Unblocking the Accession Path of the Western Balkans into an EU in Transition


The EU in a complex polycentric world

In its 2016 Global Strategy, the EU outlined its worldview, including its foreign policy objectives and challenges. Broadly, the EU’s Global Strategy stated that it sought to make Europe stronger: “an even more united and influential actor on the world stage that keeps citizens safe, preserves our interests, and upholds our values.”[1]  To achieve this goal, the EU committed to strengthening the resilience of states and societies by supporting good governance, accountable institutions, and by working closely with civil society.

In recent years, the EU has largely held a defensive position, confronting one crisis after another. These crises have included the impact of the global financial crisis of 2008-2014; considerable geopolitical upheaval, such as a deteriorating relationship with the United States following President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, and the increasingly assertive presence of Chinese and Russian rivals on the international scene. Added to this list, is the Syrian civil war; the terrorist attacks of 2014-2017, including the May 2014 Jewish Museum shooting and March 2016 bombings in Brussels, the November 2015 Paris attacks, the July 2016 Nice and December 2016 Berlin truck attacks, and the May 2017 Manchester Arena bombing; not to mention, the migration crisis of 2015-2017; the 2016 Brexit referendum, which shocked the very core of the EU integration process; and, most recently, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic of 2020-2021.

All through these multiple and overlapping crises, the EU has resembled a pendulum in search of equilibrium, as it tries to navigate a Gramscian-like crisis whereby the old is dying and the new cannot be born. As a result, the EU has been in constant transition. But today, as the crises continue, questions arise: has the EU been able to successfully adapt to these shocks? And why has the EU not been able to “give birth”, so to speak, to something truly new in the face of constant change? 

It is, of course, difficult to assess what the future will bring. Experts are often quick to explain that making predictions during times of crisis can overdramatise reality. In recent months, the post-COVID-19 environment has been described as one where there would be increasing multipolarity and competition globally at multiple levels (the economic sphere, political systems, and at the level of values); liberal democracy would be further challenged by rising authoritarianism and populism; threats that transcend borders would be amplified (e.g., pandemics, climate change, increasing inequality and corruption) while ongoing perennial threats (e.g. Iran, North Korea) would meet new ones (artificial intelligence, cyber-attacks, hybrid threats, increased disinformation campaigns). As a result, experts argue that the global scene is set to become increasingly unpredictable. While a crisis is a call for action, the EU – faithful to realist conceptions of international relations – seems to have merely muddled through. But will this strategy of reaction be enough in a context of perpetual crisis, unpredictability, and dwindling financial resources? 

Balancing the European pendulum

The EU sees itself as embodying a key message for the world, as a project that has brought unprecedented peace, prosperity, and democracy. But that project is challenged today, inside the Union and abroad, as a message from yesterday that no longer resonates with the world of today and that of tomorrow. Some even say that the EU has not managed to bring peace abroad, questioning the very nature of the EU, its core raison d’être.

In a world that has become increasingly complex, multipolar, contested, and where economic growth is shrinking, it is unclear who, at the European level, will ensure that the EU’s normative project – the promotion of democratic values and open societies, the respect of human rights and the protection of rule of law – remains at the heart of EU external action. The 2016 Global Strategy had already expressed the EU’s shift from a principled approach of external action to “principled pragmatism,” whereby principles would “stem as much from a realistic assessment of the strategic environment as from an idealistic aspiration to advance a better world.”[2]

The European Commission, as guardian of the EU Treaties, has as its normative baseline the promotion of democratic institutions characterised by the rule of law and respect for human rights. But from Jean-Claude Juncker’s ‘political’ Commission to Ursula von der Leyen’s ‘geopolitical’ Commission, it could be argued that, in the face of the return of geopolitics, pragmatism has overtaken principles when the EU should have favoured a stricter implementation of political conditionality. But, then again, a stronger normativity on the side of the European Commission implies a more compliant European Council, one that is able to navigate policies that are in line with strategic interests without losing sight of the values-based EU. 

Depending on how it is implemented, the new EU enlargement methodology could be a case in point, bringing an added layer of legitimacy to the accession process by politically supporting (i.e., the role of the EU Council) the more technocratic assessment of necessary reforms (i.e., that of the European Commission) in the region. According to this model, EU enlargement would “become more predictable, more credible – based on objective criteria and rigorous positive and negative conditionality, and reversibility – dynamic and subject to stronger political steering,” as the European Commission’s communication put it.[3] This new methodology has allowed the EU to present a face of unity on EU enlargement, its perennial problem. 

