On Tuesday February 6, the European Commission announced its strategy on the Western Balkans. The strategy offers a “merits-based prospect of membership for the Western Balkans” that, ideally, aims to gradually integrate the region inside the bloc. This article focuses on the context within which this strategy takes place in addition to indicating its potential timeline and core philosophy. The challenges of this strategy are discussed in a separate article.
Western Balkan enlargement – a “geostrategic investment”
Before embarking on the peculiarities of the Commission’s new approach to enlargement, we must highlight the background within which the new strategy is announced.
Already in 2003 at the Thessaloniki conference the EU officially extended its membership perspective to the Western Balkans. Nevertheless, the Western Balkan enlargement did not kick off with the same pace and intensity as the Central and Eastern European enlargement that was largely materialized within a decade. Due to the internal complications of the Western Balkan states, which had to undergo a post-conflict reconstruction in addition to a post-totalitarian transition, as well as the numerous crises faced by the EU in the period since 2007, only one country from the region, Croatia, managed to join the EU in 2013.
Nowadays, with its renewed approach to Western Balkan enlargement, the EU seeks to capitalize from its current economic and political recovery and draw the region closer to the bloc. It aims to thwart the increasing influence in the Western Balkans of external powers such as China, the Gulf states, Russia, Turkey and the US. Similarly, on the internal front, the EU strives to deter autocratic tendencies deemed fashionable in the region under the label of “stabilitocracy.”
Thus, according to the Commission “the firm merit-based prospect of EU membership for the Western Balkans” is “a geostrategic investment” whose rationale is to discourage powder keg scenarios in the Balkans and construct “a stable, strong and united Europe based on common values” and able to face challenges from other powers.
Overall view and tenants of the Commission’s strategy
The essence of the new strategy could be summed up with one word – gradual. On the one hand, the Commission discerns a potential three-round enlargement for the six states from the Western Balkans – Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo (hereafter WB6). On the other hand, the rationale of the strategy is to integrate the region structurally and institutionally within the EU before the actual enlargement occurs, thereby rendering the accession dates of the WB6 symbolic.
Commencing with the three potential enlargement rounds, the six Western Balkan states (hereafter WB6) are presented with different enlargement timelines. Montenegro and Serbia “could potentially be ready for membership in 2025”. Both countries have started their accession negotiations with Montenegro having opened 30 out of 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire, in comparison to Serbia which has opened 12 chapters so far. Nevertheless, it seems that Montenegro has a comfortable lead since the current strategy obliges Serbia to conclude a “comprehensive legally-binding normalization agreement between Serbia and Kosovo” (chapter 35). The latter is likely to constitute a thorny topic, subject to escalation and slowdowns caused by events like the recent murder of the moderate Kosovo Serb leader Oliver Ivanovic.
As seen by the Commission, Albania and Macedonia, represent the second pair of states that could accede to the EU. The Commission intends to recommend the opening of accession negotiations with the two states in the coming months and this status is likely to be approved by the EU’s member states, perhaps as early as May 2018 during the EU-Western Balkan summit in Sofia. It is early to tell how far behind these countries are in comparison to the front-runners, Montenegro and Serbia. Albania is planning an ambitious judicial reform that could streamline its accession process, whereas Macedonia is in the process of trying to settle political disputes with its neighbors Bulgaria and Greece. Nonetheless, optimism about both countries’ European integration must be balanced against past and current misgivings of the democratic process in both countries, expressed by lasting parliamentary boycotts and the recent political crisis in Macedonia. Moreover, in the case of the latter, accession to the EU is conditioned on the resolution of the country’s name dispute with Greece which remains not totally certain .
Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are well behind in the accession process in comparison to the two other pairs of states. Even so, as demonstrated by the Commission strategy, both countries de facto have a credible membership perspective. Bosnia’s candidacy for the status of an official candidate member state will be examined by the Commission once a dispute is resolved between the country’s two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Serb-populated Republika Srpska. Kosovo, on the other hand, is only officially excluded from the Commission’s enlargement strategy. The country will continue to implement its Stabilization and Association agreement and will benefit from the Commission’s flagship initiatives. Consequently, it is “to advance on its European path once objective circumstances allow” (this is an allusion to Spain’s fear of a direct articulation of Kosovo’s membership perspective, due to current events in Catalonia).
Substance over symbolism – the pre-accession institutional and structural integration of the WB6
In addition to the gradual accession of the WB6 into three potential enlargement rounds, the European Commission strategy envisions a subtle institutional and structural integration of these states into the EU.
The Commission strives to include the political representatives of the WB6 in different EU bodies to speed up “their socialization and better understanding of the consensual spirit and common EU policies” as well as to ensure the aligning and effective implementation of EU legislation. To achieve this, the WB6 are to participate in the working bodies and meetings of the Council as well as in the technical committees and working groups led by the Commission.
Additionally, an integral part of the strategy is the gradual “increase in the new Multi-Annual Financial Framework of the Instrument for Pre-accession assistance funding before accession, accompanied by a phasing-in of expenditure after accession.” All of this is to be realized through the Commission’s six flagship initiatives that strengthen cooperation between the EU and the region in a number of areas via concrete actions foreseen to take place between 2018 and 2020. The Six Flagship initiatives are related to the strengthening of the rule of law, security and migration, socio-economic development, transport and energy, the digital market and reconciliation in the region.
The opening up of EU institutions and structural funds to the WB6 showcase that already as of now these states are becoming an integral part of Europe. Moreover, apart from strengthening the credibility of the region’s perspective, this new approach of the Commission prepares the WB6 to be better capable of absorbing regional funds as well as to internalize and build their own EU institutional culture in order to make the most out of EU funding and the decision-making process once they become members.
Notwithstanding the new novel approach, the Commission’s strategy is going to be challenged on several fronts. Read part 2 for a separate analysis on the Commission’s strategy regarding the Western Balkan enlargment.
Venelin Bochev is a Master student in Political Science at the ULB
European Commission. A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans, 2017. Accessed February 6, 2017.