international analysis and commentary

Don’t forget the Balkans


Consolidating the European Union is a geostrategic imperative. If the Union hopes to live on and to play an important role in world affairs, it must show it is able to accept new members and enlarge its own base. As membership for the Balkan states continues to stall, the war in Ukraine has drastically changed the scenario. The candidacy of Ukraine and Moldova forces the Union to move on its enlargement to the east. Success in this endeavor would show Russia and China that the EU remains a relevant force, and that democratic processes work, after all.

A 1891 map of the Balkans


Russia, a nuclear power, invaded Ukraine, a sovereign European country, on February 24, 2022. This epoch-breaking event left Europe and the world dramatically changed. In that regard, it is similar to the turning point marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

All actors on the world stage were forced to react to this mostly unexpected turn of events. Who would go to war at the beginning of the twenty-first century in a Europe that had found some kind of stability through “les doux effets du commerce”, to quote Montesquieu? Vladimir Putin would. Already, in his Munich Security Conference speech in February 2007, the Russian president had let it be known that he saw the world in a totally different way than the West.


TO ENLARGE OR NOT TO ENLARGE. The European Community of 12 member states had responded, in 1989, with understanding and determination to the call for a “return to Europe” by the countries that had been behind the Iron Curtain and under the yoke of the Soviet Union since 1945. These countries desired to take the place that had been denied them by the Cold War divisions. It was a geopolitical moment.

The European Community became a Union then in 1991; it took in ten new member states in 2004 and two more in 2007. Then Croatia joined in 2013 and the United Kingdom voted to leave in 2016, again an unexpected development for a member state.

Twenty years ago, in 2003, the Thessaloniki Summit of the European Union, under the Greek presidency, widely embraced the Western Balkan countries and opened a path towards EU membership. Romano Prodi, then president of the EU Commission, famously said that the Western Balkans “will join, without ifs, ands, or buts,” provided they fulfill the required criteria for membership.

The six Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia) today have all together an estimated 16 million inhabitants. The demographic decline in the past decade has been dramatic due to emigration, an aging population and declining birth rates. If Ukraine today has an estimated population of 31 million, the Western Balkan six are half of that.


Read also: How the EU can survive the next enlargement


The region functions as a system of communicating vessels. Dynamics in one country reflect positively or negatively on the others. They are each unique, of course, but given the size of the region, it has been imperative – since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s – that regional cooperation, good neighborly relations and stability be a priority if there is to be any lasting peace.

Nevertheless, the accession process after Croatia’s entry has moved by fits and starts, all too slowly. The countries have not credibly moved forward on necessary democratic and rule of law reforms.

Until the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU enlargement policy had been “dormant”. Some have gone so far as to say that it had been in a “comatose” state. To simplify: the countries pretended to reform, while the EU pretended to work on their accession. This is somewhat overstated given that there was some feeble movement. Angela Merkel at one point admitted that these countries were advancing at “a snail’s pace”.

North Macedonia became a candidate in 2005, Montenegro in 2010, Serbia in 2012, Albania in 2014. None has adequately fulfilled the criteria related to democracy, the rule of law and the fight against corruption. In fact, an EU Commission report from February 2018 clearly outlines all the shortcomings of the countries’ efforts in the accession process. The report reiterated: “The EU enlargement policy is an investment in peace, security, prosperity and therefore the stability in Europe.” And yet it has hardly progressed since then.

These countries are now joined in a historic turn by Ukraine and Moldova, who became candidates in June 2022. Bosnia and Herzegovina also got candidate status in December 2022. Kosovo is the only country without candidate status in the Western Balkans.


AN OBSTACLE COURSE. The burden of the necessary fulfillment of EU accession criteria lies principally with the candidate countries, but the EU has a key role in supporting their path forward. Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the EU understood that something had to be changed in the accession procedure. It became clear that Russia and China were using the flaws and slow movement of accession to enter the field and disrupt the process, spoiling things and demonstrating the weakness of the Union’s soft power. Russia, in particular, has regularly attempted to hinder the EU accession process by various means.

After years of outspoken skepticism, France has now become a key proponent of enlargement. In October 2019, however, France had blocked the path forward for North Macedonia and Albania after North Macedonia had accomplished the historic feat of signing the Prespa agreement with Greece. Greece had been blocking North Macedonia for 27 years. The two prime ministers Zoran Zaev of then Macedonia and Alexs Tsipras of Greece found the courage of true statesmanship, and overcame their differences. This was an extraordinary moment – a true European moment – and then France stopped North Macedonia’s advancement, mainly for domestic political reasons.

