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The Western Balkans in the EU: dream or reality?

International Affairs Analyst

EU - Western Balkan Leaders' Summit, 2022 | Credit: European Commission, Wikimedia Commons

The EU enlargement process in the Western Balkans

If a country wants to join the EU, it must fulfil the Copenhagen criteria, a set of political, economic, administrative and institutional criteria established by the European Council in 1993. Then, if the Commission gives a positive opinion on potential EU membership and all member states accept the country’s application, it can be granted candidate country status. This status is granted by the European Council, following an opinion from the European Commission. Following these first steps, through a series of negotiations, the country in question must adopt and implement all EU legislation and adapt its institutional set-up to that of Brussels. Only at the end of this process can the treaty of accession, which concludes the enlargement process, once it has been approved by Parliament and the Council, be signed and ratified by the third country and all EU member states.

All Western Balkan countries have been granted candidate status, with the exception of Kosovo, which is a potential candidate country. Furthermore, Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have begun negotiations to adapt their institutional systems to those of the EU. It would therefore seem that the EU enlargement process in the Western Balkans area is proceeding as planned, but the real problem is the very long timeframe with which the process is advancing. In fact, all these countries obtained candidate status between 10 and 15 years ago, with the exception of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which obtained it in 2022, and Kosovo, which has not obtained it yet. It is therefore not surprising that the leaders of the Western Balkan countries are increasingly sceptical of the accession

of their countries in the EU.

The importance of the Western Balkans for the EU

The Balkan area has always been an important crossroads between Europe and Asia, making it an area of great strategic and geopolitical importance. Not by chance, this region has historically been an area of interest for both Russia and Turkey, and in recent times it has also become relevant within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, the plan to invest in land and sea infrastructure to foster trade between China and the rest of Eurasia. Consequently, integrating the Western Balkans would mean for the EU to contain the penetration of these powers in the area.

Another important aspect is the raw materials in which these states are rich. It is, in fact, an area extremely rich in critical raw materials such as cobalt, nickel, and copper. However, these countries are almost entirely without an industrial and service apparatus capable of generating new wealth due to the wars of the 1990s. Accession to the European project would therefore guarantee the Union access to these resources and the Balkan countries their exploitation.

Thirdly, the troubled history of the Balkans and the wars of the 1990s following the break-up of Yugoslavia make the region still politically unstable, as witnessed by the still unresolved situationbetween Serbia and Kosovo. Enlargement would stabilise the region, prevent the outbreak of new crises and consolidate the values of peace, democracy, economic integration and open society that underpin the European integration process.

The obstacles to the EU enlargement process

The EU’s ambitions, however, come up against practical and political challenges that have hindered enlargement for years. First, in order to join the Union, applicants must meet the so-called ‘Copenhagen criteria’, according to which an aspiring member state must have strong democratic institutions, a functioning market economy able to compete in the European single market, and the legal capacity to accept obligations under European law. Although applications for EU membership have been formally accepted, which presupposes the fulfilment of these criteria, the recent history of the Western Balkans suggests that the countries of the region still have some way to go to fully meet these criteria. Two examples are Bosnia, which still has to deal with a rather unstable and problematic internal situation, and North Macedonia, where problems with corruption and respect for human rights have been noted.

Secondly, the EU faces obstacles within the Union itself, as the accession of a new state requires the unanimous vote of all member states, but at the moment several countries have reservations about the possible enlargement of the six candidates. This is the case of Bulgaria, which makes the recognition by the Skopje government of the status of the Macedonian language as a dialect of the Bulgarian language a condition for North Macedonia's entry. Similarly, Spain, Cyprus, Greece, Romania and Slovakia do not recognise Kosovan independence for fear of legitimising secessionist aspirations in

their territories, as in Catalonia or Northern Cyprus. Moreover, Kosovo’s and Serbia’s membership prospects are conditional on the normalisation process of their relations, which, as already mentioned, are far from being resolved. Moreover, the leaders of some member states, such as French leader Emmanuel Macron, have expressed misgivings about further EU enlargement, believing that it is necessary to first strengthen the EU internally and then externally.

Another obstacle to EU enlargement in the Western Balkans is precisely the fragmentation of the area’s political, ethnic, and social landscape. Indeed, the elimination of regional conflicts is, to date, the sine qua non for taking the EU enlargement process to the next level. Indeed, a supranational political structure such as the EU, which has been promoting peace and prosperity among European countries for 70 years, would risk including within it dangerous hotbeds of war, which instead need all possible efforts to be resolved in order to conform the Balkan countries to the pursuit of the EU’s core values. Instability in the Balkans is thus both an incentive for these countries to join the EU and an obstacle. Indeed, while these countries hope that the EU itself will resolve their internal diatribes,

the Commission and member states are unsure of the EU’s ability to control these conflicts.

