EU’s enlargement in the Western Balkans: among hopes and delays, a long path

edited by CeSPI

In the wake of the Dayton Peace Agreement (1995), European integration was indicated as the path leading to the region’s stability and security, after five years of dramatic conflicts. That perspective was formally adopted by the European Council in Thessaloniki (2003). Twenty-four years separate us from Dayton, and seventeen from Thessaloniki: a long period in which the integration process has proceeded too slowly. After the 2004 accession of Slovenia – which moreover refuses to consider itself part of the Balkans – the EU opened its doors to two countries of the Western Balkans, Bulgaria and Romania, and to Croatia in 2013. The other countries of the region were offered a perspective which has yet to be attained: negotiations have been opened with Serbia and Montenegro and are presumed to end in 2025; negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia will commence by the end of the year following a decision, moreover, troubled by France and the Netherlands’ diffidence; as for Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the situation appears to be less advanced, not allowing, at the moment, to anticipate when and how those nations might be integrated in the European family. The economic crisis endured by Europe and the many tumultuous events the EU has experienced in these years – from Brexit to the centrifugal pressures of the Visegrad countries, from the Ukrainian crisis to the immigration emergency – have gradually deferred the Balkan nations’ accession, with negative consequences that are easily discernible. Disappointment has grown both in governments and in public opinions, facilitating the re-emergence of nationalist nostalgia. Moreover, the uncertain timespan concerning integration does not encourage the candidate countries to pursue policies aimed at convergence with European standards, especially with regard to crucial areas such as the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, freedom of information, civil liberties. Quite a few signs of regression have already appeared.

And yet European integration is the key to the region’s stability, as of each of its nations. Serbia’s full membership of the European Union will avoid the risk of Belgrade being pulled into other orbits. It is the European perspective which led to Skopje's agreement with Athens on the denomination of North Macedonia. The European anchorage is critical for facilitating internal stability in Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, countries which have been marked, over the past years, by harsh contrasts between governing parties and oppositions. Likewise, a firm anchorage in Europe is key to the safeguard of Bosnia-Herzegovina's identity and unity. Moreover, the Balkans overlook the Mediterranean as it’s traversed by instability and wars, which, to a certain degree, affect the region, where there have been several incidents of Islamic radicalism. Russia, China and Turkey’s assertive presence highlights the region’s importance in the Southern European and Mediterranean geopolitical balances, further soliciting prompt and concrete action from the EU.

From France’s “great refusal” to the enlargement reform

While 2018 was meant to represent a watershed year for enlargement perspectives, with the European Commission launching the new strategy in February and the intergovernmental Sofia summit in May, those expectations would soon be disappointed. The year 2019 became the year of the “great refusal”, with France’s denial (together with the Netherlands and Denmark) of opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, an event which had a disastrous impact on the degree of support offered by Balkan political and civil elites towards the European integration project. 

The fact that a country was required to pay a very high price – getting as far as changing its name, in the case of North Macedonia – without obtaining what was agreed represented a further deterioration in a relationship already jeopardized by mutual disillusionment, bringing many countries, amongst which one of the most fervent enlargement sponsors such as Italy, to demand a change of pace. In fact, amid considerable defeatism, the European Council’s halt in October 2019 tied the Member States, EU institutions and the Balkan countries to the need for a frank debate on the nature of enlargement, in the attempt to release this process from the fruitless bureaucratic stagnation which had encumbered it for some time.

To break the deadlock, in February 2020 the European Commission – acknowledging France’s proposals – adopted a new strategy for enlargement nations aimed, first of all, at achieving a greater political control of the negotiations through a more extensive involvement of the Council (and therefore of the Member States). France has finally approved the opening of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, formalized within the European Council the 26th of March 2020. In this context, Italy’s stance was decisive, since, as other European countries, it reacted to the French proposal conditioning its own availability to discuss the proposal on the opening of negotiations and the overcoming of the deadlock. This way, North Macedonia and Albania will be joining Montenegro and Serbia, “trailblazer” countries with which negotiations have been respectively opened in 2012 and 2014, while other countries keep lagging behind, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina (which presented the application to become a candidate member on the 15th of February 2016) and Kosovo, still encumbered by the lack of full international recognition and the ongoing issue with Serbia.

While presenting the reform proposal (Communication from the commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European economic and social committee and the committee of the regions. “Enhancing the accession process - A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans”, February 5th 2020), the European commission has defined enlargement as a top priority. The proposal’s objective is to “reinvigorate the accession process” through four main innovations:

1) More credibility: on one hand Balkan countries are required to deliver more credibly on their commitment to implement fundamental reforms and to show further efforts to strengthen regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations; on the other, the EU is required to respect its commitment to a merit-based process. In the Commission’s proposal, credibility should also be reinforced through a stronger focus on the fundamental reforms concerning rule of law and the judiciary system (chapters 23 and 24 of the Acquis), with the relevant negotiations being opened first and closed last, guided by specific roadmaps and through a stronger link with the candidate countries’ economic reform programme.

