Encouraging words but no breakthroughs at EU-Western Balkans summit

Encouraging words but no breakthroughs at EU-Western Balkans summit
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and President of the European Council Charles Michel at the EU-Western Balkans summit. / European Union
By bne IntelliNews December 13, 2023

EU leaders had encouraging words for the aspiring members from the Western Balkans at a summit in Brussels on December 13, but there were no breakthroughs towards accession. 

Officials including European Council President Charles Michel and Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, reaffirmed the EU membership perspective for countries from the region, stressing at the same time the need for reforms by aspiring members. 

Michel told the concluding press conference that the event was a chance to “reaffirm with great political force that the destiny of the Western Balkans lies within the European Union”. 

The declaration adopted “is the reaffirmation of the perspective of membership of the European Union for the six countries of the Western Balkans,” he told journalists. 

Borrell argued that enlargement “has to speed up”, given the current “difficult, challenging and dangerous environment” that affects both the EU and the Western Balkans. 

Commitment to enlargement 

The declaration adopted on December 13 states: “EU reconfirms its full and unequivocal commitment to the European Union membership perspective of the Western Balkans and calls for the acceleration of the accession process.” 

The document also says that progress must be “based upon credible reforms by partners, fair and rigorous conditionality and the principle of own merits”. 

In line with the new approach to enlargement outlined by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen earlier this year, when she announced the New Growth Plan for the region, the declaration talks of preparing the ground for accession by bringing “concrete benefits” to the citizens of the Western Balkan countries during the enlargement process. This includes integrating countries from the region into the EU single market. 

The document also points out that “Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine poses fundamental security challenges”. “The EU remains determined to further strengthen cooperation with the Western Balkans on core security and defence issues, including at operational level,” the document says. 

Reciprocal efforts 

At the same time, candidates and potential candidate states are expected to show their commitment to EU accession by carrying out reforms. 

Speaking to journalists as he arrived at the event, Michel stressed that enlargement is a merit based process. 

“We are assessing the situation based on a merit-based approach with all the Western Balkans countries … and it is occasion today to see there is strong determination to implement reforms that are needed. Today this is once again the occasion to give political impetus and encourage countries to implement reforms that are needed.” 

Both Michel and Borrell spoke of the importance of candidate countries aligning with the EU’s Foreign and Security Policy. While most Western Balkan countries have joined Western sanctions on Russia, Serbia has declined to do so. 

“We live in a difficult, challenging and dangerous environment and this affects the European Union, and this affects our neighbourhood and this affects the Western Balkans. That is why I think we have to work in two directions,” Borrell said. 

“First, obviously, the enlargement – it has to speed up. At the end, it is our most important security guarantee and our most important way of becoming partners. And secondly, from the point of view of foreign policy, to support the ones who are more aligned with our [Common] Foreign and Security Policy.”

Slow progress 

Four of the six Western Balkan countries are already at the accession negotiations stage, although the start of talks with both Albania and North Macedonia has been stalled by disputes with their EU-member neighbours. 

Currently North Macedonia’s government is struggling to get constitutional changes demanded by Bulgaria through the parliament. 

The country’s Prime Minister Dimitar Kovacevski said on December 13 that despite the blockade by the opposition, the country’s “pro-European government will not deviate from the European path because our only alternative is the EU”. He went on to comment that he expects further support from European leaders on the route drawn for North Macedonia towards the union, a government statement said. 

Meanwhile, Greece has threatened to halt Albania’s progress after the arrest of ethnic Greek mayor Fredi Beleri. 

Of the other two states, Kosovo has been unable to apply for candidate status as it is not recognised as an independent state by five EU members. 

Bosnia was given the green light to become a candidate country last year, but is unlikely to get the go ahead to start accession talks at the EU Council meeting later this week, when progress for Ukraine and Moldova will also be considered.

MEPs called on December 13 for the start of EU accession talks with Bosnia, as well as Ukraine and Moldova, at the EU Council on December 14-15. 

However, expectations currently are that Bosnia will not be given a green light to start EU membership talks as it has not fulfilled 14 key priorities set as a condition to move forward.

Hungary, meanwhile, is blocking discussions on the start of accession negotiations with Ukraine, which would also block the start of talks with Moldova.