Ukraine war gathers boosts support for Balkans’ EU membership bids

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Since Ukraine has applied to become an EU member and is likely to be granted candidate status soon, there is growing political momentum on nudging along the remaining western Balkan states lined up to join the bloc, and if you ask France, create a whole new political structure to house them all in the waiting period. I’ll run you through the main outstanding issues and why Turkey’s veto to Nato’s Nordic enlargement is not that original.

In energy news, there was a rather quick political agreement yesterday among member states, the European parliament and the commission on filling national gas storages before the next winter.

And we’ll also hear how Russia’s cyber attacks are faring, as recounted by Ukraine’s cyber and digital transformation minister, who was in Brussels yesterday.

Jump-starting enlargement

Joining the EU (and Nato, for that matter) has often been a thorny, sometimes exasperating process. Case in point: Turkey objecting to Sweden and Finland’s Nato bids and refusing to even start membership talks with the Nordic duo.

It so happens that Turkey is the EU’s record-holder in the number of decades that have passed since it applied to be a member (1987) and since it started negotiating the terms of membership (2005).

Other countries have taken notes from Ankara and its hardball strategy.

Croatia’s president Zoran Milanović on Wednesday said his country should only approve the accession of Sweden and Finland to the military alliance if Bosnia changes its electoral law to favour the country’s Croatian minority.

The two highly-integrated Nordic countries are experiencing at Nato what nations in the western Balkans have been going through for years, both at Nato and on their path to joining the EU.

Now there’s at least some renewed momentum around the stalled process for Balkan countries, coming especially from Berlin and the European parliament — while France has proposed a new political configuration that would include Ukraine and that could be offered immediately without having to wait decades for the membership process to conclude.

Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz told the Bundestag on Wednesday that it was a matter of credibility for the EU to deliver on promises made, particularly in the new geopolitical context created by Russia.

Scholz said the six countries with EU aspirations had been engaged in reform processes for many years and he is set to visit the western Balkans in the run-up of the EU summit.

The most pressing steps are the opening of membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia (both Nato members, by the way) — who still haven’t received the green light from EU member states because of Bulgaria’s objections over North Macedonia’s historical and cultural references.

Bulgaria is the second EU country to bully North Macedonia, after Greece held up both the country’s Nato and EU accession bids for over a decade because it objected to how the country wanted to name itself. Albania is collateral damage in this affair, as the two countries were lumped together in their EU accession track.

The European parliament yesterday urged capitals to approve the start of membership talks with the two countries, citing similar geopolitical concerns as Scholz. “MEPs call on the EU to critically assess the historically important security implications of such a decision for stability and unity on the European continent and the western Balkans,” the parliament said.

In addition to Albania and North Macedonia, other countries in line for EU membership are Serbia and Montenegro — both candidate countries and the most advanced on their tracks, as they have already started EU membership talks. Belgrade’s relations with Brussels (and Berlin) have cooled, however, after the Serbian leadership refused to impose any sanctions on Russia.

Last in line are Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which are still awaiting candidate status. Unlike the rest of the region, Kosovo has not yet been granted a visa-free travel regime to the rest of the EU — its most pressing demand for the time being.

On the idea promoted by France, European Council chief Charles Michel spoke of a “new political platform” that could be created immediately, to include Balkan leaders in decisions made at an EU level that can affect them as well. Speaking alongside Michel in Belgrade, Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić said leaders meeting twice a year at a summit would be “a huge change and an important thing. You can ask, you can beg, you can fight for your country more effectively,” he said.

Is it the right time now to accelerate the EU accession process for countries in the western Balkans? Tell us what you think and click here to take the poll.

Gas storage plans

The EU was caught with its gas tanks almost empty when Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24. The region’s storage facilities were less than a third full. The scarcity of gas drove up the price, sending more euros to feed Moscow’s war machine, and made it difficult to impose sanctions on Russian gas, which accounted for 40 per cent of EU demand.

This will not happen again after the European parliament and national governments struck a deal yesterday on a commission plan for mandatory storage levels, writes Andy Bounds in Brussels.

Predictably, member states were less ambitious than the original plan. Countries must fill 80 per cent of the bloc’s facilities by November 1 2022, and 90 per cent before the next winter.

