The war in Ukraine has renewed attention for the European Union’s neighbourhood, as there now even seems to be serious consideration to allow Ukraine into the European Union. Previously, this was utter fiction.
In a long piece on Ukraine’s chances to join, the Financial Times reports that “over breakfast in late June at the five-star Hotel Amigo in Brussels, the most powerful leaders of the EU began in earnest their discussions on how to bring Ukraine into the club.”
This involved “the heads of governments of the EU’s 10 largest states by population, including France, Germany, Poland and Romania”. According to the newspaper, “the meeting made one thing clear: it confirmed that an idea that might have seemed preposterous even 18 months ago is now being taken seriously.”
Obviously, “many member state officials and diplomats privately question whether it will really happen.” Apart from the ongoing war, there’s the fact that Ukraine would be the EU’s fifth largest member, and also its poorest by far, not to mention the endemic corruption.
The newspaper goes on how this could be somehow dealt with by scrapping veto powers, but that obviously overlooks diplomatic and political realities. It’s not like the EU’s net payers would happily allow themselves to be outvoted by net receivers. Moreover, outvoting European democracies on sensitive issues, like for example migration, has already fueled deep tensions. It is downright bizarre that supporters of ever greater EU federalization don’t seem to get that this undermines the very project they want to strengthen.
The Western Balkans
Apart from Ukraine, there are the so-called “Balkan six”: Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Kosovo. The issues at play with Ukraine seems a lot more doable here. Still, unfortunately, the countries concerned, some of whom have obtained official EU candidate status, have not made much progress when it comes to complying with the EU’s accession criteria.
Serbia is of course the most prominent one of the six. Two months ago, large-scale protests against its government were held, sparked by two mass shootings in early May. The protestors accused the government of fueling a culture of violence, as well as an atmosphere of hopelessness and division.
Of particular attention to the protestors were Serb media, which they consider to be controlled by the government. They therefore demanded the resignations of all the members of the regulatory agency that oversees broadcast media, which they consider complicit in promoting violence, also against political dissidents.
In its assessment of Serbia. Reporters Without Borders (RSF), notes that “journalists are regularly subjected to political attacks instigated by members of the ruling elite that are amplified by certain national TV networks”.
“While Serbia has some of the most advanced legislations regarding the media, with a constitution that guarantees freedom of expression, journalists often operate in a restrictive environment, including self-imposed censorship. Regulations prescribing how prosecutors and the police should react when journalists are attacked has led to positive results in certain cases. However, the judiciary, which deals with many media-related issues, including strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), has yet to prove its independence and effectiveness in protecting freedom of the press.”
On top of that, there are also the tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, which have been flaring up recently, following mayoral elections which according to Kosovo had been conducted followed the letter of the law but were boycotted by many of the Serbian minority living in the north of Kosovo. As a result, there was only a turnout of less than 4%. The approach by Kosovo to install the newly elected mayors anyway was fiercely criticized by the EU, which even imposed sanctions on Kosovo. It goes to show how volatile the region remains. Balkan expert Gerald Knaus even warns that “Today, Serbia and Kosovo stand at the brink of a catastrophe.”
Then we haven’t even mentioned the situation in Bosnia, where top Bosnian Serb officials have been recently subjected to U.S. sanctions for undermining a 1995 peace agreement. Thankfully, Albania, Northern Macedonia and Montenegro seem to be on a much more sustainable path.
Last but not least, there is Moldova, crammed in between Romania and Ukraine, with a part of its territory occupied by Russia.
Despite the many challenges the country faces before being able to enter the EU, the country was granted EU candidate status in June 2022.
According to Victor Chirila, the Moldovan Ambassador to Romania, justice reform will be one of the most difficult chapters during the accession negotiations with the EU, given how there is a strong resistance from within the system.
Also here, the media situation is deeply troubling. Again “Reporters Without Borders” has warned that “major media, such as TV6, NTV Moldova and Prime TV, are in the hands of political leaders”, further pointing out that the licenses of six TV channels deemed pro-Russian have been suspended since December 2022.
In response, the “Stop Media Ban“ campaign was launched, with some of the journalists that were the victim of the ban even travelling from Moldova to the European Parliament to protest and demand attention for their cause.
The initiator of the campaign, Alexei Lungu, details the problematic media situation in the country in a letter to MEPs:
“Stop Media Ban is an association of journalists and media members established in the aftermath of the wide media ban across six (6) Television channels in Moldova. On 16 December 2022, the Commission for Exceptional Situations recalled our streaming licenses accusing our channels of streaming Russian propaganda and not featuring “enough” the war in Ukraine.
In reality, our channels were banned because we speak out when our government is in the wrong. We do not sit silent when the opposition is taking steps to improve the life in the community. As the code of journalist profession requires, we always present all sides to the story, yet sometimes our elected leaders refuse to talk to press they deem as “opposition”.
Fundamentally, according to the group, there is the problem that “while our government claims Moldova’s commitment to the European values and the European future, it doesn’t respect the fundamental values of free press and the rule of law in the country. (…) In February 2023, a poll among the Moldovan population, “Socio-Political Barometer”, showed that 68% of those interviewed believe the decision of the Commission for Exceptional Situations to suspend the licenses for the six television stations is an abuse on the part of the current power.”
The broader context is that there is an ongoing power struggle in the country between Russian and Western forces, with the free media as one of the victims. The country’s President, President Maia Sandu, is a supporter of EU accession, but last month, pro-Russian politician Evghenia Guțul managed to become the new governor or “başkan” of the autonomous Moldovan region of Gagauzia, indicating that nothing is given.
President Sandu stated in February that she had been handed a document by Ukraine that outlined “Russian plans to destabilise and overthrow the country”, allegedly by creating discontent through disinformation campaigns and igniting national crisis with a series of terror attacks. Even if true, this may well be used to further rein in the freedom of the press in a country where the media situation is already problematic.
It all goes to show that regardless of the skepticism of many EU voters, the European Union’s Eastern Neighbourhood still has a lot of progress to make before further enlargement will stand a chance.
Written by Pieter Cleppe
Originally published on Brussels Report on August 8, 2023.