The significance of this moment cannot be overstated: there was a true momentum in the region; there was a sense that the region was moving again, overcoming differences and looking to the future. As the Western Balkan countries are communicating vessels, the pressure was then on for Serbia and Kosovo to overcome their differences. This blockage destroyed the positive momentum.

While never acknowledging it, France became aware of what it had done. Indeed, it initiated a process of reform of the enlargement mechanics, which the candidate countries accepted. But that was not enough to reverse the negative consequences of the blockage: Bulgaria, after previously being fully supportive of North Macedonia’s accession, turned on its neighbor and began working to block its accession on grounds that had nothing to do with the EU. All this, among other things, led to the sentiment that the EU was stalling and that certain of its member states did not want to engage in the process of enlargement at all.

Russia’s invasion changed all that. The menace of an aggressive, imperially minded Russia jolted the EU into action. Enlargement is now center stage. If the Union is to remain relevant in world affairs it needs to boldly confront the need to expand while rethinking its internal workings, structures, rules and procedures so as to prepare to take in new countries. In fact, in January 2023, France and Germany – through their respective Europe ministers Laurence Boone and Anna Luhrmann – initiated a working group to help the EU institutions and policies prepare modalities for the next round of enlargement. At the launch of this initiative the French EU minister Boone said: “Enlargement was no longer in question, just the way to implement that process.” Apparently, the consensus now is that it should be done quickly.

There is a great need to rebuild trust in the process, which has eroded. Candidates need to feel truly wanted by the EU; they cannot just be forced to listen to the repeated important rhetoric of a full commitment of the EU to enlargement. They also need a clear understanding of the next steps.

Various proposals have been put forward: staged accession, phasing in, joining the single market – all necessary stages before full membership. This would mean that countries join elements of the EU step by step while not having full membership rights such as full voting or veto rights until they fulfil the key requisite criteria of functioning democratic institutions, separation of powers, the rule of law and robust tackling of corruption.


THE CASE OF SERBIA. Serbia, the biggest country in the small Western Balkan region, is of relevance given that size matters. It is historically in a key position and its relations with its neighbors are crucial to stability and peace in the region. Along with its other obligations under the rules of accession, Serbia will not be able to accede to full membership until it normalizes relations with Kosovo.

The Brussels agreement between Belgrade and Pristina of April 2013 was a key milestone on the path to that normalization, but ten years later stability and total normalization have not been established. On 27 February and March 18, 2023 the Ohrid agreement, and an implementation plan based on a European Union (in fact a Franco-German) proposal was verbally accepted by Serbia and Kosovo, but then there was a serious escalation at the end of May between KFOR troops and Serbs in the North of Kosovo so things have stalled.


Read also: Why Serbia matters


A de-escalation procedure has been put forward by the EU chief negotiator Miroslav Lajcak and his US counterpart Gabriel Escobar. Basically, new elections for mayors of the four northern municipalities (with a majority Serb population) need to be conducted. Elections in April 2023 saw a roughly 3% turnout, and Albanian mayors were elected in 99% Serbian majority towns. The Serb population in the north (estimated officially at about 50,000, but probably at around 30,000) feels insecure given that all Serbian politicians, administrators and police officers (around 600 of them) pulled out in December at the instigation of the Belgrade leadership.

This was followed by another much more serious incident on 24 September. A Serbian paramilitary group of around 30 heavily armed men attacked in Northern Kosovo the Kosovo police. One Kosovo policeman was killed and three Serbian paramilitaries. The leader of the group Milan Radoicic under US sanctions admitted his culpability and is being requested for extradication by Kosovo authorities. Ensuing intense diplomatic activities have led to EU and US mediators putting pressure on both sides to fulfil the Ohrid Agreement: Serbia to de facto recognize Kosovo and Kosovo to institutionalize an Association of Serbia Municipalities.

