BALKAN BLOG: A new strategy but no easy ride for Western Balkan enlargement candidates

BALKAN BLOG: A new strategy but no easy ride for Western Balkan enlargement candidates
A map of the European Union candidate and potential candidate states in the Balkans, with the date of the latest step in the process.
By Clare Nuttall in Bucharest February 5, 2018

The European Commission is poised to release a new enlargement strategy. Widely leaked and much discussed before publication, the strategy is expected to set 2025 as a target date for accession for Montenegro and Serbia — the first time a concrete date has been set for the new wave of accession, in the hope that it will push countries from the region to embrace reform and stop democratic backsliding. 

This is part of a change in mood within the European Commission, where just four years ago President Jean-Claude Junker said there would be no enlargement before the end of his mandate in 2019. While this was fairly obvious given the positions of the Western Balkan countries on their enlargement paths at the time, it was still seen as a slap in the face for would-be members. 

For some years previously, enlargement had been very much on a back burner. The initial wave of eastward enlargement that started with the accession of 10 mainly CEE countries in 2004 dragged on until 2013 when Croatia became the last country to join, but there was a concern within the EU that some countries — such as Romania and Bulgaria — had been let in too soon. 

By the middle of the current decade, the EU had been engulfed by various other crises; the migrant crisis, the Greek debt crisis, the Brexit referendum and even concerns about the failure of liberal democracy and a potential breakup of the EU sparked by the growing assertiveness of Hungary and Poland’s rightwing governments and the resurgence of radical right movements in Western democracies. 

Since then, however, changing conditions — not least the realisation of the security implications of excluding the countries in the southeast of the continent — have resulted in an about-face in Brussels. The migrant crisis, for example, threw the spotlight onto the need to cooperate with a region that had been neglected for some time.

In addition, the voices that for a long time had been saying that without a realistic hope of EU accession the countries from the region would fail to push ahead with reforms, backslide on their progress in democratisation, and see a revival of old tensions that could in a worse case scenario lead to fresh conflict became impossible to ignore. 

“The warning signs of growing tensions within and between the countries of the region and a dramatic deterioration in the reform process had been evident for some time,” says a January 2018 report from Brussels-based think tank the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), which further warned that “the combination of weak institutions and control by one party led by an autocratic leader is a recipe for political instability that can easily spill over into the wider region”.

According to CEPS associate senior research fellow Erwan Fouéré, the author of the report, the turning point for Brussels came with EU High Representative Federica Mogherini’s tour of the region in March 2017. “Mogherini saw for herself the dramatic stand-off in the protracted political crisis in Macedonia, while in the Serbian parliament she came face to face with extreme nationalist rhetoric that was reminiscent of the Milosevic era. When she reported back to the EU leaders at the European Council two weeks later, they quickly realised that the region could no longer be treated as before,” says the report. This became even more dramatically evident in April 2017 with the storming of the Macedonian parliament, the culmination of a lengthy political crisis. 

Part of the reason for the democratic backsliding in Macedonia and a number of other countries — as revealed by research such as Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report — is that former reformers had lost hope that their efforts would result in concrete progress towards EU accession. 

As a former frontrunner in the accession race, whose progress had been stymied for a decade by its diplomatic stand-off with Greece, Macedonia was an extreme example, but the stalled reform efforts were evident in other countries too — Bosnia & Herzegovina’s struggle to hold onto its International Monetary Fund (IMF) funding package because of the failure to adopt reforms, the tear gas repeatedly let off in Kosovo’s parliament to prevent MPs adopting a border demarcation deal required by the EU, the Albanian government’s struggle to push through judicial reforms, and so on. 

Dates and deadlines 

The new strategy currently being adopted by the European Commission seeks to address this by setting out some concrete dates for countries from the region to aim for. The key date in the near term is 2025, according to leaked copies of the report. This is the day by which Montenegro and Serbia should be ready for membership — provided they demonstrate “strong political will, the delivery of real reforms, and lasting solutions to disputes with neighbours”. The remaining states "should also be well advanced on their European path by then”, the report is expected to say. 

