Beyond the positive words from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during her tour of the Western Balkans at the end of September, other developments made it clear that the accession of counties from the region to the EU remains elusive, and has no clear timescale.
First in Tirana and then in Skopje on September 28, von der Leyen spoke of her hope that Albania and North Macedonia would start their long-awaited accession negotiations by the end of this year.
Yet on the same day discussions between top officials from the bloc and leaked to Reuters indicated that EU members are far from being united in their belief that the bloc would benefit from the entry of the six aspiring members from the Western Balkans.
Reuters reported on September 28 that some EU members do not agree to a proposed declaration guaranteeing future membership to the Western Balkans states. Quoting diplomatic sources, Reuters said there had been two rounds of talks with no agreement on a plan to restate the promise made at the Thessaloniki summit back in 2003 to give "unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans” at the upcoming summit of EU and Balkan leaders on October 6.
In addition to the veto placed by Bulgaria on the start of accession talks for its neighbour North Macedonia over history and language issues, the newswire said “wealthy northern countries” such as Denmark, France and the Netherlands were worried that the rushed accession of Romania and Bulgaria would be repeated.
Later European Commission spokesperson Ana Pisonero told VOA that EU leaders have reiterated that they are “unequivocally committed” to the European perspective of the Western Balkans.
However, this doesn’t clear up the question of when there will be forward movement for states that have been anxiously awaiting the nod to start negotiations, in North Macedonia’s case for more than a decade.
Von der Leyen’s visit to the Western Balkans also took place against the background of elevated tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, following the decision of the Kosovan government to force Serbian cars to replace their licence plates with temporary ones to enter Kosovo. This led to protests by ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, and deployment of Serbian troops close to the border. Nato’s NFOR force has stepped up its presence in the border area.
“Both incidents are indicative of the low points the EU enlargement process has reached,” said Steven Blockmans, director of research at the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS), in an online discussion hosted by the Brussels-based think-tank on September 29.
“Once it was called most successful of EU foreign policies. Now, even if EU leaders manage to repeat the 2003 Thessaloniki promise, those words risk ringing hollow in the ears of many. Enlargement is effectively going nowhere and the EU’s credibility is at stake, not just in the region but globally because foreign policy starts at home and then in the neighbourhood,” Blockmans added.
In a bit of positive PR for the EU in the region it was announced on September 30 that Miroslav Lajcak, the EU special representative for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, had brokered a deal between Serbia and Kosovo, under which both roadblocks and special police units will be removed from the border area and a temporary sticker system will be introduced for number plates while a permanent solution is discussed.
Commenting on the role of the EU in the region at the CEPS event, Florian Bieber, director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, said: “We had an escalation of tensions in recent days, and of course the past assumption was accession would be an incentive and process to deal with this, with a little bit of EU mediation. We need to need to supplement this with robust EU foreign policy in the region to address open bilateral issues.”
Aside from Bulgaria’s blockage of North Macedonia’s progress, in general it is the near neighbours of the Western Balkan countries that are the strongest supporters of enlargement to the region. Slovenia has made enlargement a central part of its current EU Council presidency, and the other former Yugoslav state in the EU, Croatia, has done the same. Austria and most of the former socialist EU members also favour enlargement. It is those that are further removed from the region, and have political concerns about immigration, notably France and the Netherlands, that have been more reluctant.
However, this reluctance to allow Western Balkan countries to progress towards accession, even when they have met the required conditions, has had an extremely negative impact on the region.
North Macedonia became a candidate country back in December 2005 but since then has failed to progress to starting negotiations, having been overtaken in the meantime by Montenegro and Serbia. The signing of the Prespa Agreement with Greece in 2018 – under which Skopje took the politically sensitive step of changing the country name from Macedonia to North Macedonia – was celebrated as finally resolving a long-standing dispute with Athens and unlocking its progress. Instead, Skopje found itself blocked by another neighbour, Bulgaria.
Albania didn’t have to take such a radical step, but the government had a lengthy political battle to overhaul the justice system. Since both Albania and North Macedonia failed to secure the go-ahead for accession talks in late 2020, Prime Minister Edi Rama has repeatedly criticised the EU for its failure to allow Albania to progress after Tirana met the conditions set by the bloc.
For some years there have been indications that the slow progress on enlargement is slowing the reform process – the prospect of EU accession has proved to be a strong incentive for reform across Central and Eastern Europe – and there has even been some degree of backsliding. This has been confirmed by the flagging performance of several states from the region in international assessments and indices like Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and Freedom House’s Nations in Transit.
Two panellists singled out Serbia as a country where political enthusiasm for EU accession is waning as the years pass.
“In Serbia EU membership is a non-issue in politics; nobody discusses it because they do not believe they will join in the foreseeable future,” said Milena Lazarevic, programme director, CEP Belgrade. She also noted the need to restore reform incentives especially for leaderships in the region who do “not see benefits within an electoral cycle”.
“There is a presumption governments want to join, but that is not true for all,” said Bieber. “I am quite sceptical about [the Serbian government’s] genuine interest to engage in any serious process. They prefer to blame the EU for not letting them in.”
On the other hand, Bieber said, “citizens of the Western Balkans overall are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about EU accession, but they don’t understand who is responsible for them not getting there. The EU must shoulder the burden to show the flaws in the process when the governments are responsible.”
A new solution
There have been several efforts to improve the integration of the region with the EU, including the Berlin process that has been launched and a new enlargement strategy from the European Commission.
The proposal drawn up by CEPS is for four stages of accession, with states gradually gaining benefits such as funding and voting rights as they progress.
“Broadly speaking, we argue that real perceived incentives have to be re-established for the Balkan states to reform and sustain their integration process,” said Michael Emerson, associate senior research fellow at CEPS, presenting the proposal.
Blockmans also commented on the proposal: “Most stakeholders agree on the need to restore momentum to the European project – threatened by its damaged reputation but also endogenous and external threats – but few have credible plans how to do it. The idea is gaining ground that a system of accession in stages is needed to revive and sustain the incentives for reforms as perceived by Western Balkan states and at the same time acknowledge the need to ease the most serious concerns of enlargement for EU member states.”
Achieving both of these will be essential if the Western Balkan states are to progress towards EU accession. Despite the warm words from von der Leyen and Lajcak’s efforts to bring the standoff between Serbia and Kosovo to an end, ultimately it will be a question of reviving reform efforts across all the aspiring member states, and of getting existing members behind the enlargement project again.