In practice, however, this has not unblocked the EU enlargement process, because entrenched divisions among EU Member States persist. This became evident again last October during the negotiations on the language used in the conclusions of the latest EU-Western Balkans Summit (in Brdo, Slovenia) on the ‘European perspective’ of, and the promise for, EU enlargement to the Western Balkans. Some EU Member States were adamant about clearly stating their commitment to EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, while others strongly favoured watered-down language. While the former group seems to ‘have won’ this latest round, ultimately the EU enlargement process continues to stall.

The dangerous stillness of EU enlargement to the Balkans

Unsurprisingly then, there is talk of a fatigued EU enlargement process, perceived as such by both the EU institutions and the countries of the Western Balkans. As alluded to above, the EU accession process has often been hijacked by EU (geo)politics, resulting in the EU enlargement being put on the backburner on numerous occasions as the EU has tried to overcome internal and external crises. It has meant that the EU has not offered enough of a tangible ‘European perspective’ to the Western Balkan citizens since the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003. In addition, EU enlargement has been largely process-based and not sufficiently needs-based. This was compounded by the EU’s working hypothesis since the Thessaloniki Summit, when the countries of the Western Balkans were offered a ‘European perspective’, which is still primarily tied to notions of crisis and insecurity. Despite the current political polarisation in certain countries of the region—to a large degree due to the blockages put on the EU accession path of the Western Balkans—the current narrative does not reflect the changes over the years in the region. As a result, managing expectations both in the EU and the countries of the Western Balkans has become frustrating and has created greater illusions.

Over the years, EU Member States have sent mixed messages to the region regarding the future of EU enlargement. The (unintended) consequences have been detrimental for the countries of the Western Balkans and have ranged from reform fatigue to the toppling of pro-reform governments. North Macedonia is a good example. The European Council failed twice to give the green light to EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia, even after that country’s courageous move, in 2018, to change its name and end the 25-year standoff with its neighbouring Greece. For two years, North Macedonia faced intense resistance to EU accession talks from certain Member States, notably France, which demanded a more robust enlargement methodology, and from the Netherlands. It was NATO, not the EU, that first embraced North Macedonia as its 30th member. Only after that did the EU give its long-awaited green light to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia in March 2020, together with Albania. But even then, the unity at the European Council was compromised by Bulgaria, which added a new potential hurdle to North Macedonia’s EU accession process. On Bulgaria’s request, a statement was attached to the March 2020 Council conclusions that, among other things, insists on scrapping references to the Macedonian language and to the existence of an ethnic Macedonian minority in Bulgaria. As a result, the planned initiation of EU membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania — a goal of Germany’s presidency of the Council of the EU— has been postponed and was inherited by the Portuguese (first half of 2021) and Slovenian (second half of 2021) presidencies of the Council of the EU. This unresolved matter will be passed on to the French presidency in January 2022, with the added complication of a potential change of government (and a return to irredentist politics) in North Macedonia, following the resignation of the moderate and pro-EU Macedonian PM Zoran Zaev at the end of October when his party lost disastrously in the local elections.

In 2020, the European Commission responded to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Western Balkans by most notably mobilising generous funding to help the region. During the global pandemic, the EU has treated the Western Balkan countries as privileged partners by granting them access to several initiatives and instruments reserved to EU Member States. This has included joint procurement of medical equipment, exempting the region from the EU’s export authorisation scheme for personal protective equipment, ensuring the fast flow of essential goods, and access to the EU’s supply of testing material. More aid will come through the pre-accession instrument and the investment plan for the region. Nevertheless, concerns have been raised over the lack of strict conditionality on the funds disbursed to the Western Balkans, and some want to ensure that the EU is not drawn into a geopolitical race of providing more funds than potential regional competitors, such as China and Russia. This has been the case on the provision of COVID-19 vaccines to the Western Balkans. The EU’s late reaction has led countries of the region, particularly Serbia, turning to Russia and China to meet their needs.

