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Western Balkan Accession into the EU: Moving Beyond Empty Words

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

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By Tobias Pardoen

Edited by Sara Campeti & Mélanie Fourtanier

In her 2023 State of the Union address, President Von der Leyen stated that "The future of the Western Balkans is in our Union" and insisted that this future is attainable. This declaration echoes a longstanding Commission objective dating back to 1999. However, this goal ignores the current reality. The European Union must go beyond rhetoric and transform its commitments into tangible actions.

©Picture-alliance/Photoshoot/Qian Yi

Unprepared Candidates

The expansion of the European Union into the Western Balkans should not be grounded in current geopolitical motivations. The EU should adopt a proactive approach, offer tangible support for reforms, and look at how it can best contribute to the region's development.

None of the current Western Balkan countries — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia — are presently equipped for European Union membership, as they do not meet the Copenhagen criteria.

These nations grapple with persistent challenges related to the rule of law, judicial independence, economic development, competitiveness, media freedom, organised crime, and corruption. Unfortunately, there are no signs of imminent reforms to address these pressing issues.

In essence, these countries can be termed stabilitocracies — nations that openly display democratic deficiencies while simultaneously professing commitment to democratic reforms, creating an illusion of stability.

Moreover, the Western Balkan states are entangled in complicated bilateral relations with their neighbouring nations, stemming from the region's historical complexities. Unresolved border conflicts continue to fragment the Western Balkans, and these conflicts are not likely to be resolved anytime soon.

The ongoing tensions between Serbia and Kosovo are a contemporary example of this. The region houses at least 24 distinct ethnicities, entangled in deep-rooted conflicts that have plagued the area for decades.

Even today, these tensions manifest themselves in the enduring denial of historical atrocities committed against one another and systemic discrimination at the state level. The situation becomes even more complex as multiple external actors compete to increase their influence in the Western Balkans.

Hastening the incorporation of this region into the European Union could result in various issues akin to the EU's persistent challenges in addressing rule of law concerns in Hungary or handling states marked by lasting ethnic tensions and violence, as seen in the case of Cyprus.

Valuable lessons from history should guide our approach. The EU should draw insights from these crucial historical lessons.

Lack of Genuine Commitment

To genuinely offer the Western Balkans a path to European Union membership and a shared future, the European Commission and the member states must transcend rhetoric and translate their commitments into concrete actions.

There is an absence of sincere dedication from Brussels. While the European Commission employs symbolic rhetoric about a European future for the Western Balkans, concrete solutions to the region's growing challenges remain elusive.

The EU's approach to enlargement emphasises that "candidate countries need to deliver on the reforms they promised, and the EU needs to deliver when they do so."

However, this approach contradicts the effort to build a united European future. If the European Commission is genuinely committed to expansion, it would actively collaborate with the candidates to ensure reform delivery rather than observing from the sidelines.

Furthermore, genuine political will within the member states is conspicuously absent. The European Union's renewed commitment to enlargement appears to stem from "the increasingly adverse international context" after years of obstructing the enlargement process.

While there is political momentum in the case of Ukraine, it does not extend to the Western Balkans. Bulgaria, Croatia, and Greece have intricate bilateral relations with the Western Balkans region.

Moreover, five European Union Member States —Cyprus, Spain, Greece, Romania, and Slovakia—do not recognise Kosovo and impede Kosovo's integration into the EU because of this.

The reluctance of these Member States to endorse the EU's expansion into the Western Balkans manifestly derives from domestic political problems or sensitive domestic issues. This fuels scepticism about whether these considerations will fade in the face of the current geopolitical situation.

Balancing Realism with Vision

The European Union’s new approach has to emphasise active support for reforms over passive observation and welcome the Western Balkans as a part of Europe rather than treating them as outsiders.

This change entails surpassing domestic politics and fostering collaborative efforts to build a united and inclusive European future.

Persisting on the present course will only intensify the existing frustration within these nations. The EU should align its declarations with concrete actions, displaying a sincere dedication as a geopolitical actor rather than relying on empty rhetoric. The era of mere words has ended. It is time for action.

Sources: Centre for European Policy Studies & European Policy Centre, Clingendael, DW, European Commission, European Neighboures, EEAS, HCSS, The Washington Post

Written by Tobias Pardoen

October 2023

The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author(s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of MJPE or its Board. The designations employed in this publication and the presentation of material therein do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the MJPE concerning the legal status of any country, area or territory or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers.

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