In North Macedonia and Albania this week, champagne corks popped – politically speaking.
Both Western Balkan countries got closer to their long-term goal of becoming members of the European Union, as the official negotiation process finally started. The two candidates have been waiting for decades.
The reason for the accession talks to start now is that some crucial legal obstacles could be removed soon and, as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed, both countries put in a lot of work to comply with EU standards.
“You've demonstrated resilience. You maintained faith in the accession process. You strengthened the rule of law. You fought against corruption. You have free media. You have a vibrant civil society. You've done countless reforms. And you've modernised your economy," von der Leyen said on Tuesday in Brussels.
But there is also another reason. When the EU gave candidate status to Ukraine a few weeks ago, it upended decades of its own enlargement diplomacy, so much so, that pressure was growing not to leave the Balkan countries behind, Albania and North Macedonia.
In other words, the war in Ukraine has, directly and indirectly, forged a stronger democratic identity in Europe and the feeling that those like-minded countries need to close ranks against an aggressive Russia.
Brussels hits back on sanctions
Not surprisingly, Brussels reiterated its ongoing support for Ukraine this week while also looking at new Russian sanctions.
At the same time, it strongly rejected the notion that it is the EU sanctions that have caused energy prices to go through the roof and create misery for households and businesses, as the bloc's chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, explained.
“The price of oil started increasing one month before the war. It was caused by the war. It has peaked since the beginning of the war. And since we adopted sanctions, and since we've banned oil exports from Russia, as you can see, the price of oil has decreased," Borrell told reporters this week, demonstrating his point with a graph of decreasing oil prices.
He also stressed that the sanctions are indeed working and that Russia's economy has been tanking.
But is that really the case? After all, there is a controversial debate among experts on the effectiveness of the sanctions.
Stefan Lehne, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and a former top EU official told Euronews that the measures are having a significant impact on Moscow.
"Those who say that the EU is suffering more from sanctions than Russia are just plain wrong," Lehne said. "Russian GDP is expected to drop by 11.4% in 2022, and the EU is still supposed to grow by 2.7%.
"Also, inflation is very high in the EU at about 8%, but it's twice as high in Russia. So, I think there can be no doubt that the sanctions are having a big impact and that they are driving the cost of the war up seriously."