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EU summit: No firm timeline for Western Balkans accession

Historically, the European Union has enlarged by the admission of new member states to the Union; the process is also referred to as the European integration. However, states have to meet political and economic standards, known as the Copenhagen criteria, to secure their entry into the organization. According to Article 49 of the treaty, two prerequisites for membership are: 

  1. The candidate state should be European; 
  2. The state must acclaim values shared by the member countries and seek to promote them; it includes respect for human dignity, freedom, the rule of law, regard for human rights, democracy, and equality. 

Therefore, accession to the Union is not an automatic procedure and is mainly dependent on the adequacy of the applicant country’s preparation and the capacity of the EU to assimilate new members. The pre-accession period of each country varies, during which the applicant states undertake adaptive measures with regards to institutional structures, governing standards, and infrastructure. 

The Western Balkan states have been on priority for accession to the EU since their creation as independent states in the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia from 1991-1992. Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia are acknowledged as official candidates and are in the negotiation process; on the other hand, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are identified as potential candidates.

EU Summit 2021 in Slovenia- the culmination of Brdo Declaration 

On 5th October 2021, Slovenia hosted an informal dinner of the European Council members; the event was chaired by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, along with the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. The Summit ended with guarantees for greater European assimilation, but it did not establish a set timeline for the accession of six nations in the twenty-seven-member bloc. According to Ursula von der, West Balkans constitute part of the same European continent as the EU; therefore, the entity is incomplete without them. However, the Commission is immobilized by the motive of the EU’s national government, with all of them having the right to veto on opening negotiations. Charles Michel stated that in all candidness, there is a dialogue amongst member countries regarding the capacity of the organization to admit new members, and all 27 states are not on the same front. The Summit called attention to the stark distinction between the European Commission and the European Council; while the former favors expansionism, the latter expresses clear reservations about the process. 

The Summit culminated in the joint declaration, i.e., Brdo Declaration, representing an alignment between the EU leaders and West Balkans partners. It concluded the followings: 

  1. Reaffirmation of the EU’s indisputable support for Europe’s perception of the West Balkan and Welcoming the allegiance of West Balkans to Europe’s perception; this remains a common strategic goal and mutual strategic choice. 
  2. Reconfirmation of the EU’s commitment to the accession process on the basis of viable reforms, fair conditionality’s, and principles of merit to enhance joint engagement for the region’s socio-economic and political transformation. 
  3. Reiteration of the dedication of West Balkans states to uphold European values and principles and meaningful execution of crucial reforms in people’s interests. 
  4. Declaration of the EU’s support for West Balkans states and reassurance of its fidelity to an inclusive regional cooperative framework to strengthen cordial neighborly relations. This would serve as a means to find a binding solution to the state’s bilateral conflicts rooted in historical legacies.

Bulgaria maintains its North Macedonia’s veto- politicizing into play 

In spite of repeated affirmations and dedication to the West Balkan's accession to the Union by the EU, the politicization of inter-state relations has hindered the progress. The case of North Macedonia is critical here. 

North Macedonia applied as a candidate for EU membership in 2004; the state has fulfilled the prerequisites for initiation of entry talks, yet Bulgaria has employed veto power to prevent North Macedonia's inclusion due to both states' long-standing dispute over culture and language. This factor is known as the 'B-complex' in Macedonia's politics. The government of Sofia wants North Macedonia to officially acknowledge that their language has its roots in Bulgaria, and it does not exhibit any signals to lift the veto. Bulgarian position has met with criticism from several EU countries, including Austria; however, in response, Bulgaria has asserted that the problem is not bilateral, rather it corresponds to the principles upon which the Union is constructed and operates.

In the aftermath of the EU Summit, the PM of Macedonia, Zoran Zaev, asserted that if the EU does not materialize its guarantees and promises, it will be a big disappointment for West Balkans, which, in turn, would damage the credibility of the idea of European integration and unity. North Macedonia has mobilized significant lobbying in EU circles, further aggravating Bulgaria. Resolution of the crises can only occur once the government is established in Sofia, which has already failed twice this year.

Germany against ‘firm membership timeline’

There is a rising concern in states, such as Germany and Austria, that failure to live up to the EU’s promises and commitments to further the accession process could drive the West Balkans state towards other powers in the international system, especially China and Russia. This is the main reason that German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, does not support the creation of a solidified timetable to initiate talks. She stated that accession could occur once conditions are fulfilled, but this is not the scenario so far. Therefore, Merkel believes that setting up a fixed timetable will only increase pressure on the bloc. 

On her visit to Albania on 14th September, Merkel met with PM Edi Rama; she declared that it was Germany’s objective to see all six Western Balkan nations in the EU. The chancellor also condemned old EU members for showing signals of ‘enlargement fatigue.’ The bloc called for candidate states to enact stringent reforms in areas of justice, freedom, anti-corruption, and transnational organized crimes. For instance, France has repeatedly accused countries, including Poland and Hungary, of violating democratic ideals. In this regard, Germany affirms that the EU must keep its word and that it was unfair to individual member countries to keep on adding conditions because they do not want to deal with new members for domestic political factors. 

EU-Serbia tensions and Kosovo factor

Tensions escalated between Serbia and Kosovo on 20th September when the former initiated a blockade and the latter employed Special Forces on the border. Kosovo proclaimed that vehicles with Serbian plates ought to change to Kosovo ones upon entering the country, as Kosovo vehicles are required to do while entering Serbia. While tension was relieved in the aftermath of the EU mediation, experts analyze that it has a considerable impact on credibility issues in the West Balkans. 

Analyst asserts that the EU is reluctant to condemn Serbia, and it is not appropriately using its leverage. Resultantly, Serbia is flaunting its military might and emerging as an implicit threat in its immediate neighborhood. The EU's staunch statement on the matter can be highly significant, even more than recognition from five member states. However, on the subject, President Ursula von der has defended her staff at the Summit, insisting that she vests complete confidence in the commissioners. All in all, strained relations between Kosovo and Serbia have emerged as one of the most significant challenges to the latter's entry into the organization.

Analysis- major challenges to accession

When it comes to Brdo Declaration, the major source of disappointment was that it did not explicitly mention Albania and Macedonia's status. Similarly, the EU summit failed to give any reliable information about the so-called 'intergovernmental conference' organized by the EU to initiate negotiations for accessions. However, the failure of the EU to attain anything practically and overall reluctance on behalf of member states is not the only challenge. 

Inter-state relations between Western Balkans states are an essential factor here; states are at odds with one another, for example, Serbia-Kosovo tensions. Similarly, the statehood and legitimacy of Bosnia and Kosovo are threatened; overall, there is a widespread prevalence of corruption and transnational crime within the region. Some EU member states also have reservations regarding West Balkan states. For instance, Spain fails to recognize Kosovo as an independent state since it is apprehensive of the link between Kosovo and Catalan and Basque people. Bulgaria is engaged in conflict with North Macedonia over language and identity. Netherland has concern over travelling and staying of Albanian gang members with a stranglehold over drug trafficking network in the country. France views the Western Balkan region as an impediment to European desire for strategic autonomy. 

Thus, on the one hand, the EU is employing delaying tactics by setting forth numerous demands and conditions; on the other hand, it has initiated investment and infrastructural demands in the Western Balkan region. In reality, the EU's primary goal is to sustain the region's political class, which is increasingly depicting unwillingness to be governed by the EU, especially in the wake of China's unconditional funding and direct state-to-state contacts.

Written By: Olivium's Editor


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