The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent application of the Ukrainian and Moldovan governments for EU membership revitalized the debate on EU enlargement.
EU’s inability to put its own March 2020 decision to finally start the accession process of Albania and North Macedonia in motion due to Bulgaria wielding its veto powers had become a risky embarrassment for the Union that granted candidacy to Ukraine and Moldova. A failure in the Balkans - a region encircled by member states, promised the prospect of membership over two decades ago, and working on it ever since - undermines the intended geopolitical encouragement of the newest candidates at a pivotal moment for the continent facing a brutal Russian aggression. It also further frustrates the nations in the Western Balkans when their anchor with the West has become a geopolitical imperative both for the region and the EU itself.
The Western Balkans Leaders’ Meeting on the eve of the European Council in June left the region empty handed despite the expressed unequivocal commitment to its EU membership perspective and the call to accelerate the accession process. There was no good news not only for Skopje and Tirana, but also no candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina, no visa liberalization for the citizens of Kosovo or any tangible progress for Belgrade and Podgorica.
At first glance, the danger was averted and the long-awaited breakthrough in the EU enlargement impasse in the Balkans was finally achieved last month. Albania opened its accession talks, while North Macedonia, a country emblematic for unfair treatment in the process, made the first of the two steps required to “complete the opening phase” of its accession negotiations. The second step is conditioned upon inter alia amending its Constitution to include ethnic Bulgarians in its Preamble. The prospect for getting the required majority in Parliament for the amendment are however slim and the likelihood of North Macedonia remaining stack and be blamed for it is rather high. 
Is this enough to declare victory and move on thinking EU enlargement has been saved? Evidence suggests quite the opposite. At best, one could argue that the current “process” itself has been saved. But what does this process achieve on the ground and where does it lead to?
Restore the merit-based nature of the process
EU accession is about the transformation of societies into prosperous democracies governed by the rule of law through democratic and economic reforms incentivized by a realistic membership perspective. It is supposed to be merit-based. In recent years, however, this was no longer the case, undermining its transformative power.
Just look to the EU’s own evaluation tools, the annual reports by the European Commission. For many years already the “professional” candidate country North Macedonia has been as “moderately prepared” to join the EU as Montenegro and Serbia, which have been negotiating for 10 and 8 years respectively. Albania has not been far behind. On rule of law fundamentals, the Commission finds that North Macedonia and Albania are on par with Montenegro and ahead of Serbia. In a merit-based process, such findings would make a difference. To demand that the accession process be more political must not mean that it should be arbitrary, not linked to merit and driven by individual member state vetoes. While ultimately accession will always remain also a political decision, arbitrariness during the accession process itself destroys its credibility.
To restore the credibility of accession and its transformative nature, these thorough assessments of progress should have consequences. In addition, removing veto powers (at least) from the intermediary stages of enlargement enhances the all-important principle of conditionality and merit with no opportunity for individual member states to hold the accession process hostage. If an individual member has legitimate concerns with a candidate country in line with the European values and principles enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty it will surely be able to line up support for its position.
The Four freedoms – a credible interim goal
At this moment, for many reasons which are not easily changed, the goal of all participants in this process – full membership – appears very distant, with every step in the process taking longer for reasons not linked to performance of the candidates. Croatia, the last country that joined the EU, waited for one year as a candidate country to start its accession negotiations. By contrast, North Macedonia already waited for 17, Albania for 8 years. The Croatian negotiations were the longest in the history of EU accession – 68 months. Montenegro and Serbia have been negotiating for 121 and 102 months already, until now closing only 3 and 2 chapters respectively. It is no wonder that the European dream no longer appears as a stairway to heaven, but as a road to nowhere. It raises doubts that there is the political will in the EU today to admit 6 new Balkan members.
Recently Chancellor Olaf Scholz  echoed President Emmanuel Macron’s bring-our-own-house-in-order-first remarks  when he noted that for new members to join EU must first reform itself, including by changing the principle of unanimity in its decision-making. Indeed, EU’s role as a global player has often been constrained by vetoes of individual member states, from foreign and security policy to enlargement. The problem for the Western Balkans is that this is obviously controversial within the EU, and any success in such important internal reforms does not depend on the Western Balkans? What if EU member states are unable to agree on such changes in the coming years?
For this reason, it is important to define a realistic and meaningful interim goal that all Western Balkan states can reach even if the EU does not reach an internal consensus in the next few years. A goal that should be linked to the meritocratic assessments conducted by the European Commission. This goal should be one to transform societies, inspire citizens and make economic convergence far more likely. The obvious one would be to say that once the necessary criteria are met any Balkan country should be able to gain access to the European Single Market and its citizens and businesses should be able to enjoy the free movement of goods, people, services and capital. And that this would be achievable by 2026 for those who try hard, and not be conditional on internal-EU reforms which the Balkan candidates cannot influence. 
The current binary approach to enlargement frontloads the work while keeping the key benefits including access to cohesion funds only until after accession. Introducing a gradual approach and timelier incentives that reward performers by way of granting them a seat at the table with no voting rights, increased funding and participation or phasing-in various sectors of EU integration will make the accession process more effective, more flexible and results oriented. 
Restore the centrality of the rule of law
A combination of a credible and reachable interim goal and continued merit-based assessments of progress would also restore EU influence when it comes to the rule of law and fundamentals. Clearly, no country could hope to join the Single Market in a few years without a track record on the rule of law. Real, visible progress in this area is crucial and linked to both the final goal of accession and the interim goal of enjoying the four freedoms.
In this area the Commission and member states must never turn a blind eye. Backsliding must be identified, named and shamed, while progress must be rewarded. Inclusion in the EU monitoring mechanisms such as the Rule of Law report, EU justice scoreboard, the European Semester and others could help counter the perception that enlargement risks diluting democratic standards in the EU. This will allow the candidate countries the opportunity to not only compete between themselves but to compare themselves with the best performers in the EU while detecting their shortcoming and pitfalls.
Getting the European house in order
All this would create space, and buy time, for an internal grand bargain to be reached among EU members states between those who insist on internal reforms (including more QMV) and those who want to see further enlargements. Such a reform would help both to fix the European house and make room for new members.
The EU will need to rebuild the political consensus on enlargement it once had. At the same time, the region cannot afford to lose more time. European leaders of our generation have a choice to make. They can continue with business as usual, declare their support for a distant European future of the Western Balkans during summits, while ignoring that the current process is failing. Or they can face reality, take action and preserve the EU as a force for good in a region that is in so many ways, including geographically, already inside the European house.
Non-Resident IWM Fellow, Europe's Futures project
 For further details on the case of North Macedonia in this context see Florian Bieber and Nikola Dimitrov, “North Macedonia's EU accession talks — a 'rotten deal'”, euobserver, July 2022 as well as European Stability Inititative, “Elephants in Skopje – Balkan turtle race and Ukraine”, July 2022.
 Süddeutsche Zeitung, “Scholz will EU-Erweiterung mit Reformen erleichtern”, June 2022.
 Politico, “Macron urges reform of ‘bizarre’ system for EU hopefuls”, October 2019.
 See more in European Stability Initiative, “The Balkan Turtle Race. A warning for Ukraine”, July 2022.
 See more in Europe’s Futures – Ideas for Action (Institute for Human Sciences IWM and ERSTE Foundation), “What is to be done? The war, the Western Balkans and the EU. Six fixes for the Western Balkan Six”, June 2022. Also, Michael Emerson et al., “A template for Staged Accession to the EU”, Centre for European Policy Studies and European Policy Centre Belgrade, October 2021.