Since 2012, Serbia has been under the rule of the Serbian Progressive Party, led by today’s President Alexander Vucic. Over this past decade, the country has fallen on the various scales (Freedom House et al) measuring state of democracy, rule of law, media freedoms, judicial independence. It is classified as a hybrid democracy with competitive elections that are free but not fair given the dominance of national frequency tv stations under the control of the government. In general, there has been an authoritarian populist drift.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Serbia did not introduce sanctions. It is the only European country that has not done so and thus does not align with EU foreign and security policy. Yet Serbia has voted in the UN General Assembly and in various other institutions, condemning the Russian invasion. It fully supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine. Also, Serbian ammunitions and small weapons are reaching Ukraine, as well as various forms of humanitarian aid, aid to Ukrainian critical infrastructure, and medical support.

Serbia is engaged in an attempt to “balance” its international relations. This is perfectly understandable, especially given it is a small country. Nominally, Serbia is on a clear path to EU accession, but it seems to want to replicate the position of Yugoslavia in totally different historical circumstances – that is, it seems to want to straddle the fence, to remain “in between”. Serbia has allowed for the presence of a Russian RT portal and of Sputnik radio, and several domestic media outlets voice Russian views. To the astonishment of many, the former Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin, since December 2022 head of the secret services (and under US sanctions since July 2023), signed an agreement with the head of the Russian National Security Council Nikolai Patrushev in Moscow in December 2021 to combat “colored revolutions”. Furthermore, before taking over the secret services, Vulin regularly spoke of “a Serbian World”, uniting all Serbs. Under pressure from the EU and US Vulin resigned from his position on 3 November 2023.

There are various speculations as to why Serbia is the only country that has not introduced sanctions against Russia, while countries such as Victor Orban’s Hungary or Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey have done so, while nevertheless also maintaining relations with Moscow. In the EU, Serbia has lost credibility because of this. Furthermore, its failure to engage in democratic reforms, to create an independent judiciary and to re-establish checks and balances and more media freedom have turned various member states sour on the idea of letting it into the club. Yet Serbia continues to maintain close relations with the EU and fully depends on the Union for its economic well-being. Crucial foreign direct investments from Europe are Serbia’s lifeline – not Russia or China.

Roughly 65-70% of Serbia’s trade is with the EU, and job creation in the country is in large part thanks to the EU. German companies, for example, employ about 100,000 workers in Serbia. Russia and China come nowhere near to what the EU provides for the Serbian energy and infrastructure sector or in terms of direct financial support in the form of grants. In the military sector, Serbia is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace, has an Individual Partnership Action Plan and engages in ten times more activities with NATO than with any other partner, including Russia.

Since their arrival in power eleven years ago, the current Serbian president (Aleksandar Vučic) and his government have vouched that they would devote themselves to normalizing relations with Kosovo and to working on finding missing persons from the conflicts of the 1990s. The fact that Kosovo has not filled its obligation from the 2013 Brussels agreement of creating an Association of Serbian Municipalities, while Serbia (under that same agreement) accepted that its police and judicial institutions be put under the jurisdiction of the Republic of Kosovo, has seriously hindered the process of normalization. So much so that Kosovo, under the leadership of Albin Kurti, has come under EU sanctions. The two sides should find it in themselves to recognize that their fates are inextricably bound together: neither one can move toward EU accession without full normalization of relations.


POLITICAL AND SOCIAL DIVISIONS. Although there is a plethora of relations among the countries of the Western Balkans, in some instances they remain strained. Relations get mired down in unresolved bilateral issues. A number of organizations are working on creating a Common Regional Market – notably the Regional Cooperation Council (successor to the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe) – which represents an important step toward creating the conditions for these countries to access the four freedoms (free movement of goods; free movement of capital; freedom to establish and provide services; free movement of people) and the EU single market. The Berlin Process initiated by Angela Merkel in 2014 was supposed to accelerate all these processes. It has had its ups and downs over the years, but was reignited in 2022 by Chancellor Scholz, so may work yet.

Much like other countries of the region, Serbia is a highly westernized society, inheriting from their Yugoslav past. Yugoslavia was not part of the Soviet sphere of influence; it led an independent foreign policy and was closely linked to the West. Indeed, Yugoslavia’s relations with the European Community began in 1978. Given the realities of the world and the Russian invasion, Serbia is harming itself in not fully espousing a “full speed ahead to Europe” policy and in not voicing a more realistic view of the aggressive nature of the Russian regime and its war on Ukraine.

