Balkans: On track for EU membership or stagnation?

Three sets of challenges will have to be overcome if any of the candidate countries are to become EU members in 2025.

When the Juncker Commission began in late 2015, its President made it clear that further enlargement of the Union was not part of his core agenda, reflecting the enlargement fatigue that had come to dominate Europe.

Juncker stated explicitly that no further enlargement would happen under his term. While this was fairly predictable, since none of the candidate countries were ready, his statement nevertheless had the effect of pouring cold water on those Balkan countries trying to use enlargement hopes as a lever for their domestic reform agendas. For many, Juncker’s words damaged the credibility and the transformative powers of the accession process.

Gradually there has been a recognition that this was a mistake. The Western Balkans remains a fragile zone, and a prolonged stalemate in the enlargement process is likely to be detrimental to European stability. The refugee crisis beginning in the autumn of 2015 also demonstrated the importance the region has for other EU countries.

Accordingly there is now an interest in reviving the enlargement process for these countries, looking back at the commitment from the Thessaloniki summit in 2003 to give them all the option of full membership in the Union.

The European Commission’s new Strategy for the Western Balkans now seeks to translate this renewed interest in the region into concrete and operationally relevant policies. It holds out the prospect of those countries most advanced in the process – Serbia and Montenegro – becoming members in 2025, and invites the others to catch up.

Whether this is realistic or not remains to be seen.

The Commission is going to present no less than six different ‘flagship’ initiatives to help the countries accelerate. These have so far not been presented, and there are fears that they will not live up to expectations or be sufficiently resourced to achieve their aims.

The member states will get to have their say on the strategy when they draft their conclusions at the June European Council, which will also touch on the state of relations with individual Balkan countries. Before that, the Bulgarian EU Presidency will hold a special EU/Balkan summit in Sofia in May.

Even if there is general support for the ambitions expressed by the Commission, enlargement remains politically sensitive in many countries, and the processes can easily be hijacked by populist forces. This was vividly illustrated with the referenda in the Netherlands on the association agreement with Ukraine, and similar sentiments might well be mobilized against bringing, say, Albania into the EU.

Three sets of challenges will have to be overcome if any of the candidate countries are to become EU members in 2025. First, the internal reform issues deciding the accession negotiations. Second, the reconciliation and bilateral disputes issues. And third, the EU readiness issues.

Internal Reform

The most obvious issues refer to the formal accession process as such and the associated internal reform processes in the respective countries. Here, there is much that needs to be done.

In its communication, the Commission paints a dark picture of the situation in the countries in question.

Today, the countries show clear elements of state capture, including links with organised crime and corruption at all levels of government and administration, as well as a strong entanglement of public and private interests. All this feeds a sentiment of impunity and inequality. There is also extensive political interference in and control of the media. A visibly empowered and independent judiciary and accountable governments and administrations are essential for bringing about the lasting societal change that is needed.

If this wasn’t enough, it’s also noted that the critical parts of the region’s economies are uncompetitive, with too much undue political interference and an underdeveloped private sector.

“None of the Western Balkans can currently be considered a functioning market economy nor to have the capacity to cope with the competitive pressure and market forces in the union. In spite of all progress on reforms, many structural issues remain, which in turn affect labour markets and notably employment opportunities for younger people.”

Membership in 2025 means that accession negotiations must be concluded some time in 2023, leaving time for ratification by the European as well as national parliaments. 

This leaves little more than four years for the vanguard countries to rectify what are described as substantial deficiencies in their societies and economies. This would be a record achievement, but it could just be feasible depending on the content of the EU’s ‘flagship initiatives’.

Reconciliation and Bilateral Disputes

The Commission explicitly demands that any bilateral disputes between the different countries are sorted out before they can become members:

Where border disputes are not resolved bilaterally, parties should submit them unconditionally to binding, final international arbitration, the rulings of which should be fully applied and respected by both parties before accession.

This requirement is based on the EU’s bitter experience of the consequences when this has not been the case. But it could be a real showstopper when it comes to Balkan enlargement.

When Croatia was approaching the end of its accession talks, the dispute over maritime borders with Slovenia in the Adriatic Sea became a major issue. In December 2009 Croatia and Slovenia referred the issue to arbitration by the International Court of Justice and undertook to abide by its result.

The accession talks continued, and Croatia entered the EU July 2013. But Croatia later rejected the ruling, based on newly-discovered violations by a Slovenian judge on the ICJ arbitration panel. The Permanent Court of Arbitration itself investigated the issue, noted the violations, but did not consider them significant.

The EU institutions have asked both countries to respect the December 2009 agreement, but without success, and Slovenia has now blocked Croatia’s entry into the OECD.

There are a number of similar issues that could block further further Balkan enlargement.

As part of the Macedonia name dispute between Skopje and Athens, Greece has blocked every further step by Macedonia towards either NATO or EU membership.

It has done so in spite of a 1995 interim agreement to work provisionally with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The International Court of Justice ruled in 2011 that Greece had violated its commitments under the interim agreement when it blocked Macedonia’s accession to NATO.

Whether this issue can be sorted out – in a final or provisional way – in the next few months will be critical to the entire enlargement strategy. If this longstanding and high profile bilateral issue cannot be sorted out, it will cast doubt on the ability to sort out several others that are at least as difficult.

The largest number of these involve Croatia, and the Commission’s opinion that these must be resolved gives Croatia a strong position in the disputes. The most difficult is the question of the 135 km border along the Danube between Serbia and Croatia.

