According to a new strategy presented by the European Commission on February 6 that the countries of the Western Balkans could join the EU as early as 2025.
The Commission’s action plan states that the path to EU membership for Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, FYROM/Macedonia, and Albania lays in the individual countries ability settle several key internal as well as regional issues – all which will be major obstacles in a region known for its troubled history of ethnic and religious conflict.
“All countries must unequivocally commit, in both word and deed, to overcoming the legacy of the past, by achieving reconciliation and solving open issues well before their accession to the EU, in particular, border disputes,” the Commission said in its report.
Serbia and its far smaller neighbour Montenegro were singled out by the Commission for having to radically improve their ability to enforce the rule-of-law and clean up the basic governing practices in their respective nations before either would be able to move past the official “candidate status” that each currently holds, to and considered serious contenders for full EU membership.
Belgrade would have to move towards signing a comprehensive agreement over the status of Kosovo – which declared its independence from Serbia 10 years ago following a decade of bloody sectarian conflict. The Muslim ethnic Albanians make up a 90 percent majority of the region’s population and demand independence from Serbia proper, while the Eastern Orthodox Serbs, who regard the tiny mountainous region as their spiritual heartland, insist that Kosovo is an integral part of the nation’s patrimony.
EU Enlargement Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, echoed the sentiment spelled out in the Commission’s report about any lingering or potentially violent tensions in the region when he told members of the media while in Strasbourg, “From a European perspective, it’s important to understand that we either export stability or we import instability. The EU and its member states will never accept a state that hasn’t resolved pending issues or conflicts.”
Any talk of recognising Kosovo – which has yet to apply for EU association agreement due to its disputed status – outside of Serbia’s territorial borders has thus far been off the table for Belgrade since NATO launched a controversial air campaign on the side of the Albanian KLA rebel forces against the then-government of Yugoslavia and its Serbian ultra-nationalist dictator, Slobodan Milosevic, in March 1999.
Serbia’s government under current President Aleksandar Vucic has yet to recognise Kosovo’s independence, but the Commission was clear that Belgrade would need to normalise relations with the Kosovar government in its capital Pristina before formal membership talks could begin.
The European Commission voiced grave concerns over the rule of law in each of the Western Balkans nations, saying they needed to crack down on widespread corruption and the number of flagrant abuses by the judiciary in the countries’ respective court systems.
The report recommended that the Member States needed to have “an effective unified mechanism” for the whole of the European Union aimed to combat issues pertaining to the rule of law before any of the countries in question are admitted to the bloc.
“The rule of law, fundamental rights and governance must be strengthened significantly. Judicial reforms, the fight against corruption and organised crime, and public administration reform need to deliver real results and the functioning of democratic institutions needs to be seriously enhanced,” said the Commission.
The Commission urged the nations, all but one of which – Albania – were constituent members of the old Communist federation of Yugoslavia until 1991, to tackle the serious economic problems that have plagued the region since the end of the devastating wars that engulfed the Balkans in the 1990s.
“Economic reforms must be pursued with vigour; structural weaknesses, low competitiveness, and high unemployment must be addressed.”
In addition to resolving the long-standing dispute over the status of Kosovo, each Western Balkan nations will be forced to confront certain contentious issues that will require a deft approach so as not to set off a firestorm.
The political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina will need to stabilise to allow Sarajevo the opportunity to upgrade from its current association agreement with Brussels to reaching candidate status in the short term.
Bosnia’s situation remains the most delicate both politically and socially as its three main groups – the majority Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats – share equal power. Its governing system of a tripartite presidency is seen as both weak and plagued by inefficiency, as well as not being in line with the EU’s democratic standards.
Complicating matters in Bosnia is growing number of new generation hardline nationalists in the Republika Srpska – a Serb dominated entity carved out by the Dayton Peace Accords in 1996. Led by radical nationalist Milorad Dodik, the Serbs in the autonomous district have threatened to break away from the rest of Bosnia if the country pursues further EU and NATO integration.
