EU flirts with western Balkans despite growing fear of commitment

Europe Letter: Doubts about expansion fuelled by issues with existing members

The European Union attempted to keep alive the hopes of countries with ambitions to join this week even though it was openly apparent that the required unanimous support did not exist among its members.

The western Balkans summit in Slovenia was dedicated to discussing the idea of expanding the union to include Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania and North Macedonia, with the last two at the front of the queue.

But some EU states simply do not want new members. The summit itself was held for symbolic value, to encourage the countries to keep faith in the EU as an ally and not give up their accession hopes and the reforms that are tied to them.

It was an attempt by Slovenia – a supporter of enlargement and current holder of the rotating EU presidency – to keep momentum going before the issue slips down the list of priorities when enlargement-sceptic France assumes the chair in January.

The old promise of eventual accession was made at a summit in the Greek city of Thessaloniki in 2003, in the wake of the Yugoslav wars as the new borders of the region were drawn. The hope of future EU accession helped build the peace, Slovenian prime minister Janez Janša recalled.

“That was a time when the tragic consequences of the ’90s in the Balkans, after many atrocities that happened, that’s when these tragic things were in the air, and the decision in Thessaloniki was very important for stability in the region,” he said on Wednesday.

“Everybody perhaps felt that it would happen before, even before today’s summit. But many crises followed after that decision, also within the EU itself, which of course meant delays.”

Stalled expansion

Croatia was admitted in 2013. But further expansion stalled. While some eastern and central member states are enthusiastic supporters of the accession of their neighbours and allies, scepticism has grown elsewhere about the benefits of expanding the EU.

It’s partly fuelled by doubts about whether some existing members are sufficiently solid democracies, and whether some should have been admitted at all.

Candidate countries are given criteria to meet on fighting corruption, and ensuring the rule of law. The fact that such problems exist within the EU burst into the open at the summit, as the nationalist populist Jansa was accused by a journalist of withholding state funding from a press agency as a way to suppress free reporting.

There are also serious political obstacles. As part of the process, the EU insists that Serbia must normalise relations with Kosovo, which broke away from it in 2008. It's also an issue within the EU itself. Five EU countries do not recognise Kosovo as a state, never mind supporting its accession. Spain, which cannot countenance unilateral declarations of independence because of its own regional separatist movements, only agreed to attend the summit if there were no symbols of Kosovan statehood such as flags present.

For some, there are concerns that the western Balkan states will become disillusioned with the process, and that the EU will lose its sway in a crucial region on its doorstep, which is a theatre for intense rivalry for influence with Russia and China.

National identity politics

This has been heightened since North Macedonia changed its name from Macedonia in 2019 at the insistence of Athens, because a Greek region has the same name and there is rivalry over the cultural ownership of the heritage of the associated ancient kingdom of Macedon and its ruler Alexander the Great.

Despite this major concession, Skopje found its path to accession blocked anew, as Bulgaria mounted fresh demands touching on the sensitive area of national identity: that the country formally accept itself to have Bulgarian origins, and its language to be a regional variant of Bulgarian.

A €9 billion EU investment plan was announced at the summit, reflecting the widespread acceptance that it is in the EU’s interests for this geographically close region to be stable, grow economically, and remain oriented towards Europe.

And European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen could hardly have made a stronger appeal to the western Balkans to keep the faith.

“The European Union is not complete without the western Balkans,” she said. “We want the western Balkans in the European Union. There can be no doubt that our goal is enlargement.”

But Slovenian hopes of securing an accession timetable for the western Balkans at the summit were dashed. And Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, sounded a downbeat note as he reflected the views of the member states.

“In all frankness, you know this, it’s not a secret,” he said as the summit concluded. “There is an ongoing discussion among the 27 about our capacity to take on new members.”