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The EU’s Renewed Interest in Candidate Countries

Given the amount of support of medical aid, weapons, and financial assistance that the European Union (EU) has provided Ukraine in its fight against Russia, there has been a large focus on the relationship between Ukraine and the EU. Since 2014, Ukraine has moved closer to the EU as its main trading partner due to a combination of referendums and public protests. Their proximity to the union pushed the country’s leadership to balance their conflict with Russia that erupted in 2014 while working to meet the standards of the EU candidate process. 

Albania, Serbia, Turkey, North Macedonia, and many other neighboring countries are also candidates to join the EU and have been affected by rising energy costs since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war. EU’s sanctions on Russian oil drove up the price of oil throughout the continent and increased oil transport costs for the EU. As a result, candidate countries are likely to be admitted into the EU in the near future, with plans to improve their social and economic standards that meet the acceptance criteria. The EU has brought new candidate countries into its union since starting from a simple collaboration of sharing coal and steel resources to diffuse conflict between countries. Although many southeastern European countries are currently candidate countries, they are all in different stages of the rising process to full membership. 

Compared to the required standards for electoral and economic values of the EU, there are fewer definite standards when it comes to energy consumption and reliance in the EU. Until 2022, there was not a strong need for European consensus regarding energy consumption and sources of energy, since cheaper oil from Russia did not come with the explicit cost of Ukrainian sovereignty. After Russia’s invasion, EU candidacy was offered to Ukraine to express the values of the union that came before cheaper sources of energy. Cutting Europe off as the main consumer of Russian oil was considered a way to end the war more quickly as Russia would not be able to easily fund its invasion.  

Shifting Europe’s Energy Sources

Most EU candidate countries are located in Southeastern Europe, with a few exceptions. When Yugoslavia broke up into independent republics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, and Slovenia near the end of the Cold War, these countries had little reason to transition to a more diverse array of energy exporters, as Russian fossil fuels became the cheapest and most reliable source of oil in the region. 

Domestic energy production has historically relied on coal-fired power plants, accounting for up to two-thirds of electricity production in the Balkan region. However, gas prices have more than doubled, increasing energy prices and the need for Europe to shift towards renewable energy. If candidate countries want to match European energy goals of halving emissions by 2030, their dependence on fossil fuels needs to change. Luckily, current emergency replacement energy has largely been out of extremely polluting coal plants, and many EU members consider domestic renewable energy is needed and are beginning to scale up its production.

EU’s Promising Energy Diplomacy

EU energy policy currently highlights the need to diversify the energy sources on which member countries rely and turn towards more renewable sources of energy. Thus, candidate countries should be considered in any new energy plans to protect the EU from any future energy dependency affecting foreign policy scenarios, such as the Russia-Ukraine war.

The most prominent policy outline concerning changes in sources of energy imports and domestic energy production is the European Commission’s communication to other branches of government regarding their “external engagement in a changing world.” This document highlights the need for the EU to diversify its energy reliance through the 2022 REPowerEU plan, which established an EU energy platform as a tool to coordinate the demands of member countries’ needs to lessen the intra-member contest for energy resources. Candidate countries like Ukraine, Moldova, and the Western Balkan countries will be included in the solution to solving the crisis of soaring energy prices. This way, joint purchases of fossil fuels from countries excluding Russia will alleviate the burden from countries affected by Russian oil bans and price spikes from higher demand due to extreme temperatures.

The communication also supports a West Balkan initiative known as the Green Agenda, established to help track alignment with EU Green Deal aspirations. These two plans are centered around circular economies, decarbonization, and pollution reduction. Additionally, the EU proposed providing technical support through supporting the training of local workers in renewable energy skills, financing the development of renewable energy facilities, assisting in research as to what renewable energy works best in local settings, and helping candidate countries, along with Ukraine, transform their energy consumption to wind and solar power. Candidate countries have collaborated to share the burden of rising energy and food costs by sharing extra resources like energy and food. Still, they have largely followed suit with the EU with the exceptions of Turkey and Serbia, who both have an interest in maintaining relationships with Russia and the EU. 

New Energy Solutions for the EU

Current projects for candidate countries are centered around their neighbors in the Caucasus region and Central Asia, where fossil fuels are piped through Russia and sold to Europe. However, there are now plans for diversification away from Russian oil by increasing the number of pipelines through the Caspian Sea, specifically between Georgia, a potential EU candidate country, and Kazakhstan, a country with many natural resources important for energy creation. Likewise, both Greece and Turkey claim to have fossil fuel deposits in the Mediterranean Sea, presenting an opportunity not only for increased energy diversity and diplomatic projects but to strengthen ties between the EU and candidate countries, such as Turkey. Renewable energy opportunities in Europe had some development in recent years, mainly in wind and solar farms being built at a much faster rate from renewed investment and necessity. On the other hand, this energy self-sufficiency can be beneficial to promote energy independence to power a country’s energy delivery grid. 

EU candidate countries have long been in the process of joining the union. Some countries have been in the process for decades, including Turkey. Eastern European countries joined relatively quickly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and completed the membership process within ten years. Notably, achieving membership and candidacy statuses have changed throughout the years depending on the historical contexts of each member joining. Some naturally associated with the EU since its start and others became independent nations recently, such as countries in the Balkans. Given the sudden seismic shifts in global politics in recent years from COVID-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war, it is likely that rapid shifts toward non-Russian sources of energy will not only bring the candidates closer together politically and economically but they may be admitted into the union faster than at any other time in EU’s history.

Edited by Chelsea Bean

Solomon Johnson

Solomon is a resident of Albuquerque and a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico, where he studied Political Science and International Studies. His research mainly focuses on the European Union...