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“Limited to Some Progress”: The Need to Re-Energize the Enlargement Process in the Western Balkans

Maša Ocvirk Wilson Center Headshot

As Ukraine and Moldova get approved as candidate countries to the EU, this article highlights the importance of keeping the momentum for EU enlargement going in the Western Balkans.

EU-Western Balkans Summit, December 13, 2023
On December 13, 2023, EU and Western Balkans leaders met in Brussels for their fourth annual summit.

The swift approval of Ukraine and Moldova’s candidate country status revived the question of EU accession for the Western Balkans. It has been 20 years since the Thessaloniki declaration promised an EU perspective for the region, with limited progress—the latest being Bosnia and Herzegovina’s candidate status in December 2022. In the past months, the region has received significant high-level attention. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited the Western Balkans in October; last week, EU leaders met for another summit with their Western Balkan counterparts. These are all symbolic acts to show commitment to the region’s future in the EU. However, the latest enlargement progress reports from the European Commission show little progress by these aspirant countries on much-needed reforms. While the European Council gives the green light to accession negotiations for Ukraine and Moldova, the EU continues to struggle to find ways to keep the accession momentum going in the Western Balkans.

All Quiet on the Western Balkans Front

In November, the European Commission released its latest enlargement “package”— individual reports assessing the progress of EU candidate countries. The six Western Balkan countries are all at different stages of the (pre-)accession process. What they have in common is rather slow progress on reforms. The most “advanced” in the process, Montenegro and Serbia, have failed to provisionally close new chapters for several years now. The accusations of electoral fraud in Serbia’s snap elections on December 17–the second such elections since April 2022–show concerning developments for its path to EU membership. Similarly, Montenegro’s several years of domestic political instability has made progress difficult. However, the newly formed government has put EU accession at the forefront of its foreign policy priorities, returning some optimism for Montenegro to continue, as President von der Leyen stated, being “the most advanced Western Balkan country on the EU accession path.”

When it comes to Albania and North Macedonia—again borrowing the European Commission’s assessment scale—“limited to some progress” best describes the situation. Both countries recently concluded screening meetings, a step forward on their accession paths. However, the next stage, opening and closing chapters, is a very technical and arduous process, often affected by internal European Council dynamics. Case in point: North Macedonia needs to once again amend its constitution to recognize the Bulgarian minority in order to continue to the next phase of negotiations.

The Commission’s apparent membership boost for Bosnia and Herzegovina was seen as a success. But the devil is in the details. Opening negotiations is conditioned upon the fulfillment of 14 key priorities from 2019 with limited progress shown in the latest report. The Friends of the Western Balkans group has argued the recommendation and the stamp of approval by the European Council, to open negotiations would be a much-needed political signal to Bosnia’s future in the EU. However, at its December summit, the European Council endorsed the position of the Commission—another revision of Bosnia’s progress is scheduled for March 2024. Significant progress in such a short time is unfortunately wishful thinking, especially considering the current domestic political polarization. Kosovo remains an aspiring candidate country and in the most precarious position, as it is still not recognized by five EU member states. While it has passed some meaningful electoral and judicial reforms, the recent tensions in the north of Kosovo that culminated in the Banjska attack on September 24, 2023 have stalled progress in  normalizing relations with Serbia—essential for moving further down the EU path.  

How the EU Plans to Bring the Process Back to Life?

Lack of progress in bringing the Western Balkans closer to the EU have increased calls for a different, more proactive approach. In her speech at the GLOBSEC Bratislava Forum in May 2023, President von der Leyen stated that the EU has finally realized “it is not enough to wait for countries to move closer to the EU, the EU also needs to take responsibility to bring these countries closer”. She announced a new Growth Plan for the Western Balkans, on top of the already existing Economic and Investment Plan from 2020. At October’s meeting of the Berlin Process in Tirana, Albania, von der Leyen further delineated the structure and purpose of the plan. The four-pillar plan envisages boosting integration into the Single Market and within a common regional market, as well as further incentivizing fundamental reforms through increased financial assistance (2 million euros in grants and 4 million euros in loans).