Finally, another extremely important aspect concerns the economic capacity of these states. There is no doubt that the bloody wars of the 1990s contributed decisively to the impoverishment of a considerable industrial economic system. Even today the debris from the dismemberment of Yugoslavia is still being picked up, but economic data show how the effect, on individual countries, has been substantially different. In fact, while Slovenia and Croatia immediately embarked on a path of economic and political consolidation that allowed them to grow at a rapid pace and join the EU in 2004 and 2013 respectively, all the other countries had to contend with internal conflicts and a much more unstable economy. Paradoxically, some of the reasons why these countries would like to join the EU, such as to solve socio-economic problems, are the same reasons why the European integration

process in the Balkan region is proceeding so slowly.

The consequences of European wavering on the Western Balkans

The promise of EU membership has always been the strongest foreign policy tool the EU could use. Indeed, just as between the 1970s and 1980s the democratic transition in Greece, Spain, and Portugal was aided by the promise of their EU entry, so the 27-member countries continue to use EU enlargement to influence the politics of the countries waiting to join the Union. For example, EU entry is inextricably linked to the consolidation of democracy in the Western Balkans, as well as an inevitable move away from Russia, which has always exerted great influence on these populations. However, continued delays in the EU enlargement process are undermining the EU’s credibility and bringing these countries closer to other powers with an interest in the Balkan area, such as China and Turkey. Not surprisingly, the narrative slowly building in the region, in Serbia in particular, is that China is the real partner to rely on.

Moreover, with a market of 18 million consumers, easily connected to the European common market, the Western Balkans have real economic potential that is not yet exploited. In times when globalization will be reviewed and production networks downsized, new opportunities can be created to attract new Western investment to the Balkans. However, the current state of the European integration process in the Balkan region is not conducive to creating the conditions for a friendly and attractive business environment.

The EU’s hesitations are creating discontent not only in the Balkan area, but also within the EU itself. Indeed, the issue of EU enlargement is closely linked to the internal reforms that many have described as necessary to welcome new members, such as the use of majority voting instead of unanimity in the Council. However, while there are member countries strongly in favor of these reforms that would strengthen the supranational character of the EU, such as Germany, others are just as adamantly opposed, as in the case of Orban’s Hungary. Therefore, the topic of EU enlargement in the Balkans is causing splits within the Union to emerge in an increasingly tense climate.

What do Balkan citizens think about the EU?

Despite this complex situation, EU membership continues to be seen by the citizens of the Western Balkans as a guarantee for a more prosperous and secure future. Indeed, the latest Balkan Barometer survey showed that three quarters of the Western Balkans’ citizens are in favour of regional cooperation with the EU because they see it as good for their economies, and 59% of the population confirmed their support for EU integration, although this is 3% less than in 2021. At the same time, however, only 22% of respondents believe that enlargement can take place by 2030.

On the other hand, despite the more than positive opinion of the population, the situation changes in the case of the political class, as there are governments that still openly support enlargement and others that are more uncertain. Among those that emphasise their support for the EU are Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Montenegro, which in March 2023 launched the Western Balkan Quad initiative - 100% compliance with EU foreign policy - in which the four countries pledge to align themselves with EU foreign policy towards the Russian Federation, coordinating their policies. The opposite case is represented by Serbia, which, given its proximity to Russia, opts for a policy of non-alignment and greater detachment from the EU. However, Serbia’s international positioning is also a reflection of its public opinion. In fact, according to a study conducted by the European Council of Foreign Relations (2021), only 11% of Serbs consider the EU an ally and a necessary partner, while more than half of the respondents trust Russia. This opinion is partly influenced by the doubts Serbs have about their country’s entry into the EU. In fact, the same poll reveals that a third of Serbs believe that EU membership will never happen.


In conclusion, we have seen how the enlargement of the EU in the Balkan region is more complicated than expected, as there are political and socio-economic obstacles that are not easy to overcome. However, the accumulated delays are only deteriorating relations between the EU and the Balkan countries, which are getting closer to powers such as China and Turkey.

Therefore, the 27-member countries are called upon to stabilize relations with the Balkan countries and clarify how and when the enlargement process is proceeding. Clarifications needed not so much to appease the Balkan citizens, which on the whole continue to be confident about the EU, as the leaders of these countries. Indeed, at their meeting in Skopje on September 11, 2023, the leaders of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia firmly declared that the Western Balkans are ready to join the EU by 2030 at the latest. A deadline that to date seems more like a dream than a reality


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