A presidential trip to the region and a brand-new report on EU enlargement suggest that the Western Balkans are back on the agenda in Brussels.
Having put the Balkans on the back burner for the past four years, the European Commission has now come out with a new strategy, outlining the eventual accession of Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia to the EU. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also plans to tour Balkan capitals later this month, suggesting that the EU is serious about matching Chinese and Russian influence operations in the region.
But the new strategy shouldn’t be taken as a definitive blueprint for Balkan accession. Though the Commission is keen on genuine engagement with the region, even for the most promising EU candidates, the path to Brussels is littered with numerous roadblocks. In light of these challenges, the EU’s new Balkan strategy should be viewed as more of a motivational tool than as a real roadmap.
As early as 2003, the EU offered its “unequivocal support” to Balkan states aspiring to EU membership. Fifteen years later, only Croatia and Slovenia have joined the bloc, and even according to the new strategy’s most ambitious timeline, it will be another seven years before Montenegro and Serbia make the cut.
Of course, politicians in 2003 couldn’t have predicted the crisis-prompted mood of existential concern that has characterised Brussels since 2009. Many EU officials pondering the Western Balkans’ potential membership are also weary of repeating the mistakes of Bulgaria and Romania’s premature accession in 2007.
While many of these issues persist, the rising geopolitical significance of the Balkans has given Brussels new reasons to acknowledge their importance to the stability of Europe as a whole. In recent years, China has established a considerable presence in a region where countries are desperate for infrastructure investment and lack access to European structural funds. For instance, Serbia is a focal point of Beijing’s Belt and Road transport and trade initiative, and has so far received more than €5.5bn in Chinese infrastructure investment. But such developments haven’t come without scrutiny from Brussels, which sees Chinese investment as undermining EU standards.
As a result of these considerations, Juncker revived long-dormant Balkan expansion prospects in his State of the Union speech in September, and Bulgaria has put the region’s European ambitions at the centre of its agenda for its six-month presidency of the Council of the EU. Capping Bulgaria’s presidency will be a summit of Balkan and EU leaders in Sofia this May, where they will discuss the region’s progress toward accession.
All of this appears to be good news for Montenegro and Serbia. But the timeline laid out in the strategy shouldn’t be confused with a feasible target. The report itself makes this abundantly clear, stating that a 2025 entry is “extremely ambitious” and that a number of key goalposts will have to be cleared before this deadline can be met.
To begin with, the report states that Serbia will have to swallow the bitter pill of normalising relations with Kosovo if it wants in. Belgrade and five other EU states still refuse to recognise the breakaway ethnic Albanian state. In a visit to Serbia the day after the EU released its report, EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn urged Belgrade to “conclude and irreversibly implement a legally binding agreement with Kosovo before it can join” the EU and also called on the government to deliver on “sometimes difficult reforms” in the areas of rule of law, justice, and basic rights. Given what Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic described as a “mountain chain of obstacles” on the path to EU accession, however, it is an open question how long it will take to meet these demands.
But the biggest barrier to EU membership may be lack of reform on the home front, a failing that the Commission has put front and centre of its new report. To meet EU membership criteria, the region needs to implement “comprehensive reform in crucial areas,” including rule of law, fundamental rights, governance, judicial reforms, and the fight against corruption and organised crime. The report also cites the need to pursue economic reforms with “vigour”.
These changes are sorely needed: Montenegro, which resents sharing its “frontrunner” status with Serbia, has its work cut out for it. For one thing, veteran strongman Milo Djukanovic, voted the Organized Crime and Corruption Project’s 2015 person of the year, still haunts Montenegrin politics and represents a major obstacle to the far-reaching reforms that will be needed. After a brief hiatus from his 20+ years alternating between prime minister and president, Djukanovic now aims to run for the top job again in April’s presidential elections.
Despite enjoying western support, Djukanovic has ruled with an iron hand, and has been described by local NGOs as “the last European dictator”. Ironically, Brussels’ tacit support for Djukanovic is one reason why the country continues to face so many obstacles on the road to EU membership. But even without Djukanovic’s corrosive influence, Montenegrin society and politics is one in which organised crime pulls most of the levers.
The EU’s new set of demands, even for frontrunners like Montenegro, will thus be difficult if not impossible to achieve in a mere seven years. But at a time when enlargement fatigue is on the rise and other newly joined members are still struggling with crime and corruption, the fact that the strategy is more motivational than realistic may be precisely the point.
Henry Stanek is an independent EU affairs consultant based in Paris and has worked extensively on EU enlargement and internal market issues.