This detrimental “balancing” is creating confusion, leading to public opinion polls that show a majority having a positive view of Russia and Putin. Such support is superficial, because were one to ask the next ten questions – about where they would most like to live and places they would like to visit, about where they would like to send their children to university, about their cultural leanings, about their tastes in music, film, and books – they are all pro-Western.

The Serbian leadership maintains a rhetoric of blaming the EU of constant pressure to resolve the Kosovo question, pressure to introduce sanctions on Russia, and so on; this creates the sentiment that the EU does not really want the Serbs. Because of the lengthiness of the EU accession process, fatigue and disenchantment have led to levels of public support below the 50% mark. Vučic hails the EU when it gives grants and funds, but he rarely talks of the fundamental values upon which the EU is predicated: robust democracy, strong independent institutions, the rule of law with an independent judiciary.

Were there a referendum on EU accession next week, a convincing majority would vote for it: the citizens of Serbia know that in the EU there is more certainty, opportunity and prosperity. Were the country to be left out, it would be surrounded completely by member states and yet not be a part of the EU. Crossing by car from Serbia to Hungary or to Croatia on a holiday weekend easily means waiting 4 or 5 hours in the car at the border. Also, there is no one in the Western Balkans who does not have a relative or friend working in Germany, France, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands or Sweden. In fact, many citizens of the region are voting with their feet and joining the EU individually – crossing the border to live and work there. They are fed up with the endless process of accession; perhaps they even doubt it will ever actually happen. Remittances from Serbian citizens abroad amounted to 5 billion dollars in 2022: more than foreign direct investments. Vienna is probably the second biggest city “Serbian” city, after Belgrade.


MAKE IT HAPPEN. The countries of the Western Balkans missed the train of EU enlargement in the 2000s due to the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. They have paid the price for this. The European Union, on the other hand, did not see the urgency in helping these countries accede. After the democratic change in Serbia in 2000, the member states became rather complacent. The argument was: the Western Balkans are not at war anymore; they will not fight again since the states and societies are exhausted, so let them work slowly on their reforms. Regretfully, both the candidate countries and the EU are suffering from the consequences of these policies.


Read also: The EU accession prospect for Western Balkans countries: dream or reality?


As war broke out on the European continent – something that only a few predicted – the situation was dramatically altered. Radical change was needed for the EU to become a geopolitical and geostrategic actor in a world one in which the US and China broadly dominate – and such radical change has arrived in the worst possible form. With its declining population, if the EU is to survive and have an influential role in the world it must demonstrate on its own soil the capacity to integrate neighboring countries. The cost of non-enlargement could be very high; it would leave open a space in its inner courtyard and on its eastern flank. Russia and China will be ready to take advantage. If the Western Balkans, Ukraine and Moldova are not let in, instability will be rife in the EU. Accelerating the accession process, on the other hand, will create stability.

Ukraine’s EU candidacy is, of course, unique. First of all, as mentioned, it is double the size of the six Western Balkan countries put together. Its potential membership will require important changes in many spheres of the EU, such as the Common Agricultural Policy, or the cohesion funds. Ukraine’s full membership, barring surprises, is not in the immediate future. Indeed, that is why intermediate steps, variations of staged accession are fundamental.

But given the urgency of the ongoing geopolitical challenges, it would be good to have some rapid successes, to prove that the endeavor of enlargement is in earnest. One way to do this, and to gain some forward momentum, would be for the EU to push forward two small countries: Montenegro and Moldova. Montenegro has a population of just 600,000 and it has a new generation of politicians, after 33 years of one-party rule led by Milo Djukanovic. Moldova, a country of 2.5 million, is by all counts speeding ahead to meet the requirements for accession talks. Why not help these “two Ms” in their reform processes and bring them into the EU over the next five years? This would send a powerful message to other candidates that the EU enlargement process is alive and well. It would also send a strong message to Russia about the strength of democratic processes in the Union.

The fundamental, intense process of remodeling the EU accession process is underway. European leaders have underscored the importance of concrete support for enlargement: see the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s speech at the GLOBSEC conference in Bratislava in June 2023, or EU Council President Charles Michel’s speech at the Bled Security Forum in Slovenia in August. The latter, in fact, gave 2030 as the year in which the EU needed to be fully prepared to receive new candidates.

Consolidating Europe is a key geostrategic goal, one that requires a concerted and unified approach and effort. The commitment and determination are there. Now the concrete steps need to be put in place, quickly.



*This article has been published on Aspenia 2-2023