When European Council President Charles Michel said on August 28 that the EU and the Western Balkans should be fully prepared for enlargement by 2030, the response from Western Balkans was underwhelming to say the least.
The prime ministers of Albania, Montenegro and Serbia all used their time at the podium at the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia to criticise the EU. Their theme was a similar one; all three leaders talked of having upheld their side of the bargain, only to have Brussels apparently change the goalposts, as well as expressing frustration with the process that has dragged on for years.
Speaking to journalists during the forum, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said that Serbians’ enthusiasm for EU accession is declining, first “because the membership process takes a very long time and there is no end in sight.
“Another reason is that the criteria are constantly changing, that is, what you need to do in order to progress further.”
She also pointed out that while Michel talked of 2030 as a target date for accession, “earlier, in the development strategies, 2025 was mentioned as the year of Serbia's accession to the EU, and that it has now been moved to 2030. We have to do our best to find a way to make it happen sooner or to work with the EU in order to achieve more concrete developments.”
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, meanwhile, said he hoped Michel’s comment would materialise in terms of some progressive steps, but added “not because I believe that in 2030 we will be in the EU, to be honest”.
“Montenegro is a Euro-optimistic country … We have no problems with our neighbours and we are finally delivering results in the fight against corruption and organised crime. It may be sensitive, but the question really sometimes arises, do the EU leaders know what they want? We know. Montenegro wants to be part of the EU,” Montenegro’s outgoing Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic said in Bled.
He added a warning: “If the postponement of enlargement continues, the appearance of Euroscepticism and the influence of some third parties interested in the Western Balkans area is possible. Maybe the countries in this area will no longer have so much enthusiasm to join the European Union.”
Credibility at stake
Enlargement has moved up the political agenda within the EU since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine starkly demonstrated the importance of European unity in the face of external security threats. Not only did the EU speedily offer candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova – something other countries such as Albania waited years to achieve – it also took the long-awaited step of greenlighting accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.
The danger that long-drawn out accession processes lead to a waning of enthusiasm for EU accession in potential member states – as already seen most obviously in Serbia where more people now want to join BRICS than the EU – which in turn opens the way for Russia and other third parties to expand their influence. Michel thus commented on the need to demonstrate the EU’s credibility among would-be members.
“To be credible, I believe we must talk about timing and homework. And I have a proposal. As we prepare the EU’s next strategic agenda, we must set ourselves a clear goal. I believe we must be ready – on both sides – to enlarge by 2030,” Michel said at the Bled forum.
Michel also emphasised the need for the EU to ready itself for enlargement. "Let’s be honest: we have sometimes used the lack of progress of future member states to avoid facing our own preparedness. We must now take a serious look at the EU's capacity to absorb new members," he said.
The EU Council president said he would advocate for the start of negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova. Moreover, he anticipates a re-evaluation of Bosnia & Herzegovina and Georgia's positions.
"There is still a lot of work to do. It will be difficult and sometimes painful. For the future member states and for the EU," Michel warned. Specifically, he acknowledged that addressing historical conflicts might prove more arduous than implementing reforms, but underscored their inevitability.
No other region than the Western Balkans has the scale of conflicts that might prevent its states from joining the EU. Three decades ago wars were raging in former Yugoslavia, leaving rifts the like of which do not exist in other parts of Central and Southeast Europe. Admittedly there are some conflicts between existing EU members – such as the border issue between Croatia and Slovenia over Piran Bay. However, there has been nothing on the scale of the issues that are holding the Western Balkans countries back from joining the EU.
The most obvious of these is the unresolved situation between Serbia and Kosovo that sporadically flares into small-scale violence – as seen most recently in the clashes between Serb protesters and law enforcers in northern Kosovo this May. Neither country will be able to progress towards accession until their relations are normalised; as yet, Kosovo has been unable even to secure candidate status as it is not recognised as independent by five EU members.
Yet there are many others. Greece held back North Macedonia, a candidate state since December 2005, from starting accession talks for years as it objected to the country name, at that time “Macedonia”. Only after politicians in Skopje agreed to change the name to “North Macedonia” did Athens lift its objections. Yet the newly-renamed North Macedonia has still not been able to progress, as another EU member, Bulgaria, then stepped in with conditions of its own. The government in Skopje is struggling to get unpopular constitutional changes through the parliament in order to get started on its accession talks.
Now Albania is facing threats to hold up its accession talks from Greece, which objected to the detention of the ethnic Greek mayor of the Albanian city of Himara on vote-buying charges. Politicians in Athens have threatened that Albania’s progress will be stalled if Fredi Beleri is not released, while the Albanian government insists justice must take its course.
Dragging such bilateral issues into the EU accession process is worrying, as they are like hydra heads – when one issue is resolved it’s unclear if or when another might crop up. There are plenty of other issues that might become problematic. Croatia and Serbia have periodically clashed over the prosecution of each others’ citizens for war crimes, with the Croatian government warning in 2022 it could block Serbia’s EU membership talks. In a legacy of their shared history within Yugoslavia, a dispute is brewing between Croatia and Montenegro over ownership of the 1933 Jadran training ship, seen as symbolically important to both countries. Budapest has previously had differences with Kyiv over the rights of the large Hungarian minority in Ukraine’s Transcarpathia region.
On top of this, the Western Balkan countries remain significantly poorer than even the poorest of the existing EU members.
World Bank data shows that the average GDP per capital in the EU was $37,149 in 2022; even in the richest of the nine states from the Western Balkans, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus this figure came in at below $10,000.
There are also issues concerning corruption and the rule of law. Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) for 2022 found Hungary was the most corrupt EU country, in 77th place on the index of 180 countries and territories. However, of the aspiring EU members, only Georgia (41st place) and Montenegro (65th) performed better than Hungary.
Similarly, Freedom House’s latest Nations in Transit report that looks at the state of democracy in the emerging Europe and Central Asia region classifies all the aspiring EU members as Transitional or Hybrid Regimes; by contrast, all the EU members except Hungary are either Consolidated or Semi-Consolidated Democracies.
Two paths to follow
Since the huge wave of accessions of mainly Central European states in 2004, there have been very few new members of the EU. From the Southeast Europe region, after Slovenia was part of that wave, Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007 and Croatia in 2013.
Indeed, the experience of Bulgaria and Romania has arguably slowed the process since then, as many within the union believe they were let in too soon. That led to the creation of the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) specifically for the two countries, to monitor their process in fighting corruption and, in Bulgaria’s case, organised crime. The fact that they are still seen as less worthy members by some of their fellow member states is highlighted by their failure so far to be endorsed as members of the borderless Schengen area.
Longer-established members Poland and Hungary have also been problematic as their self-styled illiberal leaders have repeatedly clashed Brussels over the values of the bloc.
Croatia and Slovenia, by contrast, offer a much more positive path to follow. Slovenia, along with Czechia, is the wealthiest state from the ex-socialist patch, and a core member of the union as a member of the eurozone and Schengen area. Croatia followed suit at the beginning of 2023 when it entered both groupings.