In the nearer term, 2019 could also be a critical year, during which, if all goes well, Macedonia and Albania should start EU accession negotiations, and Bosnia & Herzegovina could gain candidate status. The timeline is "indicative only" though, with the report apparently saying that "countries can move faster but may also move slower”.

Turkey appears to be conspicuously absent from the new document; the rift that has opened up between Ankara and Brussels, and EU officials’ repeated criticisms of the slide towards authoritarianism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have taken accession off the table for the foreseeable future. In mid-2017, Turkish ministers making their case for EU accession in Brussels were told by the EU that they cannot expect progress until Ankara restores human rights. 

As important as having specific dates, the document will make it very clear that the EU is politically ready to accept new members. "The Western Balkans partners now have a historic window of opportunity. For the first time, their accession perspective has a best-case timeframe," EUobserver said, quoting the draft internal document from the European Commission. 

But it’s not expected to be easy — as stressed by European Council president Donald Tusk at the launch ceremony for Bulgaria’s EU Council presidency. Tusk highlighted the challenges, comparing the history of the region with the TV drama “Game of Thrones”. 

“The history of the Balkans is more dramatic and interesting than the screenplay of ‘Game of Thrones’, even if there are no dragons in it. We would all like it if the present and future of the Balkans were less like dramatic screenplays. Stability, security, prosperity – this is what the people of the whole region deserve. And the EU's purpose is to help make this screenplay a reality,” Tusk said.

As well as the dates, the document is also expected to set out some practical support that EU institutions will extend towards prospective members. “There’s a realisation on the side of the EU that the EU needs to do more to help the countries get into shape, both politically and practically,” says Alexandra Stiglmayer, secretary-general of the Brussels-based European Stability Initiative. “Politically this means more vocal support for enlargement … as regards practical issues the new enlargement strategy will list various actions that will help the Western Balkans countries reach EU standards.”

According to Stiglmayer, the European Commission has “really done some hard thinking” about what can be done to help prospective members from the Western Balkans. The strategy is, for example, expected to contain plans to send expert missions to Western Balkan countries that will thoroughly examine various issues (such as independence of the judiciary and public procurement) and make recommendations. The European Commission is also understood to want to include the Western Balkans more deeply in EU policies such as the digital market, the Energy Union and the Transport Community, as well as reviewing pre-accession assistance. 

“This is not a willingness to enlarge no matter what, but to help the countries get into shape,” Stiglmayer tells bne IntelliNews

Challenges ahead

In addition to the normal challenges faced by any accession candidate of getting their legislation and regulations in line with the EU acquis, the Western Balkans face some specific challenges given their history of war and their persistently high levels of poverty and unemployment. 

Back in 2004, most of the CEE countries were “in much better shape administratively. They had no legacy of war, they had functioning administrations, and a strong, strong will to accede to the EU,” says Stiglmayer. By contrast, “the Western Balkans countries are much further behind administratively, most have gone through wars, many have the issues that come with being multi-ethnic countries like Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo. In addition, the willingness of the EU to enlarge has diminished, which in turn has diminished the willingness of the countries to work hard.”  

Partly as a result of the years of war and corresponding breakdown of industries, the Western Balkans are far behind the CEE countries and even near neighbours such as Romania and Bulgaria in terms of living standards. On average GDP per capita across the region is just 35% of the EU average; even in Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest state, it is around 50% of the average. 

This has led to fears, especially among the richer member states that are net contributors financially, of the burden their entry will place on structural and cohesion funds. While the latest data from the European Commission indicates economies across the region are recovering, a November 2017 World Bank report claims it will take up to six decades for them to catch up with the EU

There are other problems too. The Commission document is expected to warn that “local disputes” could make it hard to meet the "ambitious" deadline. "The EU cannot and will not import bilateral disputes. This is why all the Western Balkans partners concerned must resolve such disputes as a matter of urgency," the document says according to reports leaked in the media.

