EU lays out tough reform path for Balkan states to join bloc

Six EU hopefuls must tackle corruption, ailing economies and bitter disputes

Federica Mogherini: “The next months will be not only intense but also crucial to make sure that this historic and unique opportunity is seized.” Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

Federica Mogherini: “The next months will be not only intense but also crucial to make sure that this historic and unique opportunity is seized.” Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

 

The European Union has urged six Balkan states to seize their “historic” opportunity to join the bloc by overcoming major problems posed by crime and corruption, their ailing economies and long-standing disputes between themselves.

In unveiling its strategy for another wave of expansion, the EU also called on Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo to commit their futures unequivocally to the union, amid rising Russian and Chinese influence in the region.

Only Serbia and Montenegro have formally opened accession talks with the EU, and Brussels said they could hope to join by about 2025 if they found “definitive solutions to disputes with neighbours”. “This strategy gives all of us a shared, clear, unequivocal, credible and concrete perspective for each and every one of our six partners’ EU integration,” the bloc’s foreign-policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said on Tuesday. “The next months will be not only intense but also crucial to make sure that this historic and unique opportunity is seized.”

The EU demanded a dramatic strengthening of the rule of law in nations that “show clear elements of state capture, including links with organised crime and corruption at all levels of government and administration”. Candidate countries must also safeguard free media and the independence of the judiciary.

Brussels also said that “none of the western Balkans can currently be considered a functioning market economy” and warned that without major reform they could not handle “the competitive pressure and market forces in the union”.

Break-up of Yugoslavia

Many Balkan states are still dogged by disagreements stemming from the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia, and the EU warned that it would not “import these disputes and the instability they could entail. Definitive and binding solutions must be found and implemented before a country accedes.”

As Serbia in particular pursues close ties with Russia, the six EU hopefuls were also told that there “can be no ambiguity by leaders about where the western Balkans belong and the direction in which they are heading”.

To help the region prepare for membership, Brussels said it would increase pre-accession funding that is expected to amount to almost €1.1 billion in 2018 alone.

The strategy also foresees deeper EU involvement in helping the Balkans modernise and align with the bloc in areas ranging from security and migration to digital affairs and connectivity in transport and energy infrastructure. “Investing in the stability and prosperity of the western Balkans means investing in the security and future of our union,” the European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, said.

With a nod to member states that have no appetite for further EU expansion and believe previous phases of enlargement were rushed or botched, Mr Juncker insisted that accession could be earned only through concrete achievements.

“With strong political will, real and sustained reforms, and definitive solutions to disputes with neighbours, the western Balkans can move forward on their respective European paths. Whether this is achieved will depend on their objective merits.” The EU will be rigorous but fair, he said.

Twenty-seven-year row

The many obstacles to membership for Balkan states include Macedonia’s 27-year row with Greece over its name, the refusal of Bosnia’s Serb-run region to integrate more deeply with the rest of the country, and Serbia’s rejection of Kosovo’s independence. “There needs to be a comprehensive, legally binding normalisation agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, so that they can advance on their respective European paths,” the EU said.

Nataliya Apostolova, the EU’s special representative in Kosovo, said the country must focus on “reforms in the area of rule of law, fundamental rights and good governance, and to work together for reconciliation and good neighbourly relations”.