2) A stronger political steer:

Countries are required to put the political nature of the process front and centre, through new opportunities for high level political and policy dialogue (regular EU-Western Balkans summits, intensified ministerial contacts, participation of the region’s countries as observers in key European Union meetings on matters of substantial importance to them); increased engagement and monitoring on behalf of the Member States; arrangement of country-specific inter-governmental conferences, in order to guarantee political dialogue based on the publication of the European Commission’s annual package of reports; stronger monitoring within the framework of the Stabilisation and Association councils.

3) A more dynamic process:

The Commission intends to organise the negotiating chapters in thematic clusters, in order to allow a stronger focus on core sectors in the political dialogue and to permit the most important and urgent reforms per sector to be identified. Negotiations on each cluster will be opened as a whole (rather than on an individual chapter basis). The Commission proceeds to propose an outline of the negotiating chapters’ clusters (it should be noted that chapter 34 – Institutions, and chapter 35 – Other issues, are not included and are expected to be addressed separately).

4)Predictability, positive and negative conditionality:

the Commission intends to ensure greater clarity on what the Union expects of enlargement countries at different stages of the process, but also on what the positive and negative consequences are of progress or lack thereof. Progress should lead to closer integration and “phasing-in” to individual EU policies, the EU market and EU programmes, as well as increased funding and investments (through a result-oriented Instrument for Pre-accession and closer cooperation with IFIs). On the other hand, in the event of stagnation in reform implementation, or even serious and prolonged backsliding, the EU could choose to suspend negotiations, to re-open previously closed chapters, to decrease the scope and intensity of EU funding (with the exception of support to civil society).

The Commission expresses its unequivocal support for the European perspective for the Western Balkans, also in order to maintain EU’s credibility and influence in the region. However, it must be noted that the enlargement reform appears to alter the methodology and not the approach recommended by the Commission, if it’s true that the Balkan countries were not in fact consulted for its definition. As remarked by several observers, the proposal appears to address Member States more than the Balkan countries, with the aim of achieving the opening of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. For these reasons, it is not surprising that the proposal was met by the Balkan countries’ lukewarm reception, and that the reacquisition of the process’s credibility appears to be an objective yet to be (re)built.

The remaining question is if the decisions made in the European Council in March 2020 – the renewed strategy proposed by the Commission and the long-awaited opening of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia – will in fact inaugurate a new season in the Western Balkan enlargement process.

The Communication’s primary objective is, duly, to restore mutual credibility: credibility and trust appear to be indispensable elements for a strategy, such as the enlargement one, in which countries are required to undertake significant and taxing reforms in view of a future accession to the EU. Over the past years, key elements of this frame of reference have faded. On one hand, the region’s countries are often discouraged as regards enlargement perspectives, which have been ongoing for more than 17 years; on the other, the EU has often favoured, in practice, the area’s stability over its democratisation, sending mixed messages to the region’s governments and civil societies, thus frequently allowing the former to take advantage of the situation by moving democratisation to the background. 

In a broader perspective, the effects of the multiple crises endured by the EU over the past years must not be underestimated: from the economic crisis to the so-called immigration “crisis”, from Brexit to the recent health emergency. In this context, the Union’s appeal is jeopardised, considering, furthermore, the geopolitical shifts which brought global powers such as Russia, Turkey and China to be increasingly interested and interesting for the region’s countries. On the other hand, the EU increasingly focused on its own thorny internal issues, losing a considerable amount of its impetus for the enlargement path.

The COVID-19 pandemic: the Balkans’ “litmus test”

The EU-Western Balkans summit, which was supposed to take place in Zagreb on the 6th and 7th of May, was held by videoconference due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The summit was supposed to assert EU’s renewed commitment towards the region, especially in view of it being organised by Croatia, as the Council’s president-in-office. Criticism over the adoption of a declaration which highlights the “European perspective for the Balkans”, failing to cite membership more resolutely, probably indicates the absence of a shared view among the Member States on the region’s future.

On one hand, the EU undeniably represented a safe harbour for the Western Balkans’ fragile economies and societies, swept by the Coronavirus storm. The Union, following an initial stage of indecision and hesitation – which mirrored the wavering still existing inside it – mobilised approximately 3,3 billion euros with regard to emergency and macroeconomic relief for the most affected sectors in Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia, introducing measures, such as the exemption for the region from the authorisation Member States were required to export protective equipment to third countries, narrowing the boundaries between candidates and members of the Community.