As well as the issues common across the region, several countries have specific issues to resolve before they can make progress.

Macedonia’s hopes of making progress towards EU accession have revived recently, as talks with Greece over a solution to the “name dispute” that has divided the two neighbours ever since Macedonia declared its independence from Yugoslavia get underway. This could put Macedonia on track to start its long-delayed negotiations in 2019. 

Once the leader from the region, Macedonia’s progress stalled as it was repeatedly blocked by Athens, which objects to the use of the name “Macedonia”. The conservative government under Prime Minister Nikola Grusveki in Skopje fanned the flames as it embarked on the lavish Skopje 2014 revamp of the capital and other nation building projects that had a heavy emphasis on Alexander the Great — the historic hero claimed by both Greece and Macedonia. 

A recent breakthrough came as Zoran Zaev, who replaced Gruevski as Macedonia’s prime minister, promised to rename Skopje’s Alexander the Great airport. Still, there is strong opposition to the proposed solutions on both sides, especially in Greece, which has experienced mass protests in Athens and Thessaloniki on the issue, and a solution is by no means assured.

Bosnia has been hoping for a nod for its candidate status, which according to leaked copies of the report is now also expected in 2019. But there are serious problems in Bosnia, where the cumbersome political structures and constant resurgence of ethnic tensions has meant progress on adopting any reforms is excruciatingly slow. With elections coming up later this year, the situation is expected to become even more volatile

Kosovo is even further away from any prospect of accession than Bosnia, since it is still not recognised by five EU member states. According to what is known so far of the new strategy, there is no deadline set out for Kosovo’s progress towards accession — a situation that has caused consternation in Pristina. In addition, Spain — still smarting from the Catalan independence referendum — is reportedly seeking to exclude Kosovo from the upcoming Western Balkans summit in May.

Deputy Prime Minister Enver Hoxhaj spoke out on the issue on January 22, accusing the EU of taking a “selective approach” and saying Kosovo shouldn’t suffer because of problems within the EU. However, the Kosovan government is not helping itself. It has failed for a long time to ratify its demarcation border agreement with Montenegro. Relations worsened after MPs from Kosovo’s governing coalition sought to scrap the special war crimes court that will prosecute members and leaders of the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

Lessons learned 

It’s not surprising, therefore, that there are still a number of reservations on the EU side, as much because of the specific situation and history of the Western Balkans countries, as because of the experience of letting other states in before similar issues have been resolved.  

The experience of the first wave of Eastern enlargement has had some lessons for the EU. In particular, with Romania and Bulgaria there were concerns afterwards that the process had been rushed and they weren’t sufficiently prepared. The two countries, which joined in 2007 at the tail end of the wave that started in 2004, remain the poorest in the union, but concerns surrounding the rule of law in the two countries persist 11 years later. This led to the launch of the CVM shortly after accession to monitor their progress in the fight against corruption and, in Bulgaria’s case, organised crime; they have so far failed to exit it. This is seen as one of the reasons for the long hiatus in more accessions after Croatia joined in 2013.

Stiegelmeyer argues that the problem isn’t limited to the former Communist countries, putting forward the examples of Greece and Cyprus too. “In hindsight, Greece also acceded too early, mostly for political reasons. Athens did not fully implement the Schengen legislation, which became visible in the refugee crisis, they cheated on their statistics, and the economy was not on sound feet,” she says. “Then there was the lesson of letting Cyprus in without having resolved the unification of the island. Since 2004 they have systematically blocked Turkey’s accession path.” 

And while the new document indicates that the European Commission at least is ready for more accession, the Commission and the parliament have typically been more in favour of enlargement than member states. The challenge of securing support from governments across the union from Lisbon to Bucharest still lies ahead. 

Some are behind the idea of further enlargement; Germany, arguably the most influential country in the bloc, launched the Berlin process, and recently several countries from Eastern Europe — in particular Bulgaria and Hungary — have spoken out in favour of enlargement. Yet many difficulties remain especially relating to security that will have to be overcome for the process to result in speedy results.

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