With the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, it appears that in the near future, leaders of the Western Balkan countries that are not yet part of the European Union will be faced with a crucial decision: whether to align themselves more closely with Brussels, or with Moscow. Just a few days after the war began, Ukraine applied for European Union membership. At that moment, European diplomats had no intention of expediting that process, particularly given the long waiting list of Balkan countries still aspiring to join the EU, along with other Eastern European nations.
While Western Balkan countries are oriented towards EU membership, this process has been significantly neglected. Two years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron presented a thesis, which he reiterated recently, stating that EU enlargement will not occur without internal reforms within the Union itself. Citizens of EU countries, primarily those in France, Italy and Spain, largely hold a negative view of further expansion, primarily due to significant concerns related to migration and EU funding. President Macron also said that he will present new proposals from Paris regarding enlargement in the coming months.
Nevertheless, as war shattered a period of (at least relative) peace in Europe, it has become evident that the Ukrainian conflict is now a broader concern for the Balkans as a whole, highlighting the urgent necessity for Western Balkan countries to join the European Union, making their inclusion more imperative than ever.
“Europe must keep its promises”
The Bled Strategic Forum is an annual international conference that gathers leaders from Central and Southeastern Europe in Slovenia, held this year on August 28th and 29th. At the Forum, the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, introduced a significant proposal that, until just two years ago, could not have been even mentioned. It involves setting a deadline for all necessary steps to be taken for EU enlargement to the Western Balkans. While this deadline has now been set (in 2030), the real challenge lies in convincing all 27 EU member countries to align in the same direction.
During the EU-Western Balkans Summit in 2021, which also took place in Slovenia, Ljubljana’s request to indicate 2030 as the “final date to base the negotiation calendar on” was not included in the declaration text. However, at the Bled Strategic Forum, President Michel provided a precise timeline aligning with the end of this decade.
“Europe must honor its commitments, which were officially set forth during the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003,” Michel emphasized. He also stressed that the present moment calls for dispelling ambiguities and directly confronting challenges with transparency and candor. The Western Balkans, situated at the heart of Europe, demands nothing less, and it signals that the 27 must now embark on a paradigm shift.
The President of the European Council highlighted the significance of incorporating shared objectives into the upcoming EU multiannual budget, with the aim of propelling reforms and sparking interest in investments. This critical issue will be a focal point of discussion among member countries during the forthcoming Council meetings scheduled for October and December. Furthermore, it will feature prominently on the agenda of the new EU-Western Balkans Summit, slated for December in Brussels, as a complementary initiative to the efforts of the European Council.
To achieve the 2030 goal of EU enlargement, both the Western Balkan countries and the European Union will need to complete their homework. As long as the region is not fully integrated into the EU, and NATO membership does not extend to the likes of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, the Balkans will be a contested region that can be exploited by the West’s opponents.
The new Western Balkan support plan
During her address at the GLOBSEC Bratislava Forum held last May, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, unveiled a new initiative aimed at strengthening ties between the European Union and the Western Balkans. She emphasized the need for the EU to enhance its engagement with aspiring member states in the region and introduced a comprehensive four-point strategy to stimulate local economic growth. The plan encompasses measures to further align Western Balkan countries with the EU’s single market, deepen regional economic integration, expedite judicial and anti-corruption reforms, and increase pre-accession funding.
“I aspire for our single market to be a catalyst for transformation, benefiting not only the nations that have already become part of our community but also those that are still on their journey,” von der Leyen stated on that occasion.
Speaking immediately after her, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, whose country officially commenced accession talks with the EU in July, 13 years after initially applying for EU membership, welcomed the new commitments of support. He affirmed that Albania not only fully agrees with what the EU president stated, but also believes that this issue is a matter of life or death for all Western Balkans countries. However, during the Bled Strategic Forum, the Albanian Prime Minister expressed doubts about Albania achieving EU membership by 2030, stating that any progress would be greatly appreciated. Other leaders from the region have also voiced skepticism, with some, such as Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti, engaged in disputes with each other.
Furthermore, the Serbian Prime Minister Brnabić accused the EU of shifting the goalposts and dragging its feet on enlargement.
“The first reason is that the process takes so long, and there is no end in sight. The second is that the criteria or what you need to do to progress are constantly changing,” she said. The Montenegrin Prime Minister, Dritan Abazović, also criticized the EU for not keeping its promises in the Balkans.
Which is closer: Brussels or Moscow?
