The syndrome of the so called ‘enlargement fatigue’ outlined the last decade of debates on further enlargement of the European Union and, with the socio-political situation of the countries involved, limited the chance for opening the doors of the Union to the Western Balkans and fostering deeper engagement.

The Balkan region, an integral part of Europe both geographically and historically, shares with the Union a common cultural heritage. Indeed, recognizing the presence of a dense intertwining between the EU’s member states and their Balkan counterparts, the 2003 Thessaloniki European Council meeting has strongly supported a ‘European Perspective’ of the Western Balkan countries. Thenceforth, all six countries have signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the Union, albeit Serbia and the latest new NATO member, Montenegro, are considered to be the only frontrunners in the process, while Kosovo remains at its tail-end. Nevertheless, the Western Balkan countries keep on developing an always stronger link with the Union, whose companies are the biggest investors in the region proving the presence of a high level of interdependence between the parties involved. The latest rounds of enlargement to Central and Eastern European countries (CEE), some analysts have suggested, did provoke a ‘symbolic wound’ in the region and the perspective of enlargement, which is envisaged for 2025, seems to be the only means to heal it.

2018 has been an important year for progress in the enlargement discourse. The Bulgarian Presidency, followed by those of Romania and Croatia in the years to come, has set the priority to bring back the Western Balkans to the table. Indeed, one pivotal appointments has been the EU-Western Balkans summit in Sofia in May, hosted by the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boiko Borissov and the European Council President Donald Tusk. Nevertheless, the Union’s intention to open its doors to some countries of the region has been reconfirmed with the ‘A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans’ Strategy, adopted on the 6thof February. In the document, the Commission clearly states that none of the six countries of the region is ready to enter the Union at the moment. In addition, the Strategy remarked the merit-based nature of the process and underlined the need for efforts by the six countries in the fields of the Rule of Law, Justice and Human Rights. This notwithstanding, Brussels has reconfirmed the necessity of a credible accession perspective as a key driver of transformation in the region and an inestimable tool to reinforce European security.

According to the position of the Commission, Rule of Law is the most critical point, with all the six countries facing a high level of organized crime and corruption and an alarming lack of fundamental rights protection. In terms of economy, their systems are not competitive enough and their societies are still torn by bilateral conflicts, a sad but real legacy of the Balkan wars and the questionable diplomatic solutions found to them. Nonetheless, Brussels’ position in this moment seems more than ever convinced to bring back to the table the idea of a new enlargement, a goal set for 2025.

In the latest years, the EU has refocused attention on the Western Balkans and invested more political capital in the enlargement to the region. A growing competition with Turkey, China and Russia has certainly played a role in this context as well. The structural problems in the region are deep – so far no one has been given the attribute of a ‘functioning market economy’. Corruption and interference in the judiciary remain serious problems. Yet progress has been real as well. In particular, the new Macedonian government does seriously try to improve rule of law standards and bilateral ties with Greece.

Brussels’ readiness to open up its doors to the Western Balkans depend on wider geopolitical questions, such as the UK’s post-Brexit relations with the EU and the EU-Russian relations. It seems likely that the EU will not soften its conditionality with the Western Balkans in view of the rule of law problems it already has in some Eastern European states.

Moreover, the Western Balkans are increasingly embedded in a wider European migration management system. The EU is currently negotiating new Status Agreements with the Western Balkans which allow Frontex officials to have executive powers in their territories. The migration crisis has fostered the idea that the Western Balkans need to have a strong place in the EU’s migration plans. Foreign fighters is an issue, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania. The challenges are similar to what some member states face. The worrying aspect, however, is that police structures in particular in Bosnia are fragmented and lack efficiency. The problem is therefore more difficult to tackle.

The local population’s point of view is something that must be taken into account when considering the status quo of the negotiations.  It seems useful to analyse the results from the annual Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) Balkan Barometer from 2017. The poll found that across the Western Balkans plus Croatia, 42% felt that EU membership will be / has been a good thing, and a further 36% felt that it has been / will be neither good nor bad. However, this masks a fair amount of variation amongst countries, with 90% of those in Kosovo feeling that EU membership will be a good thing despite no immediate prospects of candidacy. On the other hand, positive feelings towards the EU are far lower in the two frontrunners, Montenegro (44%) and Serbia (26%), with the latter being least positive of all. In Serbia, 30% of respondents felt that EU membership will be a bad thing.

Two countries in the Western Balkans, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, require further attention. The 2017 International Republican Institute (IRI) survey in Bosnia-Herzegovina, if further divided by ethnicity, shows that there are stark divisions in attitudes. Support for accession to the EU is very high amongst Bosnians and Croats, yet substantially lower amongst Serbs. However, all three ethnic groups agree that it is in Bosnia’s interest to maintain strong relations with the EU.

The future of Western Balkans-EU relations is still pretty chaotic. At the Sofia meeting the EU leaders reaffirmed their unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans. However, feelings are mixed on the idea of a future enlargement to this region. Europeans by heart and by choice, the Balkans see their way into the western European institution as a long and winding road, as some would say.

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