Early February of this year, European Commission (EC) President Juncker managed to spread confusion about his attitude on the EU enlargement towards the Western Balkans. “It is wrong to assert that I and the Commission had said that Serbia and Montenegro must be in by 2025. No, that is an indicative date, an encouragement, so that the parties concerned work hard to follow that path,” the President said after a strategic paper had been released that argued that Serbia and Montenegro would be Member States by 2025. But it is clear that the EC wishes to include the Western Balkans. This raises questions. Which countries are ready for this? What are the reasons for expansion? What are the reasons against it? And how realistic is Juncker’s 2025?
For the sake of simplicity let us define the Western Balkans that are not part of the EU (yet): Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and, to make matters as complicated as possible, Kosovo. The relationship with the EU that each of these countries and regions has, differs a lot. During the Thessaloniki European Council summit in 2003, Albania, Bosnia, and Macedonia were recognised as candidates for membership. During that summit, Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro were identified as well, but the former became a Member State in 2013 and the latter split into two separate countries – both of which are candidates now.
Serbia and Montenegro are already negotiating with the EU. Albania and Macedonia have the candidate status but need to improve in several areas before negotiations about membership can be opened. Bosnia and Kosovo are both potential candidates, where Bosnia is a tad further in the process of becoming a candidate.
Join the club
The reasons for these countries to join the EU are numerous. As these countries tend to be lagging behind economically, access to the EU internal market could prove to be their stepping stone. Two of the Western Balkan countries that already are part of the Union, Slovenia and Croatia, have seen a massive boost in their economy and overall development. But besides purely rational reasons such as economics, there is also the need for recognition. To become a political relevant country in Europe. To become active in international trade once again, on a larger scale. And, perhaps often overlooked, to heal past grievances between former Yugoslav countries and the EU.
What is in it then for the EU itself? Access to cheap(er) labour, one may say from an economic perspective. Or the broadening of the internal market. Incorporating cultural heritage of Catholic, Muslim, Orthodox, and Ottoman nature to showcase European cultural diversity might be another reason – albeit perhaps not a popular one nowadays. Perhaps even a sense of guilt for past mistakes in the region. For standing by and watching the Balkans go down the drain in the 1990s. Whatever combination of reasons it might be, one stands out above all others: security.
The main EU incentive to include the Western Balkans in the EU is security. And this reason is threefold. First, the security of migration. Fear within the EU of migrants has led to a rise of populism and a political earthquake. With the Western-Balkan Member States, the EU – or in this case more specifically, the European Commission (EC) – can better manage one of its main access points of migrants. The controversial migration deal with Turkey takes care of this for now, but as the relationship with the Turks is troubled (and expensive), the Western Balkans could prove to be an easy solution.
Second, to prevent a disaster like the Yugoslav wars. To prevent internal country tensions from escalating once again, structural reform is necessary. Although this structural reform is slowly taking place, with some help from the Union, within the framework of the EU – as Member State and backed with knowledge and money from the EU – this process could be safeguarded and sped up. Simultaneously, the tension between the countries can be eased when they face common goals within the EU. A set up that is in place now – 2 countries in, and the others out – does more harm than it does good for the countries that are left out.
Third, denying Russia to expand its foothold in Europe. One of the reasons to once expand NATO to the Baltics could be one of the main reasons for the EU to expand to the Balkan. With the tensions mounting in recent years between Russia and the EU, this could be a serious security strategy for the Union. Russia’s explicit flirting with Serbia in the past and its show of force in Crimea have led the EU to rush towards the Balkans and become closer.
While the security reason might seem appealing, there are also reasons why the process of becoming a Member State is a slow and thought-out one. Perhaps we could even argue that it is not a good idea for these countries to join, from an EU perspective.
Albania is moving very slowly in regards to the requirements that need to be met to join the EU. The parliamentary elections in 2013 were the first ones to be regarded as fair. And other institutions, such as justice and law enforcement, are regarded as troublesome as well. As the EU is a ‘democracies only’ type of club, this could become challenging for the Muslim Balkan country. Even more worrisome is Albanian nationalism that still seems to be alive and kicking. This led to tensions in neighbouring Macedonia, as Albanian parties – supposedly fuelled by the motherland – caused a political crisis. It has also fuelled tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, and Albania and Serbia in the past.
