The European Commission adopted on February 6 a new enlargement strategy for the Western Balkans, setting 2025 as the target for Serbia and Montenegro to become members.
The strategy, which comes after years of neglecting the region that in turn raised fears of instability, is expected also to counter the growing influence of Russia and China in the Balkans. The document marks a shift in tone since European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said in 2014 there would be no EU enlargement in the foreseeable future
The six Western Balkan countries — Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia — are at different stages of the EU integration processes, with only Montenegro and Serbia having already started accession negotiations.
The EU also pledged enhanced engagement in the region to help the Western Balkan countries to prepare for membership.
The strategy, dubbed 'A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans', confirmed the EU future of the region as a geo-strategic investment in a stable, strong and united Europe based on common values.
”With strong political will, real and sustained reforms, and definitive solutions to disputes with neighbours, the Western Balkans can move forward on their respective European paths,” Juncker stated in an address to the European parliament on February 6.
Junker will start his Balkan tour at the end of this month with a clear message, which is keeping up the reform processes and the EU's commitment to supporting the Western Balkans countries’ European future.
"Today we confirm that the door of our union is open for the Western Balkans which is already an enclave surrounded by the EU, and that our offer is sincere," EU Enlargement Comissioner Johannes Hahn stressed.
Meanwhile, EU High Representative Federica Mogherini underlined that the next months will be crucial to make sure that this "historic and unique opportunity" is seized.
The race to 2025
The strategy explains the steps that need to be taken by Serbia and Montenegro to complete the accession process by 2025.
European Commission underlined that a comprehensive, legally-binding normalisation agreement between Serbia and Kosovo is needed so that they can advance on their respective European paths.
Belgrade needs the talks in order to accelerate its EU accession process, namely progress in the Chapter 35 which covers relations with Pristina. Talks with Pristina have been on hold for the last 14 months, initially because of the Kosovan snap elections and recently after assassination of Kosovan Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic. However, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic recently said that Belgrade is ready to continue talks with Pristina.
In a statement on February 6, Brnabic welcomed the new strategy, saying that the Serbian government would speed up its efforts to meet accession criteria and implement reforms.
“I would especially like to point out that the Strategy, which gives the possibility of enlargement and the chance of entry by 2025, recognized the enlargement as a mechanism for further strengthening and stability of the EU,” Brnabic said.
The tiny Adriatic country of Montenegro has so far opened 30 of the 35 chapters, and three have been provisionally closed. In December, the EU opened two more chapters in Montenegro’s accession negotiations — on freedom of movement for workers (chapter 2) and on right of establishment and freedom to provide services (chapter 3).
Most Montenegrins would like to become part of the EU. A recent poll showed that 80.9% would vote in favour of membership in the EU if the country calls a referendum. The government in Podgorica is also keen to push the country towards membership in the bloc.
A chance to catch up
Regarding the other Western Balkans countries, the Commissions said they could catch up depending on their strong political will, the implementation of sustained reforms and definitive solutions to disputes with neighbours.
All six countries will be assessed in a fair and objective manner on the basis of their own merits and at the speed at which they achieve progress.
The Commission underlined that it is ready to prepare recommendations to open accession negotiations with Albania and Macedonia, which the report said had made significant progress on their European path, if they met the required conditions.
Implementation of judicial reforms is crucial for Albania, while Macedonia, which has been a candidate country since 2005, needs to solve the “name dispute” with Greece.
Greece objects to the use of the name Macedonia as it has a province in the north with the same name. However, both Macedonia and Greece are optimistic that the issue will be solved this year. The Macedonian authorities say they expect that the solution is possible and that the country can expect to be invited to join the bloc as early as this year.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama also expects his country, a candidate since 2014, to be invited to start EU negotiations in 2018. “We welcome what was said to Albania in the EU strategy. Negotiations closer than ever,” Rama wrote on his Facebook page.
Regarding Bosnia & Herzegovina, the Commission will start preparing an opinion on the country's membership application following the receipt of comprehensive and complete answers to its questionnaire.
“Bosnia could become a candidate for accession with sustained effort and engagement,” the Commission said.
Bosnia hopes to finally get EU candidate status this year. The country formally applied for EU membership in February 2016 and was hoping to get candidate status in 2017. However, disagreements between the institutions of the country’s smaller entity – Republika Srpska – on the one side, and the Muslim-Croat Federation and the central level authorities on the other have threatened Bosnia’s European future several times and have led to a significant delay in completing the questionnaire.
According to the state-level government, the questionnaire is now almost completed and should be sent to the EU soon.
The Commission noted that Kosovo has an opportunity for sustainable progress through implementation of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement and to advance on its European path once circumstances allow.
Kosovan officials knew that there would be no clear language for their country in terms of its EU aspirations. Kosovan Deputy Prime Minister Enver Hoxhaj recently urged ambassadors of several EU member states to support a more balanced approach for Kosovo in the new enlargement strategy.
Kosovo is considering applying for candidate status, but its relations with the EU are complicated mostly as a result of unfulfilled obligations, such as the failure to ratify its demarcation border agreement with Montenegro. Further progress in the Serbia- Kosovo normalisation dialogue is also required.
Preparing for new members
Analysts at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (viiw) said on February 6 that the new strategy “signals a more interventionist stance” by Brussels in the region.
“The Commission has put significant focus on two key areas: the resolution of outstanding security issues in the region, and the strengthening of the rule of law,” viiw analysts said. “This represents a change of focus from Brussels. Whereas previously the EU had assumed that improving economic connectivity would automatically bring about political cooperation, the approach now recognises that these two issues must progress together, and that sometimes the politics has to come first. Broadly, this also represents more of an interventionist strategy than previously; the EU is pushing for major changes in state-building and bilateral and regional cooperation.”
The European Commission said in the report that EU itself needs to be ready for new members once they have met the conditions, which is ensuring effective decision-making.
“Finally, special arrangements must be put in place to ensure that future member states are not in a position to block the accession of other Western Balkans candidates,” the statement said.
This has repeatedly been a problem in the past, for example with Greece’s blocking of Macedonia’s accession progress, and Cyprus’ blocking of Turkey’s. With many outstanding conflicts in the Western Balkans region, the prospect of early entrants blocking the progress of those that are slower to progress is a serious concern.
Brnabic sent out an encouraging message in this regard, stressing that cooperation in the region would a priority and offering support for Serbia’s old foe Albania on its EU path.
“We will support, and we have been clear in the past, Albania and Macedonia to open negotiations as soon as possible and we will be available to support everyone who needs it in the European perspective,” Brnabic said, according to a Serbian government statement.
With the aim of supporting the transformation efforts of the Western Balkans in areas of mutual interest, the European Commission announced six flagship actions that the EU will take over the next years.
These includes initiatives such as strengthening the rule of law, reinforced cooperation on security and migration through joint investigating teams, expanding the EU Energy Union to the Western Balkans and lowering roaming charges and rolling out broadband in the region.
The strategy spells out the priorities and areas of joint reinforced cooperation, addressing the specific challenges the Western Balkans face, in particular the need for fundamental reforms and good neighbourly relations.
“Judicial reforms, the fight against corruption and organised crime, and public administration reform need to deliver real results and the functioning of democratic institutions need to be seriously enhanced. Economic reforms must be pursued with vigour so that structural weaknesses, low competitiveness and high unemployment rates are addressed,” the Commission recommended.
EU leaders are expected to confirm the 2025 promise at a special EU-Western Balkans summit in May in Sofia.