Ukrainians have chosen a European and democratic future, with tens of thousands giving their lives for the cause. But a big question remains: does Europe want Ukraine?

A Western-oriented Ukraine is in the interests of both the European Union and the Atlantic community. The fundamental question is whether the EU — backed by the United States — can offer Ukraine a credible European prospect in terms of sustained engagement, financial assistance, and the kinds of interim rewards that encourage liberal reforms and bolster the pro-European segments of the Ukrainian political spectrum, now and long after the war is over. Can Brussels sustain the momentum, especially if the process begins to slow and drag as the full enormity of the task comes into view?

The fact that some in the EU such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán — not to mention his American counterparts — have wobbled on military assistance in support of Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s aggression (with Washington’s commitment still in question) alarmingly foreshadows just how hard it will be to marshal and sustain the generational commitments necessary to realize this goal. At present, the EU has been struggling just to deliver the necessary arms and munitions for Ukraine to win the war, even before the U.S. contribution became mired in Donald Trump-driven dysfunction. The result has been that Russia and its allies in Tehran and Pyongyang are exponentially outproducing the world’s most prosperous economic bloc on essentials such as artillery munitions.

If Europeans are already straining to support Ukraine’s war effort, one can be forgiven for questioning whether the EU can really deliver on Ukraine’s membership hopes.

The experience of the Western Balkans, the EU’s most immediate “neighborhood” and its decades-long wait in the bloc’s membership antechambers, is instructive and sobering in this regard. In 2003, Brussels made a historic pledge to extend EU membership to the Western Balkans. In the ensuing decades, however, enlargement fatigue and democratic backsliding both within the EU and in the region — i.e. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Albania — have ground the process to a virtual halt. Worse, individual EU member States including Hungary and Croatia now actively sponsor illiberal and authoritarian elements in the Western Balkans and stonewall even modest attempts by Brussels to rein in these actors.

Finally Speeding Accession?

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has mitigated enlargement fatigue to some degree, with some EU leaders seeking to speed up the accession of the Western Balkans as a way to counter Moscow’s influence in the region. Just this week, the European Commission recommended opening membership negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina. But it remains to be seen whether the European Council — made up of the top leaders of individual EU members — will agree with the Commission’s recommendation. If the Council does move ahead on full membership for Bosnia, it would be a major step, but the country would still be years — if not decades — away from final accession to the bloc.

Today, the region is caught in a vicious circle wherein the “carrot” of membership has lost its credibility, due to the almost quarter-century wait that has strengthened the hand of populist strongmen such as Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić and his Bosnian Serb client Milorad Dodik. They, in turn, have still-further distanced their countries from the EU’s membership criteria.

But in truth, even the West’s own priorities appear to have shifted. Obsessive concern with what Western political leaders superficially consider “stability” (and what scholars pejoratively call “stabilocracy”) has decisively trumped the EU and U.S. commitments to democratic transformation in the region. The absence of any meaningful European or American rebuke of Vučić after yet another transparently fraudulent election in December 2023 is only the most recent example of this sordid trend. Ironically, Western officials claim these concessions are made with a view to ensuring Balkan support for Ukraine. Vučić, for his part, has played both sides, offering some modest assistance to Ukraine but also not participating in sanctions imposed against Russia. Serbia, meanwhile, is now home to tens of thousands of Russian emigres, and some 70 percent of the country’s population supports the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine.

To be sure, the enlargement process has seen demonstrable successes. Among the Western Balkan States, Slovenia and Croatia have long been EU and NATO members (Slovenia joined both bodies in 2004, while Croatia joined NATO in 2009 and the EU in 2013). Albania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia have each joined the ranks of the North Atlantic alliance. As EU officials are keen to note, since the 2003 pledge to admit the countries of the region, the bloc has spent billions promoting a litany of socio-economic reforms and infrastructure renewal across the region. Except for Kosovo, every regional State is either already within the EU or has obtained candidate status.

Kosovo is doubtless ready for the same, but EU leaders have not yet had the courage to begin the negotiation process with leaders in Pristina until Kosovo signs a normalization agreement with Serbia, a distinct source of controversial EU and U.S. arm-twisting, especially of Kosovo, as its sovereignty remains unrecognized by Belgrade. Tensions between the two countries escalated last year into the worst flareup of violence since Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008, largely orchestrated by Serb nationalist proxies of Vučić.