However, the pandemic has also shown that the Western Balkans are easy prey to external actors’ communication strategies, who exploit those countries’ perceived disenchantment with the European project to carve out growing areas of influence for themselves by exerting an increasingly cheaper soft power. Such is especially the case of China, whose aid towards some of the area’s countries, particularly Serbia, was picked up and amplified by pro-government media as a tangible sign of the Sino-Serbian friendship juxtaposed to Europe’s detachment. On the other hand, the pandemic has revealed how the Union’s actions in the Balkans keep suffering from a communication deficit, relative to difficulties in harmonising Member States’ different interests and views. The acknowledgment – contained in the Commission’s new enlargement proposal – of strategic communication’s essential role in making the accession process more efficient appears to be decidedly opportune. 

Moreover, the pandemic brought several anti-democratic tendencies existing in part of the region’s countries to the forefront. The focus on democracy and the rule of law proposed by the Commission must not remain a dead letter, but vigorously steer EU’s actions in the region.

The Balkan paradox

Even while facing challenges and tendencies held in common to some extent, the situation of the region’s countries is in fact rather diversified: not only are the countries at different stages of the accession path, but their economic and political situations are also different. Naturally, the scope of political immobilism and the reformative action’s difficulty, afflicting many of the region’s countries, cannot be solely attributed to the extent of the effectiveness of European conditionality, the (supposed) driving force of the enlargement process. Increasingly, the Balkan region has been experiencing the rise of political actors, who use a mixture of extreme leaderism, populism and false dialectic to conceal what is by now a widespread level of state capture, both in terms of resources and of spaces for democratic expression, to the detriment of often drained oppositions and civil societies, incapable of transforming their protests into political options.

The paradox is that, in some cases, these actors are EU’s sole interlocutors, thus the Union finds itself reinforcing actors with no real interest in implementing reforms, which, if enforced, would, in certain cases, lead to their political downfall. All this while more and more Balkan citizens “enter” the Union before their countries do, through working visas issued by several Member States’ embassies, weary of the rule of law’s chronic shortcomings and of economic stagnation.

Intergovernmental relations and the role of Italy

In this context, intergovernmental relations, in the past years, have carried out a significant role, by allowing to shorten distances between Brussels and the Balkan countries even in stages when the enlargement process was slowing down. An important role was also carried out by institutions of regional cooperation which aim at the twofold objective of promoting cooperation and integration on a regional scale, and accompanying the process of European integration. Example of these are two institutions promoted and supported by Italy: the Central European Initiative (CEI) and the Adriatic-Ionian Initiative (AII). This is also exemplified by the Berlin process, an intergovernmental initiative launched by the German government in 2014 with the purpose of keeping the dialogue and attention alive with the countries of the Balkan region still outside of the European Union. 

The intergovernmental character of the Berlin Process, which Italy actively contributes to, has additionally represented a catalyst force for non-institutional actors: besides annual summits (hosted by Italy in 2017, in Trieste) meetings with the civil society, with researchers, with young people and businesses were organised, to support a process of regional cooperation and gradual integration with the European Union on different levels.

Besides the action of multilateral institutions, intergovernmental and bilateral relations remain vital, especially as regards those countries that have privileged relations with the region’s countries, which can carry out a key role in accompanying the accession path.  

This is undoubtedly the case of Italy, which can aspire playing a leading role, given its historical social, cultural and economic relations – in virtue of which Italy is the second commercial partner of all the countries in the region and among the main ones as to direct investments – but also given the fact that every Italian government, regardless of political orientation, has expressed support of the Western Balkans’ integration with the Union.

Were bilateralism to intensify, it could offer Italy the opportunity of relaunching relations with a region that is strategic from all points of view – political, securitarian, economic, cultural – regaining a traditional area of foreign politics in which Italy particularly distinguished itself in the 1990s, up to the early 2000s. Initiatives of the Italian government might prove to be valuable for supporting democratisation and stabilisation processes within the region’s countries, offering a framework to the various networks which bind territorial actors (NGOs, cultural institutions, universities, SMEs) between Italy and the Balkans; thus making the commitment to support the process of the Western Balkans’ accession to the EU even more decisive.  

The Forum’s Objectives

The Forum launched by CeSPI today intends to ask experts, diplomats, politicians, economic, social and cultural operators, how the European Union could overcome the contradictions that up to now have caused the slowdown (and, in some cases, the hibernation) of the European perspective for the Western Balkans. We will, in particular, ask the Forum’s guests to reflect on the following queries and their potential answers, both realistic and “out of the box”:  

  • In this context, can the European Union still offer an added value to the region’s countries? In what way and at what conditions?
  • Is a positive politicisation of the process possible, together with its disengagement from merely bureaucratic lines of reasoning?
  • Which of the Balkan countries’ internal forces should the European Union rely on to successfully trigger reform processes, indispensable for accession? 
  • Which actors, within the Union and the single Member States, could be mobilised to better accompany the transition of the Balkans’ aspiring candidates? 
  • In what concrete way could Italy, a traditionally privileged partner of the region’s countries, promote further movement of the Balkan countries towards the European Union?
  • In what way could multilateral regional institutions and intergovernmental initiatives – CEI, AII, Berlin Process – support regional integration and the Balkans’ accession process?