The effective border follows the river’s modern course, but Croatia argues that it should follow the course the river had some centuries ago, which is reflected in the old cadestrial boundaries in the area. The Croat version would involve changing control of perhaps 140 square kilometers along the Danube, with Croatia primarily benefitting by acquiring new enclaves to the East of the river.

Recently the two countries have agreed to start bilateral talks on the issue, and if these are not successful within two years submit the issue to international arbitration. By early 2020 we should thus know how they will proceed with the issue.

There are some outstanding border issues also between Croatia and Bosnia, with a delimitation agreement signed by Presidents Tudjman and Izetbegovic never ratified by the Croat Parliament.

There is also an ongoing dispute between Croatia and Montenegro relating to the heavily fortified Prevlaka peninsula, which controls the entrance to the Bay of Kotor. There has been talk of referring the issue to the International Court of Justice, but to my knowledge this has not yet been done.

Control of the peninsula itself was highly contested during the Yugoslav wars, and a UN mission was deployed on it between 1992 and 2003 supervising the separation of forces. A 2002 agreement set down an interim regime with Croat actual control of the peninsula, but there are ongoing disagreements over maritime borders and claims to economic zones in the Adriatic Sea.

Somewhat surprisingly, the demarcation of the border between Kosovo and Montenegro has also turned into a major problem. An agreement has been concluded between Podgorica and Skopje, effectively following the line in the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution, but it has not been possible to get this ratified in the Kosovo Parliament due to strong opposition. The EU has made visa free travel for Kosovo citizens dependent also on ratification of this agreement, but until now this has not changed the situation.

The most critical of all the outstanding bilateral issues, however, concerns the relationship between Kosovo and Serbia.

The Commission states that an “effective and comprehensive normalisation of Belgrade-Pristina relations” is urgent, and calls for “a comprehensive, legally binding normalisation agreement” as a precondition for Serbia and Kosovo to advance “on their respective European paths.

This will not be easy. Political opinion in Serbia is still not ready to accept formal recognition of Kosovo as an independent state, culminating in UN membership, while political opinion in Kosovo is unlikely to accept anything less. The EU itself is split on the issue, with five member states who do not recognize Kosovo’s independence.

The EU dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina seems to have been on a low burner in recent years. Moving towards a comprehensive normalization agreement is likely to require a much higher level of engagement by the EU than we have seen recently.

Among all the issues on the table, this is likely to be the most difficult. It should be added that Russia is unlikely to refrain from expressing its support for the Serb position on the issue, thus making the battle for public opinion in the country even more difficult.

Of the two ‘frontrunner’ states, Serbia is clearly the most important. Having opened 12 out of the 35 chapters in the accession process, and closed only two of them, it clearly has some way to go. But even more demanding than this process is the fact that there has now been established a veto right by both Croatia and Kosovo on the EU accession of Serbia. By dragging their feet on any process on the Danube border Croatia can slow down the process, and by dragging their feet on talks about a normalization agreement Kosovo can do the same.

Readiness of the EU

Exactly what the Commission means when it says that “the Union must be stronger and more solid before it can be bigger” is not entirely clear. It seems to reflect the classic hesitancy that enlargement might someone dilute or weaken the Union in some way.

It should be remembered that every single enlargement thus far has met internal resistance on these grounds. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that today’s Union is stronger than the old Europe of Six.

On one issue the Commission is clear. It says that “a more effective mechanism needs to be put in place to ensure that effective measures can be taken to tackle a systematic breach of [European] values by any one of the EU’s member states” and that it will in October present a proposal to this effect. The accession treaties “could provide a legal framework for such a mechanism” to be established “within the framework of the Treaties”.

This is easier said than done, and much will depend on how the ongoing dispute with Poland develops. It is unlikely that there will be a unanimous appetite for giving Brussels further competencies in these areas. And if the Commission intends to negotiate an arrangement with the accession countries it can only do so with a mandate from all the member states.

More vague language is used when talking about “the impact on the existing institutional arrangements” in the Union, with a proposal to address this on the table in advance of the closure of the first negotiations. Here, a series of difficult issues are hidden.

An enlargement with all the countries of the Western Balkans will take the European Commission from 27 to 33 members, and there is wide agreement that the Commission is already too large. The Lisbon Treaty envisages a Commission substantially smaller, but after referendum problems in Ireland the possibility was created to make the Commission larger if all member states agree.

So far that has been the case, but a further substantial increase in the size of the Commission is hardly going to be accepted.

The language issue could also potentially be tricky. Once upon a time Serbo-Croat was the language of the region, together with Albanian. Now Croat is an official language, and there are certain to be demands to add Bosnian, Serb, Montenegrian and Macedonian to the list, with the question of how different all these languages really are from each other likely to generate high emotions.

High Stakes need High Engagement

To resolve all the different issues within each of these three sets of challenges in the remaining time is a tall order. If the process is not to stagnate or collapse, with obvious negative strategic consequences for the EU, it will require a much higher level of engagement by the EU institutions than we have seen in the last few years.

This applies to the envisaged flagship initiatives in different areas, to the combined efforts to sort out all the remaining bilateral disputes before accession and to the preparation of the EU institutions for a new set of member states.

Time is running out. To put it simply, Brussels must change gear if there is to be any chance of realizing its Balkan ambitions.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Co-chair of ECFR’s Council
Former Prime Minister and Former Foreign Minister of Sweden

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