to "exert political and economic pressure on its customers globally."
Another reason why it might work this time is that the EU largely is weaning itself off Russian nuclear energy. Last year, the Czech energy company CEZ announced that it wouldn't allow Russian firms to compete for a tender for building new nuclear power units at Dukovany, a nuclear power station in the southeast of the Czech Republic. Finland also canceled a planned nuclear power plant project that would use technologies provided by Rosatom.
- The problem for the EU is that, so far, there hasn't been much unity on targeting more Russian energy assets after hitting oil and petroleum products in a drawn-out process last summer. Many EU capitals are wary of soaring energy prices; others are still dependent on the Russian nuclear industry, notably Hungary. Last week, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto went to Moscow to strike new energy deals with Russia, and Budapest has been adamant that it will veto any new EU sanctions in the energy sphere.
- Apart from securing an opt-out from EU sanctions when it comes to the import of Russian oil, Budapest has close links to Rosatom. Last summer, the Hungarian atomic energy agency issued a license for the construction of Units 5 and 6 of the Paks II nuclear power plant in central Hungary. According to the deal, Russia will provide Hungary with a 10 billion euros ($11.1 billion) state loan that should make up 80 percent of the financing for the project, which is planned to be completed in 2032.
- In order to win Budapest over on potential new sanctions, the Baltic-Polish discussion paper envisages the option of introducing an individual derogation for Hungary, covering the nine years needed for the construction of the Paks II units. This derogation would allow funds and resources to be made available to Rosatom, plus the unfreezing of assets, if they were connected to Paks II.
- Hungary is not the only country with reservations. Four other EU member states operate 15 Russian-made nuclear reactors: six in the Czech Republic, five in Slovakia, two in Finland, and two in Bulgaria. A Rosatom subsidiary is so far the only manufacturer in the world that can service fuel assemblies at these plants, which are needed to keep them both functional and safe.
- At the time of Russia's invasion of Ukraine last February, Rosatom had 73 projects in 29 countries, notably in Turkey, China, India, and Iran. Despite the war, the company's overseas revenue was on track to rise by about 15 percent in 2022 compared with 2021, with most of that revenue made outside of the EU. So even if the EU could hit the company with sanctions, it wouldn't make much of a dent in the Russian economy and could certainly hurt countries in the EU.
- There is also the issue of the EU importing enriched uranium from Russia. Around one-fifth of all EU imports come from Russia, making it the third biggest supplier of enriched uranium to the bloc, with just Niger and Kazakhstan providing more. In 2021, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden purchased enriched uranium for more than 300 million euros from Russia.
- In 2022, the Netherlands and Sweden stopped buying uranium from Russia, but Germany and France together bought 452 million euros worth. While both countries have tried to find alternative sources, they are still bound by contracts -- with the Baltic-Polish discussion paper noting that a two-year derogation period could be offered to both Berlin and Paris.
On April 18, the European Parliament is expected to finally vote in favor of visa liberalization for citizens of Kosovo. The decision, which will go into force at the start of 2024, is highly anticipated, as Kosovo is the only country in the Western Balkans that still doesn't enjoy visa-free travel to most EU countries. Others in the region have already enjoyed this benefit for over a decade. EU member states approved the move last month and, after the vote in the parliament, where a huge majority favors approval, there will be a signing ceremony in the Strasbourg chamber, which will symbolically seal the deal.
On April 21, there is another meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group at the Ramstein military base in western Germany, bringing together defense ministers from over 50 countries, notably all 31 NATO allies, with the aim of boosting arms deliveries to Ukraine. And while Kyiv can count on pledges of more ammunition and air-defense systems, it's probably not likely to get modern fighter jets for now. Speaking in Washington, D.C., last week, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal urged the United States to send F-15s or F-16s as part of a "fighter jet coalition" that he is trying to form with various Western partners. For now, it looks like Kyiv will have to settle for more training possibilities for Ukrainian pilots in various partner countries instead of getting more modern planes.
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