This had been announced and communicated in advance to the parties concerned. Today the official presentation of the growth plan for the Western Balkans, presented by the European Commission on November 8, took place. This announcement came at the same press conference where important updates regarding the EU’s 2023 enlargement package were revealed.
The 2023 Enlargement package:
The European Commission today adopted the Enlargement Package 2023, providing a comprehensive analysis of the progress made by candidate and potential candidate countries towards membership of the European Union (EU). The countries included in the assessment are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Turkey and, for the first time, Ukraine, the Republic of Moldova and the Georgia. The report focuses on progress made in implementing fundamental reforms and provides clear guidance on each country’s future priorities.
During the press conference, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “Enlargement is a vital policy for the European Union. Completing our Union is the call of history, the natural horizon of our Union. Completing our Union also responds to a strong economic and geopolitical logic. Past enlargements have shown the enormous benefits for both the candidate countries and the EU. We all win.
Concerning Ukraine and Moldova, the Commission recommends that the Council begin accession negotiations, highlighting significant progress in crucial areas such as judicial reform, anti-corruption efforts and alignment with EU standards. The Commission, however, suggests adopting negotiating frameworks only after Ukraine and Moldova have implemented certain key measures, with a report expected by March 2024 on progress made.
For GeorgiaThe Commission recommends granting the candidate country status, recognizing the progress made in legislative reforms and the strong commitment to the EU over recent months.
For Bosnia Herzegovina, the Commission suggests opening accession negotiations as soon as the country has achieved the necessary level of compliance with the accession criteria. However, it highlights the need for additional efforts to respond to the priorities set by the Commission, suggesting continued monitoring with a report to the Council by March 2024.
Concerning Kosovo, the Commission supports the country’s commitment to the European path but underlines the need for additional efforts, particularly in the area of judicial reforms. It recognizes the legislative achievements and work aimed at normalizing relations with Serbia, but emphasizes the need to implement the agreed obligations.
For TürkiyeThe Commission recognizes the country’s key role as an EU partner but highlights that accession negotiations have been suspended since 2018. It calls on Turkey to significantly improve its alignment with the EU’s common foreign and security policy and to intensify cooperation in areas such as the fight against terrorism. , economy and food security.
Finally, it is now up to the Council to examine the Commission’s recommendations and take decisions on the next steps in the enlargement process.
The new growth plan for the Western Balkans:
President von der Leyen, returning from her tour of the Balkans where she presented the key points of the tailor-made economic plan for Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, explained how to align the economies of the Balkans with those of current EU member states and, in doing so, “anticipate the benefits of membership”. What makes it exceptional is that by “opening up our single market in this way, we expect them to open up the regional market among themselves”. von der Leyen notedstressing that “all of this could double their economies over the next decade,” provided reforms and investments are implemented.
President von der Leyen outlined the four pillars of the Planpresenting “a completely new approach to bridging the economic and social gap between the EU and the Balkan region”.
The first pillar is economic integration into the single market in seven key sectors: free movement of goods, services and workers, access to the single euro payments area (SEPA), facilitation of road transport, integration and decarbonization of energy markets, digital single market and integration into supply chains industrial supply.
The second pillar is internal economic integration through the common regional market. (based on EU rules and standards). The European Commission estimates that this factor alone could potentially add 10% to their savings.
The third pillar concerns fundamental reforms, which are essential in the Brussels Plan. “We experimented in the EU with the combination of reforms and investments after the Covid-19 pandemic with Next Generation EU, and it worked very well; I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for you,” von der Leyen said plainly during his trip to the Balkan capitals. For the European executive, this pillar will have a double benefit: on the one hand, it will support the Western Balkans’ path towards EU membership, and on the other hand, it will attract foreign investments and strengthen regional stability .
When it comes to investments, it is crucial to fOur third pillar of EU financial support for reforms for all partners comes into force. This is specifically a new reform and growth instrument for the Western Balkans of 6 billion euros for the period 2024-2027 (with the revision of the EU budget), the payments of which are linked to the implementation of agreed socio-economic reforms. The instrument will include 2 billion euros in grants and 4 billion euros in concessional loans. For its implementation, each of the six countries will have to present a reform program based on the recommendations of the enlargement package and the economic reform programs (ERP).
However, the latter point has a direct impact on current EU members and EU institutions, as it involves the ongoing evaluation of the Multiannual Financial Framework 2021-2027 by the European Parliament and the Council of the EU. It is now up to the co-legislators to examine the proposal for this new instrument as part of the mid-term review package.
Finally, it should be noted that for Serbia and Kosovo there is an additional clause: “They must engage constructively in the dialogue on the normalization of relations.” In other words, without progress in the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue, the funds provided for in the Plan will remain blocked or lost. The same applies to Bosnia and Herzegovina in the event of failure to implement fundamental reforms: “Resources will be redistributed to other countries that can; it is a strong incentive to move forward actively,” warned the President of the Commission in Sarajevo.
Despite Von der Leyen’s speech, how to effectively integrate countries extremely linked (geographically and culturally) to Russia, such as Moldova, Georgia or Ukraine, remains a big challenge.
As for the Western Balkans, significant challenges appear to be growing there, and effective solutions are conspicuously absent. Despite the European Commission’s continued adjustments in its enlargement strategy, aimed at strengthening the democratic systems and economies of the Balkan countries, the tangible results remain disappointing. The task of respecting and maintaining democratic standards in the Western Balkans remains difficult.
Enlargement policy not only faces the region’s transformation into consolidated democracies, but it also faces sobering economic prospects, widespread poverty, inequality and a lack of opportunities, putting highlights the main disparities with the European Union and its Member States. The latest geopolitical developments, such as the war in Ukraine and the new tensions in the northern region of Kosovohas further exacerbated socio-economic challenges in the region, worsening problems such as the stalled normalization of relations between Belgrade and Pristina and the impasse in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where effective solutions are still beyond the reach of the EU .
Clearly, reforms in the Western Balkans depend not only on EU prescriptions, but also on political will and implementation within these countries, which are currently lacking in most cases. The EU’s inconsistent commitment to enlargement and its strict conditionalities, often influenced by member states’ domestic policies, are unlikely to facilitate convergence. Instead, they are forcing Western Balkan countries to explore pragmatic alternatives via other solutions, as Serbia is doing with Russia.
All that remains is to observe how the integration process unfolds after the announcement of funds for the new growth plan for the Western Balkans. The Union initiative has the potential to facilitate rapid expansion, ensuring rapid economic growth for these states. However, there is also the possibility of unintended consequences, as has been the case in previous cases with Turkey and currently with Serbia. Providing funds to candidate countries, which may have cultural differences from the rest of Europe, does not always guarantee their moral commitment to being part of it.