Current Developments in the Western Balkans & EU Accession Processes
December 14, 2022
International Relations and Diplomacy
On 1 December 2022, Schiller International University organized an IRD Global Talk on the topic “Current Developments in the Western Balkans & EU Accession Processes”. This talk, given by Dr. Alenka Verbole, explored what the Western Balkans region is, as well as its characteristics and specificities in light of the lengthy EU accession process. Emphasis was laid on developments, challenges, and stakeholders, in the region and beyond, looking at the six countries (WB6) that are Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and Kosovo**.
Dr. Verbole first recalled that the ‘Western Balkans’ is a political construct. It is a multi-ethnic and political area in the south-eastern part of Europe that suffered from severe conflicts and where security threats may still escalate. It is a neologism coined and used by the EU to refer to the WB6 in relation to the enlargement policy, namely Albania and the territory of the Former Yugoslavia – apart from Slovenia - since the early 1990s.
The enlargement process, which has security implications, has been highly politicized, both in the WB6 and the EU itself. The introduction of new rules and preconditions, most recently the 2020 enlargement methodology, has brought a new dimension into the accession process and may have different impacts on the process as well as the WB6: the promotion of the Open Balkans initiative, the 2020 Economic and Investment Plan for the WB6, the 2021 EU-WB6 Summit as an attempt for a political dialogue, and the adoption of the 2021 European Commission Enlargement Package were all important milestones.
For the WB6, the benefits of EU membership encompass access to a single market; common action on cross-border issues; individual protection; and critical mass in a global context. But who can become an EU member? Any European country that satisfies the conditions for membership can apply. These conditions are known as the ‘Copenhagen criteria’: 1. stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities; 2. a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces in the EU; 3. the ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of membership, including adherence to the aims of political, economic, and monetary union.
In 1999, the EU Council established the Stabilization and Association Process confirming that the WB6 would be eligible for EU membership if they met the Copenhagen criteria. Additional requirements refer to: the rule of law; freedom of expression and media; civil society; regional cooperation; public administration reform; and good neighborly relations. Since 2003, the Thessaloniki Agenda for the WB6 also remains the cornerstone of the EU policy towards the region. There were talks in Sofia in 2018 and in Zagreb in 2020 that reconfirmed the 2003 Agenda.
The current situation and dynamics across the WB6 are very challenging. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the sensitive and unstable political environment. Albania, according to the latest EU report, keeps struggling with corruption and organized crime, dysfunctional democratic institutions, and slow progress with the judiciary and electoral reform. BiH, on its side, needs to step up its 14 key priorities. For both Kosovo** and Serbia, a normalization of mutual relations is a precondition for EU accession. In Montenegro, further efforts are needed in the fields of rule of law and fundamental laws, fight against corruption, organized crime, money laundering and human trafficking, as well as freedom of expression and media independence.
In the end, what do the WB6 countries want? Surveys indicate that public support for EU membership varies significantly across the region, with Albania and Kosovo** usually scoring high and Serbia low. Besides, the WB6 are at very different stages in the accession process, sending mixed signals and building partnerships beyond the EU. Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia, and Albania are official candidates. Accession talks and all negotiation chapters have been opened with Montenegro and Serbia. BiH and Kosovo** are potential candidate countries.
What does the EU want from the WB6? The EU seeks a continued trade partnership; the implementation of necessary reforms (political, financial, and technical) as well as alignment with EU rules and regulations; effective economic governance; the highest standards of adherence to the rule of law; the promotion of media freedom and a vibrant civil society; connected, green, and people-focused growth and sharing of security challenges. However, some EU member states do not support the enlargement process and/or openly express skepticism towards such enlargement. Lack of commitment from both sides is challenging. In the end, the question is: Are the WB6 ‘not unstable enough’?
This talk helped reflect on several key questions: What are future prospects? What do the WB6 and their politicians and populations want? What are possible scenarios, if the process continues to be stalled? Is there a shared EU vision for the WB6? Is the EU willing and able to integrate new members? What about the timetable and how to move forward? The long-awaited acceleration of the EU integration related to the 2022 developments in Ukraine and Moldova obtaining the candidate status are heavily impacting the situation in the WB6, but what will it mean concretely? The enlargement policy can have a major impact but for this, it must be credible, merit-based, and serious.
* Dr. Alenka Verbole teaches International Relations & Diplomacy at Schiller International University and has lectured at Slovenia’s Diplomatic Academy. She is a journalist, sociologist, researcher, diplomat, and political analyst. Her interest in social and political affairs has resulted in over 25 years of experience working in multi-cultural and multi-ethnic environments, mainly with inter-governmental organizations such as the United Nations (UN), Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Regional Cooperation Council (RCC) and Council of Europe (CoE). Her main focus areas are democratization, good governance, conflict prevention and management, peacebuilding, negotiation and mediation, electoral reform and elections, gender equality, civil society and youth development, as well as the media. She has also significant experience in capacity building in multiple contexts (Europe, North Africa, Caucasus, Central Asia) designed to encourage men and women’s participation in democratic processes.
** This designation is without prejudice to positions on status and in line with UNSCR 1244 and the ICJ Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.
This event was convened by Dr. Myriam Benraad, Global Academic Chair in International Relations & Diplomacy at Schiller International University.