When Germany picked up the rotating Council presidency in July 2020, with the EU moving into recession, the negotiation of the EU’s recovery plan and its next multi-financial framework were the main priorities. In that context and despite repeated EU Member State concerns, including from Germany itself, of the EU being seen to lack seriousness in their approach to the region, the German Council Presidency did not advance as ambitious a plan for EU engagement in the Western Balkans as the outgoing Croatian Presidency. While Germany has pushed for the effective opening of negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, following the European Commission’s publication of the negotiation framework for the two countries, the German Council Presidency did not work on revitalising the EU facilitated Belgrade-Pristina dialogue to the extent that it could and should have. Kosovo was not mentioned once in the programme of the German presidency of the Council.[4] This may have been another missed opportunity given the developments in Kosovo, including the change of government, President Hashim Thaçi being charged with crimes against humanity by the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, the 2020 elections in Serbia, the appointment of former Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak as EU Special Representative for the dialogue, and the direct US re-engagement in the Kosovo status negotiations. The programme of the Portuguese presidency of the Council included only one general sentence on EU enlargement to the Western Balkans,[5] likely pointing to the limited interest in this policy area. There was much hope that the Slovenian presidency of the Council could push EU enlargement forward, given that in its programme it states that “Slovenia [would] devote special attention to the Western Balkans [...] with an emphasis on adopting the negotiating frameworks for the Republic of North Macedonia and the Republic of Albania.”[6] However, continued resistance by select EU Member States has kept the accession process blocked. Not much progress is expected on Western Balkan’s path to EU accession during the French Council Presidency that takes the reins next, since France is one of the leading Member States wanting to pull the brakes on EU enlargement.

Boosting the EU enlargement process

Keeping the Western Balkans waiting indefinitely for EU membership is a dangerous approach that nurtures EU enlargement fatigue in the region. That is arguably one of the reasons explaining the centre-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia losing the latest local elections in North Macedonia – difficult reforms (including signing the landmark Prespa Agreement) made on empty EU promises. A more direct and engaging conversation on the format and shape of EU enlargement is needed, beyond the current EU enlargement methodology. Redefining the EU enlargement and EU integration process in the aftermath of Brexit, COVID-19, and the ensuing financial consequences of both, needs to go hand in hand with identifying and redefining the EU’s perspective on the specific problems in each Western Balkan country. In the current environment of constant uncertainty, prolonging the promise of EU integration as something that is always in the future is potentially more dangerous than providing a timeframe that is long-term and therefore unpopular and disappointing.

A positive narrative for the Western Balkans

In that context, a more positive narrative for the Western Balkans, one that accurately reflects the contemporary societal challenges and opportunities for countries in the region is needed. While developmental problems and democratic backsliding are present in the region, there is a new generation emerging in the region that has not been confronted with war and its immediate consequences. This new generation could embody the potential for change and therefore be an impetus to redefine EU-Western Balkan relations. Engaging this new generation differently could be one of the lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Moving beyond perceptions of security deficiencies, the new narrative could incorporate (in more definitive terms) socio-economic and policy challenges that are as real in the Western Balkans as they are in the EU: for example, environmental politics, LBGTQ+ issues, mobility and media freedom, to name but a few. Sharing a continent also means that there are common challenges linking the Western Balkan region to the internal EU agenda. Working to address these policy challenges could nourish reforms carried out at governmental level in the Western Balkans and inspire civic initiatives: the imperative of a Green New Deal; the fight against rising inequality; the opportunities that digitalisation can offer (the future of work has arrived before we were ready for it); learning from the failures of governance and creating more resilience for better governance. Engaging with the real needs that touch the lives of the populations in the Western Balkan countries and investing in economic development could reverse the brain drain caused by young, qualified people fleeing these countries, due largely to rampant unemployment. 

Engaging the Western Balkan countries on a broader range of policies and with a wider range of actors will allow the EU to identify local problems more precisely. Despite good intentions to offer tailor made solutions to challenges in the Western Balkans, the EU has a set toolbox and instruments to tackle sectoral and systemic administrative deficiencies in the countries where it is present. This, however, gives the impression that the EU is dealing with the Western Balkans as a bloc, when economic development, youth unemployment, air quality, and brain drain are problems affect all countries but do so in specific ways and therefore demand tailored responses. 

Building accountability into the EU enlargement process 

Political accountability should be built into the accession process, something the new EU enlargement methodology could facilitate. In that light, the differentiation among candidate countries according to merit will be key and should be reinforced, allowing for candidate countries to be decoupled, if needed. In addition, rather than proposing tentative timelines for EU accession to the Western Balkan countries, as former European Commission President Juncker had done, it would be more effective to outline specific, clear benchmarks and set firm deadlines. 