“EU accession mechanisms mean that all of the Western Balkans are far closer to Brussels than they are to Moscow; in terms of trade, investment, political alignment, societal aspirations and, of course, geography given the region is fully surrounded by EU and NATO member states,” said Philip Merell, the Regional Director of Artera Public Affairs for Western Balkans and Serbia.
Serbs, however, who aside from inhabiting Serbia proper, represent sizeable minorities in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to a lesser extent in Kosovo, maintain strong historical, cultural, and religious ties with Russia. These ties form the core of right-leaning sentiments, and therefore, represent pressures that political elites must contend with.
Read also: Why Serbia matters
“As an example, in the days following Russia’s invasion last year, a public opinion poll in Serbia suggested that 84% of the population was against imposing sanctions on Russia. Just a month later, the only presidential candidate in the general election who openly supported sanctioning Russia received only 3.2% of the vote,” Merell pointed out. He added that as the war has progressed, this affiliation has weakened but, nevertheless, it remains deep-seated, based on historical realities, and is a career-defining issue for Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić.
As such, the Serbian government, as well as pro-Serb parties in Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, regularly engage in pro-Russian and anti-Western rhetoric.
“However, power in Serbia is highly centralized, and this rhetoric cannot compare with tangible investments and policy alignment with Western partners, so Serbia’s westward shift will likely accelerate in the months and years to come,” emphasized Merell.
The only exception to this rule is Milorad Dodik’s government in Republika Srpska (the Serbian component of Bosnia and Herzegovina), which has seemingly crossed the point of no return in the eyes of the West and cannot be credibly rehabilitated. Dodik will likely double down on his loyalty to Russia as the war progresses, and vice versa, Moscow will use Dodik’s allegiance and separatist aspirations to fuel divisions in Bosnia and the wider region.
The status of EU enlargement: in the middle of the ford
Six Western Balkans countries have embarked on the extensive journey of EU accession. Four of these nations, Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, have already initiated accession negotiations. Bosnia and Herzegovina has been granted the status of a candidate country, while Kosovo has formally applied and awaits a response from the European Union’s member states.
Negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia commenced in July of the previous year, ending waiting periods of eight and 17 years, respectively. Meanwhile, Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and Belgrade had been at this stage for eleven and nine years, respectively. On December 15th of the preceding year, six years after applying for EU membership, Bosnia and Herzegovina also achieved candidacy for accession.
Kosovo faces a more complex situation. Despite its formal application at the end of the previous year and its unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008, five EU member states (Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Spain and Slovakia) do not recognize it as a sovereign state. Furthermore, relations with Brussels have soured following diplomatic tensions with Serbia at the end of May, and the European Union, in June 2023, imposed sanctions on Kosovo, due to a crisis linked to the elections in the north of the country.
Nevertheless, the ongoing crisis between two countries persists, marked by a latest incident in the Northern Kosovo on September 24th. A group of armed Serb paramilitaries ambushed a police patrol near the village of Banjska, resulting in the tragic death of an Albanian police officer. The assailants subsequently fled to a monastery near the border, prompting a firefight with pursuing police forces. Three of the Serb paramilitaries lost their lives, and the remaining ones were either apprehended or managed to escape.
Following this incident, the international community urgently called for de-escalation. However, despite those appeals and pressure from the US, Belgrade once again deployed its army and heavy artillery along the border with Kosovo, only to withdraw them later. Meanwhile, the European Union has formally requested Belgrade’s cooperation in the investigation. Some EU members are advocating for measures against Serbia if its involvement in the attack is proven.
While a full-blown conflict has been averted once again, the probability of future flare-ups remains high. Regrettably, the tensions in Kosovo risk undermining the process of accession of both Kosovo and Serbia to the European Union, posing a significant obstacle to accelerated progress towards this goal.
Anyway, since future member states are in different stages, the ideal scenario would be simultaneous accession. As proposed by Charles Michel to prevent potential obstruction by early entrants, one solution could be to include the so-called trust clause in the accession treaties, ensuring that recently joined countries cannot block those joining in the future.
Regarding the other countries, negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the European Union were started in 2005, but have been frozen since 2018 due to backward steps on democracy, the rule of law, fundamental rights and the independence of the judiciary.
In the midst of the war with Russia, Ukraine applied for immediate accession to the Union. Both Georgia and Moldova decided to follow the same path just three days later, to underscore the irreversible nature of their approach to Brussels, seen as a clear response to the threat of losing their independence to Moscow. In June 2022, the European Council approved the direction set by the Commission in its recommendation: Ukraine and Moldova officially became the sixth and seventh candidates for Union membership, while Tbilisi was acknowledged as having a European perspective within the EU enlargement process.