Macedonia is in the middle of a political meltdown. After a crisis in 2015, which was ended by the Pržino Agreement, the country found itself in another political crisis in 2017. The national assembly was stormed and the tension between ethnic Albanian and other parties is intensely high. Furthermore, Macedonia’s rule of law and its economic foundations need improvement. The biggest problem lies in its name. Although it aspires to be named Macedonia, currently the official name is the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, due to a name dispute with a neighbouring region in Greece. The Greeks seem very determined to veto any Macedonian application to the EU as long as the naming issue is not resolved.
Bosnia-Herzegovina has a long list of issues which makes it an unsuitable candidate for EU membership. Its political system is a mess and stuck in a constant Mexican standoff – leading to another political crisis in 2017 – while its country is literally divided into ethnic regions. There is even the risk of Bosnia-Herzegovina being split up into separate countries, dominated by Serbs and by Croats and Bosniaks. Human Rights Watch has expressed serious concerns about human rights respect in Bosnia and ethnic tension is on the rise in the unstable Balkan country. Bosnia’s economic picture is not much better either, with high unemployment rates, a bad business climate, and foreign direct investment streams dominated by Serbia and Croatia – deepening the division between Bosnian Serbs and Croats and Bosniaks.
Serbia is probably the country that is furthest in the negotiations with the EU. However, there are many troubles on the horizon for the largest Balkan country. To start off, Serbia’s relationship with the Netherlands is very problematic and especially from the Dutch political side there seems to be a lot of grief. This could lead to a Dutch veto on Serbian accession. Some of Serbia’s troubles are no different from Member States such as Romania or Bulgaria: corruption, organized crime, and political tension. Although this political tension is less of a problem than other Western Balkan countries, the political ties with Russia are a thorn in the side of the EU. By far the largest problem is the Serbia-Kosovo relationship. As Serbia claims Kosovo is Serbian sovereign territory and refuses to recognise its independence, the EU looks sceptically to Serbia. Moreover, this does not help to wash away the public opinion of Serbian nationalism – one of the triggering factors for the Yugoslav wars.
Montenegro’s main issues are corruption and organized crime. Human trafficking and drugs exports and imports are in fact some of the biggest problems for the Montenegrin government. Freedom of speech and independence of the judicial system also need further improvement but are in a relatively good shape compared to its neighbours. Everything considered, this candidate seems to be the most promising one.
Kosovo is not recognised as a country by Member States Spain, Slovakia and Romania. A UN peacekeeping mission is still present in Kosovo to safeguard peace. Ethnic tensions still run very high between Kosovars and Serbs in the region. Serbia and Kosovo are still balancing on a thin rope of stability – and greater stability for the region. Politically, the country is very unstable, its borders are disputed, the judicial system is ill-functioning, the economy is far behind European standards, and above all, it is the first country created with the help of an international organisation (the UN). Kosovo’s chances of becoming a Member State appear the smallest of all countries mentioned.
Never say never, but please be realistic
The reasons why these countries won’t be able to join the EU seem to outweigh the reasons why they will be able to join, but 2025 is still 7 years ahead of us. Although several of the Western Balkans states are not ready to join the EU by that time, Serbia, and even more so, Montenegro, could be very close to becoming a Member State in the future.
The process has to be treated with care, as the main reason for EU expansion – security – could also prove to be the biggest pitfall. Russia has responded with a strong and decisive tone towards further NATO expansion and hints at adopting a similar tone towards EU expansion. Considering the already tense relationship between Russia and the EU, the process of Western Balkan countries to become Member States should be approached slowly and carefully.
Acceding the Balkans in the long run could prove to have more advantages (assuming that they continue to improve) than disadvantages and could most of all bring structural stability to the region. However, let’s be realistic. 2025 might be manageable for Montenegro, but for all the others it is just another moment for a status check.
Author: Koen Durlinger