Moreover, the European Commission’s normative project in the form of political conditionality must go beyond administrative benchmarks that are limited to checking the legal approximation of rule of law reforms. Rather, it must concentrate more effectively on the implementation of laws and the cultural/organisational change in the public administration. In other words, as experts have long called for repeatedly, the European Commission should focus on encouraging overarching laws that affect governance, the rule of law, and the oversight of institutions in the Western Balkan countries. Instead of this they have too often been satisfied with tailor-made laws in these countries that provide for a façade of reform while not closing the gap for potential state capture and corruption. In response, when key reforms are made, the benefits offered to the countries of the Western Balkans must also be substantial and meaningful to the population. Much hope is put in the new EU enlargement methodology that it will be able to push the accession process in that direction.

At the political level, the inclusion of Western Balkan political representatives in different EU bodies, especially the Council configurations, once a chapter of the acquis communautaire has been closed, could help move attention in the Western Balkan countries from the opening of chapters to their closure (when the benchmarks are actually met). It could also keep the momentum for necessary reform and facilitate political buy-in, since the Western Balkan counties, even with a status of observer (i.e., without voting rights) would be able to contribute to the design of key EU policies. Equally, such an initiative could help the socialisation of officials working in the public administration of the countries in the region and reinforce a better understanding of the consensual spirit that underpins the construction of common EU policies. Accordingly, it could contribute significantly to strengthening the sense of belonging, networking, and transfer of experience from the Member States to the candidate countries. 

Given how lengthy the EU enlargement process has become, the benefits provided at various stages of the EU enlargement process should be substantial to include more than just access to EU programmes, which are already granted in most cases. The enlargement process could incorporate such initiatives as gradually opening the European Structural and Investment Funds to Western Balkan countries to support the development of infrastructure, extend the use of the EU’s financial stability mechanisms to the region, or even enabling circular migration. While these initiatives are expensive and it is uncertain whether the EU will be able to afford an ambitious enlargement agenda in the (post-)COVID-19 era, they would ensure sustainable and more cohesive changes in the Western Balkan countries.

Engaging civil society and local authorities

Moving EU-Western Balkans relations beyond the technocratic approach of the acquis communautaire, the EU should undertake peer-to-peer initiatives whereby it intensifies its work with trade unions and citizens/activists, independent civil society beyond well-known CSOs and NGOs (especially government-sponsored/supported NGOs, the so-called GONGOs) that are usually located in big urban areas. The EU should also increase its work with local authorities. During the pandemic and particularly during the lockdown, a number of EU Member States experienced first-hand how local level authorities, such as mayors and governors, can play a potent role in organising and mobilising communities. This logic holds true in the Western Balkans countries, too, and the European Commission has the necessary instruments to engage with local authorities.

Although European Commission communications, including the 2018 Enlargement Strategy,[7] have repeatedly emphasised the EU’s commitment to support civil society and local authorities in partner countries to enhance governance and strengthen development outcomes, in practice these commitments have been fading away. In fact, the EU has not adequately taken into account local authorities as a key layer of governance in the EU enlargement process, neither in terms of their potential political role, nor in terms of their access to, or the level of, available EU funding for them. This gap was emphasised in the findings of the outsourced evaluation of Instrument for Pre-Accession (IPA II), which stated that local authorities have not benefited from sufficient opportunities to implement actions through EU funding.[8] More specifically, think tankers in the Western Balkans point to the fact that local authorities have not had access to direct support funding, capacity-building facilities, or peer-to-peer exchanges and learning in the region or beyond. In addition, there has not been enough support to encourage partnership and stronger cooperation between local authorities and CSOs, although they are the natural partners in the work for promoting and safeguarding local democracy, nurturing active citizenship and ensuring sustainable local development. 

Beyond funding, what civil society needs and asks for directly from EU leaders is explicit political support. The European Commission, in particular, has a long-standing engagement with civil society actors in the region. At a time when CSOs are coming under increased pressure from national governments in an increasingly shrinking civic space, it is important that the EU institutions and its Member States, take a clear stand on the importance of alternative, including critical, voices during the EU accession negotiations. While direct financial assistance to support civil society was allocated in the IPA I and II, political support has been lacking or decreasing, especially with regard to civil society development and the recognition of civil society’s contribution to increasing government accountability and the sustainability of socio-political reforms. A more bottom-up approach to the new EU integration process would ensure engagement from the local level upwards and support for more meaningful involvement of the civil society and local authorities as key actors for achieving sustainable socio-economic development. Importantly, deeper interaction at the peer-to-peer level between the Western Balkan countries and the EU would increase mutual understanding, people-to-people relations, and make accession less intimidating for both sides.