Dodik has used the Republika Srpska’s position within the Bosnian government – including its veto power and repeated threats to secede altogether – to stymie moves by Sarajevo to steer the country even further down its path towards Western integration. Radical Serbian groups inside the Republika Srpska have further inflamed the situation by repeatedly denying the genocidal campaign carried out by Bosnia’s Serbs under convicted war criminals Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic – with Milosevic’s full backing from Belgrade – against the Bosniaks following the breakup of Yugoslavia.
A bitter two-decade-old name dispute between Greece and its northern neighbour, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – or FYROM as it is also often known – would have to be resolved before Skopje could feasibly advance in its European ambitions.
Both the Greek government led by leftist Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and Macedonia’s recently elected PM Zoran Zaev have indicated in recent weeks that a resolution to the naming dispute could be at hand. Zaev and the FYROM government have said they are willing to accept a hyphenated, geographic qualifier such as “North” or “New” in the revised name.
A final resolution may not be a foregone conclusion, however, after hundreds of thousands of Greeks turned out in Athens and the country’s second city, Thessaloniki, to reject the use of the name Macedonia by the government in Skopje.
Athens accuses the mainly Slavic and Albanian FYROM of attempting to misappropriate a key part Greek history, culture, and geography by using the name of Greece’s northern region; the home kingdom of Alexander the Great and where Thessaloniki serves as the regional capital.
Greece has also insisted that Skopje’s previous refusal to drop the name Macedonia or to include a provision in its constitution that it has no claims to Greek territory have left things at an impasse. Zaev, for his part, has indicated that he is willing to provide guarantees that the government of FYROM will have no irredentist ambitions towards Greece once the name dispute is resolved.
The move would fall into line with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s warning that the Western Balkans nations needed to resolve any border disputes before being allowed to join the bloc.
“There can be no further accession for Western Balkan countries without their border disputes having first been resolved,” Juncker said after Croatian Prime Minister Andrei Plenkovic commented on an ongoing border dispute between existing EU members Croatia and Slovenia.
Juncker said the Croatia-Slovenia border dispute underlines a key issue in the region that needs to be resolved before it becomes “a wider European problem”.
In addition to its high unemployment and relatively weak economic and industrial prospects, Albania will have to tackle its endemic organized crime and corruption problems.
Once the poorest and most isolated corner of Europe, Albania’s powerful crime syndicates, a massive brain drain and its reputation for corruption and alleged ties to the illegal organ harvesting trade have left it with a laundry list of critical issues that need to be resolved before Brussels accepts its membership application.
Despite the challenges ahead for the region, an upbeat EU Foreign Affairs Chief Federica Mogherini said, “The Western Balkans are part of Europe geographically. Within the member states of the European Union, from a geographical point of view, the Western Balkans share the same history as members of the European Union – the same cultural heritage, the same challenges, the same interests, the same opportunities,” before adding, “It is clear to us, this is not a target date, it is not a deadline date, it is a perspective. It is a realistic perspective for those who are negotiating and also for others who might start negotiations. Personally, I would expect others to start negations in coming months.”
The shift in tone over possible enlargement is a major course correction from Brussels which, in recent years, has shied away from addressing the question of expanding the EU following years of financial hardship following the 2008 crash, the Greek debt crisis, the shock of the Brexit vote, a sharp rise in populism across the continent, an influx of refugees from the war-torn Middle East, an isolationist US under the anti-Atlanticist policies of Donald Trump, and Russia’s attempt to undermine the democratic voting process in Europe.
Previous attempts by the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova to take steps towards further European integration garnered a tepid response from a demonstratively sceptical Brussels, particularly after Russia’s invasion of Georgia a decade ago and its ongoing war with Ukraine.
But with an attempted coup in Montenegro that was at least partially directed by Russia’s FSB intelligence services and Vladimir Putin‘s designs on wielding greater influence in the Balkans, the EU is certainly looking at the geopolitical and economic benefits of absorbing a new round of ex-Communist bloc nations.
Based on Mogherini’s own words on February 6, it appears that the Western Balkans now top Brussels’ list of expansion priorities.
“The months ahead will be intense, will be ambitious, will be — hopefully — months of a turning point that will be remembered in the history, I believe, of the European Union,” Mogherini said. “Let’s bring the Western Balkans inside the European Union not in a faraway future, but in our generation.”