Less than a week after the war in Ukraine broke out, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke out of her turn by speaking out in favor of EU membership. Several heads of state and government immediately reacted sceptically, including Rutte. “I was concerned that the European Commission would rush,” says the VVD prime minister now. “I was wrong.”

    ‘Symbolic step’

    What makes it easier is that critical heads of state and government can come home with the message that it is ‘a symbolic step’ and it could take decades. Brussels convinced the doubters by not creating special treatment for Ukraine in the advice, which was drafted in record time. The country must complete homework on anti-corruption and rule of law before negotiations can start. For that step, the Member States must once again give a unanimous green light.

    According to an EU diplomat, the war has only pushed Ukraine further from this next step. For poverty-stricken Moldova, the mountain of homework is even higher. Both countries may struggle for decades before they can actually join. The package of EU laws and regulations that they have to implement has more than 130,000 pages.

    They know in the Western Balkans that it takes a very long time. The leaders from this region were once again allowed to show up at the summit in Brussels to be told that they can stay in the waiting room even longer. The despair is so great that some have considered a boycott.

    Drama Albania

    There was still hope for a breakthrough with Bulgaria. This EU country is vetoing the opening of negotiations with North Macedonia over a feud over the language. Earlier, the country changed the name to get the Greeks on board. The Bulgarians were almost there, but the government fell at the last minute. Elections are now imminent for the fourth time in a year.

    It is a drama for Prime Minister Edi Rama. His Albania is linked to North Macedonia by Brussels. “Bulgaria is holding us hostage in the midst of a war on the continent,” the head of government sneered furiously. “It is a disgrace that a NATO country is building a blockade against two other NATO member states.”

    The other Balkan leaders are not hiding their impatience. But not all of them have the right to speak, according to EU diplomats. Bosnia, with the pitiful status of ‘potential candidate’, is simply not making any progress with the homework imposed.

    Serbia

    Candidate Serbia is collaborating with the Russians and not participating in EU sanctions. “This is a big stone in the shoe,” Prime Minister Rutte said. “There’s no way they can get to it at the moment.”

    The country is also arguing with ‘potential candidate’ Kosovo. “There seems to be something of a thaw in that conflict,” says Rutte. “But during the speech of the president of Serbia, I could see from the face of the president of Kosovo that it didn’t really resonate.”

    It will raise the question in the coming years whether more ‘Polish and Hungarian states’ are not being imported by the EU expansion drive. The candidate countries all have a long way to go, but if the entire list is allowed to join one day, power will shift more eastwards.

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