By: Jasper Hack
Picture credits: Council of the EU
The integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union (EU) once seemed almost inevitable, as evidenced by the Thessaloniki summit in June 2003. Present on a hot day in the Greek summer sun were the heads of state from Western Balkan countries and EU member states, as well as the presidents of the European Council and Commission, to discuss the potential enlargement of the EU into Southeast Europe. All attendees expressed their strong support for EU integration, leading to a sense of optimism. For the Western Balkans, joining the EU would provide access to a community that offers democracy, prosperity, and security. Similarly, the EU viewed integration of the Western Balkans as a means to prioritise the stabilisation of the region. By offering the prospect of EU membership to these countries, the EU aimed to encourage them to pursue political and economic reforms that will promote stability and reduce the risk of conflict.
What followed was twenty years of disappointment, as only Croatia managed to join the EU in 2013. Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Kosovo are still in the waiting room. According to a researcher at Carnegie Europe, Dimitar Bechev, both the EU and the region share responsibility for the lack of success in the enlargement process. He argues that the EU could have made more effort to prioritise integration, while the Balkan leaders could have committed themselves more to implementing the reforms necessary to advance on the path to membership.
However, 2022 might mark a change in the two decades of stagnation. The crisis in Ukraine has led the EU to reassess its strategic priorities, with Olivér Várhelyi, the EU Enlargement Commissioner, emphasizing that integration of the Western Balkans is crucial for EU security. He also expressed last year that the EU is now fully dedicated to the enlargement process and prepared to take rapid action. The critical question remains whether this renewed commitment will translate into actual progress towards enlargement or if it will remain mere rhetoric.
How to become an EU member
The mechanism of conditionality is used by the EU to guide countries through the process of becoming a member. This involves encouraging political and economic reforms in the applicant country by offering certain rewards. To begin the process, a country can submit a formal membership application to the presidency of the Council of the European Union. The Council then requests an assessment from the European Commission to determine if the country meets the so-called Copenhagen criteria, which include meeting political and economic requirements and demonstrating an ability to implement existing and future EU legislation effectively.
After the European Commission deems that the criteria are met, the next step is for the EU member states to vote unanimously in favour of opening negotiations with the applicant country. The accession negotiations are based on the chapters of the acquis, a collection of common rights and obligations that constitute the body of EU law. Each of the current 35 chapters correspond to different areas of the acquis for which the candidate countries must undertake reforms to meet the accession conditions. These reforms involve adapting their administrative and institutional infrastructures and aligning national legislation with EU legislation. Only when every chapter is closed can a date be set for the country to formally join the EU.
In this way, becoming a member of the EU is a lengthy process that can span several years. Out of the six Western Balkan nations, only Serbia and Montenegro have made some headway towards achieving this goal. Serbia was granted candidate status in 2012, but despite opening 22 out of 35 negotiation chapters, none have been successfully concluded yet. The pace of the negotiations with Serbia is also largely determined by its willingness to normalise relations with Kosovo. Montenegro, on the other hand, has progressed further, having achieved candidate status for membership in 2010 with all chapters open and three successfully concluded. The other four countries are considerably further behind, with the process having stagnated for many years. Currently, North Macedonia and Albania are being evaluated for chapter negotiations, whereas Bosnia has yet to begin the screening process. Kosovo is the least likely to achieve EU membership any time soon, as it has only been granted a symbolic potential candidate status, signifying that it does not currently meet the requirements for candidacy but that EU countries will not formally obstruct its candidacy if it satisfies the criteria in the future.
Renewed appetite for enlargement
Before discussing the role of the war in Ukraine in the EU’s renewed interest in enlargement, it is appropriate to give credit to some individuals and groups who have advocated for a stronger commitment to the enlargement process for years. The former Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, for instance, launched the Berlin Process as early as 2014, which aimed to foster cooperation between the EU and the Western Balkans. Moreover, leaders from Slovenia and Croatia have consistently emphasised the need for enlargement in the Brdo-Brijuni Process. And lastly, civil society organisations in the Western Balkans have dedicated years of effort towards promoting the integration of the region into the EU.
Nevertheless, the changing political circumstances seem also to have resulted in the realisation, mostly at the EU’s highest level, to step the process up a notch. Therefore, in 2022, the EU and its member states organised the Tirana Summit as a means of demonstrating their ongoing commitment to the enlargement process. Reminiscent of the gathering in Greece in 2003, state leaders came together once more, but for the first time in a Western Balkan country which, according to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, was specifically chosen to symbolise the EU’s strong partnership and unity with the region.
The driving force behind the current push for EU enlargement towards the Balkans seems to be the region’s geopolitical importance and potential as a stable and like-minded partner within the EU, rather than being susceptible to foreign influence and instability outside of it. The shared declaration issued after the summit highlights the need for a strategic partnership between the EU and Western Balkan countries, particularly in light of Russian aggression towards Ukraine. The declaration emphasises the importance of defending EU values and expanding its influence in the region. It also welcomes the commitment of Western Balkan partners to uphold European values and principles under international law.
Actions speak louder than words
The EU member states have also taken concrete steps to accelerate the enlargement process. For instance, in December 2022, all member states voted unanimously to grant candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina. If it were not for the war in Ukraine, it is very unlikely that the Netherlands would have voted “yes”. Prior to the vote, the Dutch government acknowledged that Bosnia and Herzegovina had not fulfilled the necessary prerequisites to be eligible for candidate status. Nonetheless, it accepted the European Commission’s advice to grant candidate status in recognition of the geopolitical urgency to bring these countries into the European family, particularly in light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. For similar reasons, in the same year, Bulgaria lifted its veto to start accession talks with North Macedonia. The European Commission had previously advised starting these negotiations, but the Bulgarian government had blocked them until 2022 because of a bilateral issue concerning the perceived lack of inclusion of Bulgarians in the North Macedonian constitution.
That being said, it is not likely that we will see a significant breakthrough in the negotiations for any of these countries in the next few years. While Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia may have made some steps, the path to membership will most likely take years. There is no guarantee that countries like the Netherlands and Bulgaria will set aside their own demands in favour of geopolitical considerations every step of the way. Bulgaria has already indicated its intention to create new obstacles in the enlargement process if North Macedonia does not meet future demands on the matter of the legal rights of the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia. Even Montenegro, which has no bilateral disputes standing in its way and which has been furthest in the accession negotiations, is again standing still in the process because of a political crisis which makes reforms challenging.
From events like the recent Tirana Summit, we should not expect much in this regard. Mr Bechev explains that during the summit, the focus was mostly on announcing projects promoting further integration of the region, such as infrastructure and green energy projects. While these are beneficial for the local economies, they do not necessarily help to move the countries ahead in the accession process. To summarise, although the Ukraine war has created a renewed, geopolitical motivation for EU enlargement, there are currently no indications that the EU will deviate significantly from the official accession process. The journey towards membership will ultimately depend on the negotiations with potential candidate countries and how these negotiations progress.
There might be no breakthrough in sight, but this does not mean there cannot be one. The pace of negotiations regarding EU membership depends on two factors. The first is whether solutions can be reached regarding the unresolved bilateral disputes involving Bulgaria and North Macedonia, as well as Serbia and Kosovo. The second is whether the EU will want to make an effort to investigate why the conditionality strategy is failing to produce results and to modify its approach to one that is. One thing that Mr Bechev suggests would be immensely beneficial for showing the Western Balkan leadership and populations that reforms can be rewarding, is if at least one of six states gets accepted to the EU in this decade. This might be the solution the EU and the region need to speed up the progress in the Western Balkans.