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The Western Balkans leaving the EU dream behind

Is there a need for the European Union to publicly recommit to the “enlargement” process, or would it be enough for it to merely voice its support for the “European perspective” of the Western Balkans? That was the question many EU leaders were likely battling with in the run-up to the October 6 EU-Western Balkans summit in Slovenia.

In the end, after their gathering at Brdo pri Kranju, a 16th-century castle tucked away in the Slovenian countryside, the EU leaders issued a declaration in which they not only “reaffirmed the European perspective of the Western Balkans”, but also the EU’s “commitment to the enlargement process”.

This was a point scored by the host, Slovenia, which has long been lobbying for the 27-strong bloc’s expansion into former Yugoslavia. The Western Balkans states – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, the Republic of North Macedonia and Kosovo – are all eager to carry their ties with the EU to the next level. These days, however, the idea of enlargement elicits little enthusiasm in old Europe. Supporting the “European perspective” of “the Western Balkans partners”, vague though it sounds – or rather, precisely because it sounds vague – comes a lot easier to most EU leaders than uttering the word “enlargement”.

But the fact that Slovenia perceived the Brdo declaration as a big victory against enlargement-sceptics shows that the EU enlargement process is in crisis. That adding a word or two in an official communique is perceived as a significant achievement shows how low the bar is set.

Indeed, there is little appetite within the EU to bring in new members. The Slovenian presidency of the EU Council reportedly wanted to insert a commitment that there will be at least one country joining by 2030. It hit a wall. “I don’t really believe in setting dates, I believe in making good on our promises,” outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after the summit. “Once the conditions are met, the accession can take place,” she added. The “making good on promises” part does not sound convincing, unfortunately. For all intents and purposes, the EU has put the process on halt.

Serbia, negotiating its accession since 2014, has not opened any new chapters since December 2019. Montenegro, the frontrunner, is now carrying out talks on all EU dossiers, but there is no end in sight for that country either. Then, there is North Macedonia, which has been blocked from launching membership negotiations by its neighbour Bulgaria over a dispute about history and language.  Albania, another hopeful, is a collateral damage because it is bundled together with the Macedonians. Bosnia and Kosovo are even further behind in the queue. Kosovars are frustrated that despite meeting all technical conditions they are still denied visa-free travel to the Schengen zone, unlike those living in the rest of the Western Balkans as well as post-Soviet republics such as Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. Europe, it seems, is keeping the region at an arms-length, while continuing to occasionally pay lip service to demands for enlargement.

It is not difficult to grasp why the EU has become introvert. The order of the day is internal consolidation, not expansion. As it worries about the fate of the eurozone, tries to move forward with the European Green Deal and battles COVID-19, the EU has very little time and energy for other issues. Furthermore, some influential member states such as France see the generous recovery plan adopted last year to combat the pandemic-caused economic downturn as a stepping stone towards increased “strategic autonomy” and a higher degree of “European sovereignty”.

The EU, the argument goes, needs to strengthen its institutions and deepen…

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