EU’s Varhelyi: Will for enlargement is back, we’re ready to move fast

By Alexandra Brzozowski

Russia’s war on Ukraine has sobered up debate around the EU’s enlargement process and shown the need to speed up the procedures, essentially halted by the previous Commission, Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi told EURACTIV in an exclusive interview.

The comments came after EU leaders in June granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova as a signal of solidarity in response to Russian aggression and member states in July green-lighted the start of long-delayed accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.

”Maybe it is the only positive impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine because it sobered up the discussion around enlargement as well as the EU’s absorption capacity,” Várhelyi said.

“We Europeans, now not only realise, but are ready to deliver on that, that Europe is not going to enjoy security, stability and prosperity without the Western Balkans being fully integrated,” he said.

In recent years, there has been little appetite for enlargement within the EU, and some member states have called for EU reform before admitting any new members.

“Don’t forget, we took over from a European Commission which said ‘no enlargement’ – the damage was done there,” Várhelyi said, adding that towards the second half of their mandate, the Juncker Commission “realised this was a strategic mistake.”

“What I expect now, and what will be a huge responsibility for the European Commission, is that now there is a clear political will, which wasn’t always obvious.”

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Asked about French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal of a European Political Community, which would strengthen the bloc’s ties with non-EU countries in its near neighbourhood, Várhelyi said only that this “could add another layer”.

The Hungarian Commissioner said Europe lacks a proper political platform for engaging with candidate countries “but also its neighbourhood, where Europe is able to speak with its allies and partners and exchange and engage in a much more intensive way.”

In the past, when Hungary or Poland were candidate countries, they were invited to the second day of EU summits, which is “very much also in the memory of our Western Balkans friends”.

“They feel involved, and involving them would also mean they know much more about our processes, which will create much more ownership to quickly engage in many areas,” he added.

Aspirants need to ‘sober up’

After Skopje resolved a long-running dispute with neighbouring EU member Bulgaria, Albania is expected to start accession negotiations immediately. Regarding North Macedonia, it will first need to change its constitution to include Bulgarians among the other nation-building nations listed in it, for which it does not have the necessary consensus in parliament.

This prompted the nationalist opposition to stage days of protests in Skopje, which Várhelyi said crossed the basic democratic red lines.

“For North Macedonia, this should be a moment to sober up, also for the opposition. Burning documents in the plenary chamber, pushing people to violence, and inciting hatred bring nothing, only damage.”

“There are very clear limits to the European way of doing politics, very clear limits to civilised politics, and my assessment is that many of those red lines were passed by the opposition,” he added.

North Macedonia puts on brave face despite expected ambushes on its EU path

North Macedonia’s prime minister put on a brave face on Tuesday (19 July) at the official opening of his country’s long-delayed EU accession talks, as unrest grows at home and a nationalist movement threatens to upend the process.

Asked whether he would see any risk of further hold-ups down the line, Várhelyi said the aim has been to “create clear, fair and transparent criteria that are also manageable, and which can really change the negativism on both sides“.

At the same time, he pointed out that “Albania has shown true solidarity with North Macedonia and maturity in understanding that our member states wanted the two countries to go ahead“ but said Albania could now proceed on its own.

“The whole enlargement process is merit-based, and now the race is on, whoever delivers first, should be eligible to join first,” Várhelyi clarified.

After Skopje resolved a long-running dispute with its neighbour Bulgaria, Albania and North Macedonia on Monday (18 July) received the green light to start accession talks that could ultimately lead to EU membership.

Offer they can’t refuse

“Now we need to work very, very hard with the candidate countries so that they can speed up their preparations and their real integration,” Várhelyi said.

The European Commission’s updated enlargement methodology from 2020 is meant to serve that purpose, which according to Várhelyi, would be the answer as “not only has the rule of law issue front and centre but additional tools that allow the process to go faster.”

Candidate countries could be faster integrated into the sectors where they have closed a negotiating cluster and through the economic and investment plan.

“For that reason, the Serbs and Montenegrins immediately opted into the new methodology,” Várhelyi said.

‘Little steps’ from Belgrade

Serbia, an EU candidate since 2009, has kept close ties with the Kremlin during President Alexandar Vučić’s 10-year rule and has been reluctant to join the sanctions against Russia despite Western pressure.

Asked whether the EU would be interested in speeding up accession processes with Belgrade, Várhelyi said that “Serbia has always been in a very special relationship with Russia“.

”What we see from Serbia is that they are in a very difficult situation, because of their vulnerability when it comes to energy supply and because of the unsettled nature of their security framework,“ he said, pointing out the country is almost entirely dependent on Russian gas, and its main energy companies are under Russian majority ownership.

But despite the alignment concerns, Várhelyi said there have also been positive signs over the past few months, one of them being Serbia voting with the West in the UN General Assembly on Ukraine.

“We want Serbia to be our ally, we need Serbia to show solidarity with us, and to be on our side, but we also need to understand their position when we ask something from them,” said Várhelyi, who has faced criticism for trying to boost Belgrade’s campaign for EU membership despite the rule of law concerns.

”It comes with little steps, and we should allow for these steps to take place. Because if we don’t, then we are inflicting the exact opposite of what we want to achieve,“ Várhelyi said, implying that openly pushing Belgrade too hard on certain positions might risk losing the country.

“Many of our member states want to see more of that solidarity. And I’m hopeful that gradually this will come from Belgrade because Belgrade is on the European path; it is a candidate country,“ he said.

Wary of Russian influence

The strategic importance of the EU’s near neighbourhood has increased since Russia invaded Ukraine, with fears over Moscow’s influence in the region.

“Temptations are very clear anywhere we look, not only in the Western Balkans, the Eastern Partnership, but also, for example, in Libya – it’s everywhere,“ Várhelyi said, adding that the EU has to make it very clear in their contact with the Western Balkans “that only Europe can bring long-term peace, stability and security“.

“Russia has proved that point for us perfectly with the war in Ukraine because the immediate reaction in the Balkans was ‘this is dangerous and this could spill over to us’,” he said.

After Skopje resolved a long-running dispute with its neighbour Bulgaria, Albania and North Macedonia on Monday (18 July) received the green light to start accession talks that could ultimately lead to EU membership.