Energy commissioner Kadri Simson had favoured an earlier deadline, by September 30 this year. From 2023 onwards, member states will have to agree individual refilling trajectories with the commission.

Jerzy Buzek, the former Polish prime minister who negotiated on behalf of the European parliament, said he had pushed for 90 per cent but conceded “we do not have enough gas for that”. He also failed to win a commitment that countries would not buy Russian gas to fill their reservoirs. Gazprom has stopped supplying Poland and Bulgaria after they refused to pay in roubles. So other countries could end up buying the surplus Russian gas that would have gone to them.

“Member states should say we will not get our gas supply for filling our storage capacity from unreliable suppliers,” he said.

Member states can offer financial incentives to companies to buy and store the gas.

Not all countries have storage facilities, including island nations Malta and Cyprus. They will have to ensure that at least 15 per cent of their average consumption in the past five years is stored in another member state. Alternatively, they could offer financial support to other countries to meet the filling targets.

Russian ownership of gas storage facilities is also addressed. Politicians believe that Gazprom deliberately kept reservoir levels low to drive up the price.

They will be classed as critical infrastructure. All operators will have to be certified by November 2022. If they are judged to be unreliable, they will have to give up ownership of EU gas storage facilities.

Buzek had another eye-catching idea: store your gas in Ukraine. The EU has 100bn cubic meters of capacity and Ukraine an additional 30bn, thanks to Soviet-era planning. However, with Russian missiles raining down on crucial infrastructure, it would be a brave government that parked their precious gas reserves there.

Ukraine’s cyber tsar

Mykhailo Fedorov’s job would be a formidable task even in peaceful times: fending off cyber attacks and overseeing the digital transformation of his country. Add to that the fact that the country, Ukraine, has been at war since February and succeeding in that position suddenly becomes a matter of life and death, writes Eleni Varvitsioti in Brussels.

Fedorov came to the EU capital on a brief trip yesterday to seek support for his government’s efforts to counter Russian cyber attacks, which have multiplied since the war began. “We are facing the first cyber war in history,” he said yesterday.

But he also reported that the attacks had far less of an impact compared to previous years.

“Ukraine has not had any data breach or data loss, while none of the critical infrastructures of the country has been hit or destroyed in the past months.”

What helped in deflecting the Russian attacks was an “IT army” as he called it — cyber volunteers and IT companies that have joined forces since the war broke out, aiming their efforts at the Russian public and private targets.

He said that Russia’s cyber capabilities were weakened by an exodus of IT companies, and that “no single hacker group wants to co-operate with Moscow”. In addition, hacking groups funded by the Russian Federal Security Agency (FSB) “haven’t staged very potent attacks until now”.

While this was Fedorov’s first trip outside Ukraine since the invasion in February, his heart and mind seem to have stayed behind, in his home country. His hometown, a small village called Vasylivka, has been occupied by the Russians, his father was nearly hit by a rocket, leaving him in a “difficult condition”, and all the houses that his loved ones used to inhabit have been either destroyed or pillaged.

Even though he is thousands of miles away, he couldn’t help but be startled when an aircraft flew very low while he was in Brussels. “Our reactions will not be as they used to be,” he said.

What to watch today

  1. EU development ministers meet in Brussels

  2. Final day of G7 finance ministers’ meeting in Bonn, Germany

  3. European Council president Charles Michel visits Albania

Smart reads

  • Interlinked green deal: The success of the European transition to a greener economy is linked to the global transition: individual efforts and EU policies that are at odds with a shift towards green, just, and resilient economies cannot bring about that change, is one of the conclusions of the International System Change Compass, a project by the Open Society Foundations.

  • Geo(tech)politics: Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU has found a renewed impetus to engage in global technology politics, writes the European Council on Foreign Relations. The EU has expanded its assistance to Ukraine both in the cyber security and disinformation domains. It has also approved a comprehensive set of technology sanctions and renewed its commitment to strengthening EU technological sovereignty.

  • Russian grain blockade: This FT military briefing explores how Russia’s naval blockade in the Black Sea is aggravating the global food price crisis. Options for western allies to intervene remain limited, however.

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Source: Financial Times