EU Enlargement: Focus on the Balkans

Politics - November 26, 2023

The Western Balkans region is historically a complex area given its geopolitical importance in the world order. In fact, the Balkans have long been, and still are, the privileged stage not only of numerous conflicts (military and otherwise), but also the converging point of interests of multiple states, which have attempted to insert themselves into this macro-region in order to make the most of it.

China, the U.S. and Russia are the ones that have most attempted to be present in this context, succeeding in their intent and now being able to boast a massive presence in these territories.

It must be remembered, however, that what should be the privileged external interlocutor is the European Union. Which, however, in the course of time has sinned by neglect, precisely by having other powers take over the Balkan chessboard, too often abandoning it to itself.

Nonetheless, in many policies the European Union has risen to the occasion, so much so that many of these states have approached it and requested to become an integral part of it, perhaps partly because they are strategically located within the European continent.

Today, therefore, the Eu has managed to become the main source of direct investment in the area, and also the main trading partner in both imports and exports, far ahead of the other players.

So far, there are countries in the area that are already part of the EU, namely Slovenia (which has been an Eu member since 2004), Romania and Bulgaria (Eu countries since 2007), and Croatia (which joined in 2013).

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are two potential candidate countries for membership. Montenegro, Serbia, the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania, on the other hand, are official candidates.

The two states that are furthest along in the integration process are Serbia and Montenegro.

Montenegro in particular joined NATO in 2017, and over the years has made a lot of progress in reaching European standards. Despite this, the country still has issues related to limited fundamental freedoms, which hinders the democratic process in no small way.

Montenegro is just one example of how the concept of the rule of law has not been fully brought to fruition in this particular area. Indeed, in general.

North Macedonia is proportionately the one that has made the most progress in recent times. The change of the country’s official name (from Macedonia to North Macedonia) is part of this line, which was necessary to settle the Greek-Macedonian dispute and thus facilitate possible membership, in addition to the European Union, in NATO.

Since 1999 the European Union has initiated the so-called Stabilization and Association Process (shortly, SAP), which has brought the EU closer to the Balkan area. This process is characterized by bilateral relations, political dialogues, trade relations and regional cooperation.

This process and the overall relationship between the EU and the Balkans has developed over the years, and has gone through several stages. One of these stages was the EU-Western Balkans summit held in 2021, in Slovenia, at which a declaration was adopted by European and Balkan leaders precisely to strengthen the commitment to the integration of the region into the Union.

Another milestone was marked by the recent Bled Economic Forum, now in its 18th year, also held in Slovenia on August 28-29, 2023. On this occasion, bilateral EU-Balkan relations received special attention.

The EU’s desire to enlarge by 2030 was reiterated. A goal that seems very ambitious, considering also all the problematic issues of the current complex political status, taking into account that the impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine, which somehow almost forcibly led the EU to revive its enlargement policy latent in the last historical period. And so it is that strong relations have resumed between the EU and the Balkan states, which have long been looking to Brussels to take a step forward and to come to an ever closer cooperation and integration with the Western world.

Among other things, EU Council President Charles Michel reiterated how enlargement is a merit-based process, and that candidates should join once they are ready to do so. Countries must meet specific criteria before they can become full members of the EU, criteria that have to do mainly with economic and judicial reforms. Similarly, other uncomfortable issues, such as those of organized crime, judicial independence, and economic reforms, must also be addressed.

But enlargement, if it is to take place, must include reforms of the EU itself as well, considering the new realities that would come into it.

And it is precisely on the work done by the European Union that there has been no shortage of criticism, so much so that several countries have expressed disappointment with the slow process leading to accession. A process that, on closer inspection, took an average of nine years for the 21 member states that began the process.

in response to all this, President Michel stated that the Eu’s intent is to support the accession process through action to make integration a gradual, step-by-step path, so that candidate states are gradually brought into the EU’s energy, single market, and security and defense policies, so that candidate countries feel the benefits even before formal accession. A response that, however, does not seem to have fully satisfied all stakeholders.

In any case, today the Eu’s commitment on this issue seems to be more concrete than in the past. A new opportunity to discuss how and when to integrate new members is likely to arise in Granada, when the 27 EU heads of state will meet in early October for a meeting of the European Political Community in which the leaders of the candidate countries from this geographical area will also participate.

The focus brought forward during the days of the Bled Strategic Forum on relations between the EU and the states of the Balkan area is a push to think and act to realize in reality an Eu enlargement process, no longer leaving it just a utopia, but a concrete project.

The goal heralded by the EU summits is meant to be a positive message for the future for those states that are not yet part of the EU family, and the status that has already been granted to Ukraine and Moldova is a tangible sign of this European enlargement project. There is certainly no shortage of great work to be done, especially in terms of reforms to be carried out in the nations that aspire to be truly European.

Likewise, there is a need for the European institutions to do their part as well, for example by including common goals and preparing investments targeted at this area in the next multi-year EU budget.

The EU-Balkan integration process is a key part of the overall EU enlargement process and will again be brought to the attention of political leaders in the near future. The hope is that concrete proposals will be forthcoming as soon as possible to finally bring about what should be a process that will lead to the new candidate states formally joining the European Union.

The conditio sine qua non for enlarging the european family is that the candidates respect the basic conditions of democracy, freedom and respect, so as to bring mutual benefits on both sides. Because the countries in the Balkan area are first and foremost European countries, with common roots with the entire continent, and as a result it is important to view the enlargement of the Eu’s borders more as a reunification and inclusion rather than a merely political enlargement.