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen at the GLOBSEC 2023 Bratislava Forum, May 31, 2023.

Although currently only a proposal, the Commission argues the Growth Plan is the way to push forward the enlargement momentum in the Western Balkans. The foreseen progressive integration into the Single Market and the establishment of a fully functional regional market would be key drivers of growth, as well as fundamental reforms. This would translate to concrete deliverables of EU integration for the people—much needed, as EU membership is becoming less and less feasible in the eyes of many in the Western Balkans. Furthermore, “by incentivizing countries to accelerate the adoption and implementation of the acquis”, this would also accelerate the accession process itself.

While a welcome additional tool, the Growth Plan alone cannot be a changemaker. The four pillars are all intertwined, meaning Single Market access is dependent on implementing fundamental reforms, as well as the common regional market (CRM). In theory, such conditionality makes sense, as it encourages regional cooperation and an increased pace of EU-related reforms. However, after years of ambiguity and unfulfilled commitments, it is not surprising regional leaders did not greet more conditionality with open arms. The Prime Minister of North Macedonia, Bujar Osmani, stated that 6 billion euros for 6 countries is not enough to address the core issue of integration—the ever-growing socio-economic convergence gap. The rather lukewarm responses to the plan therefore raise questions about its potential to incentivize reforms and re-energize the accession process in the region.

The EU Wants You

On December 13, the eve before the European Council Summit, EU leaders met their Western Balkan counterparts. The meeting tried to reassure the leaders that  the enlargement momentum is alive and kicking in the Western Balkans, while trying to fend off claims of ‘favoritism’ towards Eastern partners–Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. After Bosnia and Herzegovina failed to receive a straightforward Commission recommendation on opening accession talks, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg warned that the EU cannot “glance at some candidates with rose-colored glasses while examining others thoroughly with a magnifying glass”. This is part of an ongoing debate on the perceived unequal treatment of Western Balkan candidate countries compared to Ukraine and Moldova. According to Schallenberg, if the EU favors Ukraine over the Western Balkans, this could end in a “geostrategic disaster”.

The EU-Western Balkans Summit happened with little fanfare or media attention, compared to the later meeting of the European Council that saw the announcement of major progress for Ukraine and Moldova’s EU journey. The same goes for the adopted Brussels Declaration, with several parts of the text being almost a carbon copy of last year’s Tirana Declaration. Its significance, however, is that it anchors the role of gradual integration to bring the region closer to the EU—later also confirmed in the Council conclusions. All eggs for gradual integration of Western Balkans are currently in one basket—the Growth Plan. However, the declaration also calls for the EU “to explore additional measures aimed at further advancing gradual integration”. With the Commission’s mandate ending in June 2024, it is difficult to see meaningful progress coming from its side any time soon. However, member states, such as France, Germany, Portugal, and the Friends of the Western Balkans group, have all put forth proposals on ways to advance gradual integration. This puts the ball in the Belgium Presidency’s court to keep this political momentum going.

The EU has often blamed lack of progress on the stringent merit-based process and lack of “strong political determination” from Western Balkan leaders to adopt tough reforms. Oftentimes, however, enlargement progress has been stalled due to the EU’s lack of willingness to move forward. There is no doubt that Western Balkan countries need to do their part in advancing reforms, which some may not do. There is no fast-track option for EU membership. But years of enlargement fatigue have left their mark on the credibility of the enlargement process. The EU therefore needs to work on mitigating the effects of its internal disunity, as much as advancing gradual integration. Only by doing so will the EU be able to rebuild the necessary credibility of the process, where reform progress is rewarded, and hopefully inject some much needed energy into integrating the Western Balkans into the EU.

About the Author

Maša Ocvirk Wilson Center Headshot

Masa Ocvirk

Program Coordinator, Global Europe Program
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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more