EU Enlargement Policy – Western Balkans, the ‘squirrel in a cage’

Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team 

In 2003 at the summit in Thessaloniki, the European Council declared that “the future of the Balkans is within the European Union”. This political commitment was a clear promise taken by the European Union and Western Balkans’ heads of state and governments that European Enlargement would include the former Yugoslavian block. 

Seventeen years after the European Union committed itself to an enlarged future which encompassed the Western Balkans, only one country – Croatia, has succeeded in joining the Union. Today, the accession process remains slow and glacial, with the stretched conditionality, new methodology, and the ghosts of history which bring complexity to Balkan’s politics, providing only excuses for Brussels to further delay their promises. In reality, there is little expectation that the Western Balkans will join the EU in the next decades, if at all. 

This brings huge disappointment to countries such as Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania, who have all managed to carry out difficult reforms before gaining candidate status or starting the accession negotiations. 

Pro-European critics blame the EU for continuing to play a strategic game of conditionality stretching. This suggestion, of course, plays into the hands of domestic “gatekeeper elites” who are not interested in quick EU membership. Such politicians and economic actors are content with optimising profits before any EU rules enforcing more competition, or transparent democratic procedures come into force which could limit their future operations. 

Over 25% of the citizens of the Western Balkan countries believe that their countries will never join the European Union. The overall support for accession is low, with citizens accepting that as each year passes their chances diminish. European Union member states independently put forward their opposition and there is no collective voice to argue otherwise. In the latest move,   in December, having changed its name to appease the Greeks in 2019, the Republic of North Macedonia faced challenges from Bulgaria in a display of hypocrisy inherent in the EU’s overall approach to the Western Balkans.

Over 30% of the citizens in Serbia are convinced that their country will never join the European Union whether for the stagnation of the accession negotiations or the difficult and unsolved relations with Kosovo. The delay with North Macedonia is equally frustrating, and has increased the Eurosceptic position between its citizens. Now, with the latest Bulgarian veto, the Western Balkans, which is expected to accede to the European Union as a block of six countries, sees itself as a “squirrel caught in a cage”, to coin a local expression. 

However, the citizens of Montenegro remain optimistic, particularly after the recent change of the government. More than 50% of Montenegrins believe that accession will happen in the next five years. Albanian are also big supporters of the integration process, even though the EU has disappointed them many times. A similar high level of positivity is shared in Kosovo where the majority of citizens think that the country will become a member of the EU in the next five to ten years, despite all the hurdles they still have to overcome.

The European Union has not kept its promise, failing to effectively support the accession countries. The commitment to this perspective, although frequently repeated in official EU documents, remains lukewarm at best, with most member states reluctant to get engaged, reflecting the mood of public opinion in some of those countries over any future enlargement of the EU. Furthermore, the European Union institutions have allowed some of the member states to use their membership to impose a nationalist agenda, often against their non-EU neighbours. This was previously experienced in the EU accession process of Slovenia and Croatia, and Europe is allowing it to happen again.

Without doubt, and as per the views of citizens in the Western Balkans and EU, the severe internal problems being faced by the European Union, even before the pandemic crisis, may mean that time runs out not only for any accession countries but for the European Union itself, with many predicting its imminent break up. 

The EU therefore has a significant challenge and must help to resolve bilateral disputes across the region especially where its neighbourhood policies are weak. Europe must now demonstrate that its enlargement policy is robust and credible, and most of all it must convince the citizens engaged in accession countries that their dreams and hopes of joining a strong and stable Union will be realised.

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