Western Balkans taking responsibility for their future

At the same time, political accountability and responsibility is a two-way street. The Western Balkan leaders also need to live up to the challenges that the ‘European perspective’ and the EU integration process bring. The most testing conundrums in the Western Balkans are all highly political in nature: state capture, weaknesses in rule of law governance and institutions, reconciliation, resolving bilateral disputes and questions of statehood. The 2021 Enlargement Package, published by the European Commission last October and providing a detailed assessment of the state of play and the progress made by each of the countries of the Western Balkans, points to the continuing difficulties on fundamental reforms, such as rule of law, fundamental freedoms, and the functioning of democratic institutions.[9] These challenges will not be overcome without the political resolve and commitment in each of the Western Balkan countries, but also at a regional level. 

In this light, the plans to create a so-called mini-Schengen, first made public in October 2019 by Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania, and then unveiled as the ‘Open Balkans’ initiative in August 2021, is a positive step. The idea gained momentum after France blocked the start of membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania at the EU summit of October 2019. The initiative is trade-heavy, focusing on the creation of a regional market based on the free movement of goods, services, capital, and people, as being key to economic growth and attracting foreign direct investment. It also promises free movement of the citizens of the three participating countries and equal access to labour markets. The Open Balkans initiative is also about the recognition of each other’s professional qualifications, organising student exchanges, developing research and development projects, jointly fighting organised crime and terrorism, and responding to cross-border natural disasters. Regional cooperation in the Western Balkans is of course not new, but this locally instigated initiative could build on previous work, such as the Stability Pact, the Berlin process, the Central European Free Trade Agreement - CEFTA, to name a few, and demonstrates that the leaders of the region are able and willing to take initiatives on their future.

Maintaining strong democratic institutions at all levels is the biggest challenge facing EU Member States and the countries of the Western Balkans. The latest crisis facing Europe, the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences, will be a test to see if European leaders and societies choose retrenchment behind walls, houses, local and national borders, or if European solidarity is able to underpin a commitment to help each other, debate, invent and organise better solutions. In short, will the EU be re-energised for the long-term? These trying times can also be an opportunity for participatory democracy to become vibrant and for citizens to demand that their governments and parliamentarians launch bolder initiatives. The Conference on the future of Europe is seen as an instigator for this feat. Western Balkans citizens, too, can have their voice heard through CSOs that partner with EU-based organisations, and forwarding their proposals or organising their events by using the Conference’s official online platform. Pointing to and concentrating on the EU’s added value, especially its normative nature, while rebuilding EU credibility, will be more crucial than ever, starting by solidifying the EU’s action and partnerships with its closest and most natural partners, the countries in the Western Balkans. 

The author is grateful to Steven Blockmans and Erwan Fouéré for their constructive comments. She also thanks Vjosa Musliu with whom she co-organised a seminar on how to keep alive the reform momentum in the Western Balkans, at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, in January 2020, and to the seminar participants for their insights.

[1] Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe, A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy, European External Action Service, Brussels, June 2016, p. 3.
[2] Shared Vision, Common Action…, op. cit., p. 8.
[3] Enhancing the accession process - A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans, Communication from the Commission, COM(2020) 57 final, Brussels, 5 February 2020, p. 1.
[4] Together for Europe’s recovery: Programme for Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union, 1 July to 31 December 2020, Berlin, 2020.
[5] Programme for the Portuguese Presidency of the Council of the European Union, 1 January to 30 June 2021, p. 33.
[6] Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, 1 July–31 December 2021, pp. 16, 19.
[7] A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans, Communication from the Commission, COM(2018) 65 final, Brussels, 6 February 2018.
[8] Consortium of Particip, Ecorys, ECDPM, Fiscus, Itad and OPM, External Evaluation of the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA II) (2014 – mid 2017), Final Report, Volume 1: Main report, June 2017, p. 28, 41, 42.
[9] European Commission, 2021 Enlargement package: European Commission assesses and sets out reform priorities for the Western Balkans and Turkey, 19 October 2021.

The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).