Mounting ethnic tensions in Bosnia and Herzegovina; violence in northern Kosovo; coalition squabbles in Montenegro; mass protests in Serbia; and the resignation of the North Macedonian Prime Minister.
Amid such turmoil, the EU’s hopes of enlargement in the Western Balkans appear to be as distant as ever.
Although EU leaders have repeatedly highlighted their commitment to granting EU membership to the Western Balkans states if they carry out certain social, political and economic reforms, evidence of tangible progress on enlargement remains minimal.
If the EU is serious about moving forward with its integration efforts and working with candidate countries to help secure regional stability, it may need a fresh approach.
Of the six countries in the Western Balkans, Montenegro, Serbia, the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania are official candidates for accession, while Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidate countries.
At the recent EU-Western Balkans summit in Slovenia, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, “The Western Balkans belong to the European Union. We want them in the European Union. We are one European family”.
That message was reiterated by Slovenian Interior Minister Aleš Hojs during his country’s EU Council Presidency sponsored EU-Western Balkans Ministerial Forum at the beginning of December. “The Western Balkan region is an integral part of Europe,” he said, before going on to stress the importance of working together on common challenges.
"Although EU leaders have repeatedly highlighted their commitment to granting EU membership to the Western Balkans states if they carry out certain social, political and economic reforms, evidence of tangible progress on enlargement remains minimal"
However, there remain multiple barriers to accession: there are problems relating to the transfer of regional funds to less developed regions; concerns that the addition of new Member States could upset the EU’s already fraught decision-making process on migration; and the prospect of renewed ethnic conflict in the region.
“There is an ongoing debate between the 27 on the Union’s capacity to integrate new member states,” acknowledged European Council President Charles Michel in his address at the EU-Western Balkans summit.
The feeling in some EU member states towards their Western Balkans neighbours has at times been less than friendly, as shown by Bulgaria’s decision to veto EU accession talks with North Macedonia over long-standing historical, linguistic and ethnicity disputes. Given that consensus among the EU27 is required when a country applies for EU membership, Bulgaria’s veto is enough on its own to halt the negotiations.
Incentives are another problem area. Reforms are a prerequisite to membership, but candidate countries may be unwilling to enact changes if the prospect of membership is neither feasible nor realistic.
In this scenario, both sides suffer losses: the EU loses the authority to influence and shape the foreign policy agenda in its neighbourhood, and the Western Balkans are deprived of the stabilising benefits of membership, such as increased funding and investment.
Although the EU and the Western Balkans cooperate closely on trade and energy, some European leaders have expressed concerns that Russia and China may try to take advantage of Europe’s enlargement reticence to increase their influence in the region. Russia’s opposition to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s NATO membership ambitions and its encouragement of the Bosnian Serbs is a particular source of concern.
“The EU's public pronouncements seem to indicate a growing awareness of the heightened geopolitical competition in the Western Balkans, especially China's growing influence in the region", suggests Brussels-based EU affairs commentator Shada Islam.
“But”, she adds, “so far the EU's response has been insufficient, rhetorical and fairly clumsy, reflecting internal EU divisions and inadequate policy tools to react to the new geopolitical landscape”.
"While the recent turmoil in parts of the Western Balkans may have helped push European and indeed US policymakers to renew their focus on the region, there are now growing calls for changes to the EU’s approach"
Brussels appears to have recognised that its demands for reform may have created difficulties.
Following the October presentation of the 2021 Enlargement Package by European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi, the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee chair, David McAllister called for a relaxation of the benchmarks that candidate countries are required to meet for accession talks to proceed.
It has been 26 years since the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which brought an end to war in Bosnia and outlined a General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it has been 22 years since the Kosovo War came to an end.
A return to violence is considered extremely unlikely. However, the legacy of trauma serves as a reminder of the importance of preserving stability and security in the region.
While the recent turmoil in parts of the Western Balkans may have helped push European and indeed US policymakers to renew their focus on the region, there are now growing calls for changes to the EU’s approach.
“Helping citizens loosen the grip of corrupt elites, and re-establishing good governance within institutions, would go a long way to more fully supporting reforms and boosting the EU’s leverage in a region key to enhancing its international credibility and ensuring its neighbourhood’s stability,” suggests Vessela Tcherneva, deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations in a recent commentary.