For its part, Bosnia remains riven by Croatian- and Serbian-backed plots to functionally partition the country along ever starker sectarian lines, even as successive European Court of Human Rights rulings – including a landmark decision in August 2023 – have all tasked the country’s leadership with bringing the country’s constitution in line with the EU’s liberal democratic norms. And in Montenegro, growing political polarization has produced another Russo-Serbian-aligned government, raising further concerns of fractures within NATO.

Major Distinctions with Ukraine

Of course, the geopolitical context and history of the Western Balkans is markedly different than that of Ukraine. European leaders do appear to understand that a glacial, Balkan-style approach to Ukraine’s “Europeanization” would be a political and strategic disaster. But the size of the task is also enormously larger in Ukraine than it ever was in the Western Balkans. Ukraine is geographically far larger and more populous (233,000-plus square miles and 43 million people) than the Western Balkans (a combined 84,000 square miles with fewer than 18 million people), and the scale of Russia’s violence since its February 2022 full-scale assault on Ukraine has almost certainly overtaken the destruction and loss of life of the Yugoslav Wars, notwithstanding the singular horror of the Bosnian Genocide. The legacy of institutional weakness in Ukraine is also formidable, even if comparable to the Western Balkans.

Yet, comparing the possible EU futures of the Western Balkans and Ukraine directly challenges Brussels’ claims to be a community of values in which membership is based on clear, consistent criteria. It is striking that the EU could fast track Ukraine and Moldova last year towards candidacy and membership — both with active Russian occupations on their territory — while Bosnia and Kosovo have been left behind, notwithstanding the recent EU Commission push on Bosnia. The implicit conclusion that Moldova has made bigger strides towards EU membership than Bosnia are fantastical; despite recent improvements, Moldova ranks lower than all Balkan countries except Kosovo on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

The real reasons for Ukraine and Moldova’s sudden EU prospects are geopolitical, of course. But with a history of Russian meddling (not to mention Chinese influence), the Western Balkans are also of central geopolitical importance in a new age of strategic competition. Such ambiguous criteria may lead one to conclude that the EU’s promises – to both Ukraine and the Western Balkans – are not truly genuine, lasting commitments, but instead subject to short-term political calculations.

EU leaders need to make up their minds. If Ukraine’s integration into the Euro-Atlantic order is a strategic, geopolitical imperative, then the same must be true of the Western Balkans. In that case, resolute assistance to both is required — assistance that will require genuine commitments to the rule of law and democratization, the categorical rejection of nationalist revanchism (whether Russian, Serbian, or another variety), the integration of Bosnia and Kosovo into NATO, and greater and more rapid military aid to Ukraine.

Above all, the EU needs to offer a transparent and realistic horizon for enlargement. It should tell Ukraine, Moldova, and the Western Balkans alike that Brussels will incorporate all of them by 2035. To realize that aim, the EU must aggressively involve itself in the political reform processes in each country over the coming decade, and where necessary, directly confront recalcitrant elites. Any State or government that does not want to carry out the serious reforms required – Serbia, we’re talking about you – is free to opt out, but they would be forgoing a near-certain guarantee of membership within a viable timeframe. To further incentivize participation, the EU could say that after 2035, the next round of enlargement would not occur until 2045.

For its part, the United States should advocate for the European future of the Western Balkans while spearheading a similar initiative with respect to NATO enlargement, with the goal of achieving membership by 2030 for Kosovo, Moldova, and Bosnia. The latter has already successfully graduated to the Membership Action Plan stage, the final step before full membership. This process, too, would be conditioned on a far greater degree of bilateral engagement with each of these countries, to ensure that their relevant security architectures are fully prepared to become contributing members of the Atlantic community.

The war in Ukraine is an existential challenge for the transatlantic order. But it is also an opportunity to complete the task of a previous generation: Europe, whole and free.

IMAGE: European Union officials and western Balkans leaders watch a traditional dance performance during the Berlin Process Leaders’ Summit to address the integration of the European Union, in Tirana on October 16, 2023. (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images)