The summit hosted by the Slovenian EU presidency on Wednesday brought together leaders of the EU member states and of the six candidate countries in the Western Balkans against the backdrop of enlargement fatigue in the EU and internal divides in the Balkans.
If the six candidate countries - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo – had hoped to be given a time line and date for when they can join the EU, their hopes were dashed.
Forgotten seems to be the new enlargement methodology and procedures proposed by the Commission in February 2020. The proposal was expected to make it easier for the candidate countries to make progress in meeting requirements of membership, in particular implementing far-reaching reforms and aligning with EU rules and regulations.
The Commission aimed then at making the requirements for EU membership clearer to the candidate countries, involving them more in EU programmes before accession, review the fora where negotiations take place and, by the clustering of chapters, make the negotiations more comprehensive and effective. But the Coronavirus crisis and growing populism in the EU have shuffled the cards.
Before the summit, Albania and North Macedonia, had reason to believe that their accession negotiations would start by the end of 2021. That was what the spokespersons of the European Commission – that have assessed that the two countries already comply with the conditions for negotiation talks - had assumed before the summit would happen.
But it turned out that bilateral issues between Bulgaria, a member state since 2007, and North Macedonia have not been solved yet and is also keeping Albania hostage. Nor did Montenegro and Serbia, who already are negotiating, receive any time perspective for when they can join the EU if they will meet all conditions, not even by 2030 as the Slovenian EU Presidency had proposed.
The EU leaders, European Council President Charles Michel and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did their best to keep up the spirit by describing the candidate countries as strategic partners and consoling them by offering them a package of €30 billion in financial support, incl. €9 billion in grants, in the coming seven years, and a pledge to help all of them reach similar vaccination rates to the EU average by the end of 2021.
The summit resulted in a political declaration where the EU outlined the conditions for membership and its expectations of the Western Balkans countries. Both the European perspective and the enlargement process are mentioned in the declaration.
First of all, the EU reaffirms its “unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans and welcomes the commitment of the Western Balkans partners to the European perspective, which is in our mutual strategic interest and remains our shared strategic choice.”
The EU also reconfirms its "commitment to the enlargement process and its decisions taken thereon, based upon credible reforms by partners, fair and rigorous conditionality and the principle of own merits".
Indirectly admitting enlargement fatigue, the EU also “recall the importance that the EU can maintain and deepen its own development, ensuring its capacity to integrate new members”.
The Western Balkans countries on their side “reiterate their dedication to European values and principles and to carrying out necessary reforms in the interest of their people”.
To be sure, the EU specifies the values and principles: the primacy of democracy, fundamental rights and values and the rule of law, and to sustaining efforts in the fight against corruption and organised crime, support for good governance, human rights, gender equality and the rights of persons belonging to minorities.” Civil society and independent and pluralistic media are crucial components.
Using its huge leverage, the EU is also reminding the Western Balkans countries that it is “by far the region's closest partner, main investor and principal donor”. "This support must be fully recognised and conveyed by the partners in their public debate and communication.”
Importantly, the Western Balkans countries have reaffirmed their commitment to inclusive regional cooperation and strengthening good neighbourly relations, including with EU member states, such as their immediate neighbours Greece and Bulgaria.
Further, decisive efforts are required to foster reconciliation and regional stability, as well as to find and implement definitive, inclusive and binding solutions to partners' bilateral disputes and issues rooted in the legacy of the past. Especially, the EU expects concrete progress in the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia towards full normalisation of relations between them.
Council President Michel also referred to the frank talks on EU’s role in the world during the dinner on the eve of the summit. Again, the EU expects the Western Balkans countries to stand in solidarity with the union and support its position on multilateralism and a rules-based international order in relation to global powers such as Russia and China.
"The opening of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania has been held hostage by Bulgaria for almost an entire year now, and this comes on top of an overall delay by others since 2019,” commented Dr Thomas Bickl, a researcher of bilateral conflict and dispute resolution in the Western Balkans.
“No decision can obviously be taken by the care-taker government in Sofia. It’s an open secret on the diplomatic stage in EU quarters that until there is a new government in Bulgaria following the 14 November general election - the third one this year - nothing will move forward.”
“Nationalist sentiments and so-called identity politics have been exploited throughout this year in such irresponsible manner that it will be hard to save face after election day.” He explains that the Bulgarian veto from November 2020 came in at the latest possible moment in the procedure to open negotiations with a candidate country.
“This is an unparalleled incident in the history of the EU accession process. We obviously need some straight talking of a few major players in the EU and beyond to the main actors in Sofia. It’s one thing having to notice the regrettable back-sliding of some EU candidate countries on the rule of law front. Yet, it is another thing that individual EU Member States torpedo the credibility of the EU's enlargement commitment so immensely.”
The French President and others' obstructive role in 2019 leading to a first major delay vis-à-vis Albania and North Macedonia and a revamped EU accession negotiations methodology altogether, he says.
“If short-sighted nationalist or populist sentiments keep prevailing over the strategic interest to incorporate the Western Balkans into the EU, it is little wonder when some of those countries turn to China, Russia, or Turkey instead. It looks like the EU keeps on sleep-walking into a disastrous historic failure in its immediate neighbourhood."
The Brussels Times