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The Western Balkans seeking EU membership

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In pursuit of elusive membership: the Western Balkans' quest for EU membership
Amid the growing energy and cost of living crisis, as well as the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, two key decisions have been made by the European Union (EU) that are expected to have a long-term impact on the integration of the Union. These include: First, the EU is doubling down on its commitment to include the Western Balkan countries. during the EU-Western Balkans summit; secondly, the acceptance of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s candidacy for membership of the Union. These developments came after the EU agreed to grant candidate country status to Ukraine and Moldova in June 2022. Although this is not the first time the EU has committed to The enlargement of the Union, the crisis in Ukraine and the growing presence of China in the region has added a sense of urgency to accelerate the process. This article analyzes the EU-Western Balkans summit, recent developments in the enlargement process and the candidacy status of countries in the region.

The December summit

The EU-Western Balkans Summit was held in Tirana, Albania on 6 December 2022 and was the first summit to be held in a Western Balkan state. During the summit, the EU “reaffirmed its full and unequivocal commitment to the prospect of accession of the Western Balkans to the European Union” and called for “the acceleration of the accession process, based on credible reforms from partners, fair and rigorous conditionality and the principle of own merits. »
The main highlights of the Tirana Declaration included— “First, a billion-euro energy support program to cushion the impact of the energy crisis and pursue a clean transition for the region. Second, create opportunities for young people in the region by integrating the region’s universities into EU initiatives such as Erasmus+, the European Solidarity Corps and the European Universities Initiative. Third, the reduction of roaming costs between the EU and the Western Balkans in 2023, with a view to their complete elimination thereafter. Fourth, the EU is committed to helping Balkan countries develop their defense capabilities and capabilities, notably through the European Peace Facility.

Although the summit brought many results, one of the key agenda points under discussion was the enlargement of the Union to six countries in the region. The EU has reiterated its commitments to the region, but has not announced a timetable for doing so. Although there were positive signs during the year, such as: an agreement between EU leaders for Moldova and Ukraine to become candidates for EU membership in June 2022 ; The Union began accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia in July 2022 and in December 2022 the Union granted candidate status to Bosnia – the key question of how quickly these countries will be able to become members of the Union, given that they are at different levels of preparation, remains unanswered.

An overview of the status of applications

The prospects for EU enlargement are defined under Copenhagen criteria which include stable democratic institutions, respect for the rule of law and a functioning market economy. These criteria must be met by the candidate country as well as its administrative capacity to implement EU legislation and rules. In order to stabilize these countries both politically and economically, the conditions for membership were put in place in 1999 as part of the Stabilization and Association Process (SAP). As part of this, each country signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU as a first step towards membership.
Map of the Western Balkans

Source: BBC News

So far, the EU has opened accession negotiations with Montenegro (2012) and Serbia (2014). Negotiations on different membership groups for the two countries are ongoing. Albania and North Macedonia were granted candidate status in 2014 and 2009 respectively. While Brussels jointly studied their candidacy, their negotiations were blocked due to the Greek conflict. and the Bulgarian veto of North Macedonia’s accession. However, the EU opened negotiations in July 2022 after North Macedonia. engaged to modify its constitution to recognize the Bulgarian minority in the country. Kosovo signed an SAA with the EU in 2016 and officially applied to become a member on December 15, 2022. The problem with Kosovo’s candidacy is that five of the 27 EU member states (Slovakia, Romania, Greece, Cyprus and Spain) do not, at present, recognize the country’s independence. Bosnia and Herzegovina was granted candidate status in December 2022 and negotiations have not yet started. Progress in the negotiations is highlighted in the Commission’s annual reports on enlargement. Recent reports have highlighted that countries have made little progress in implementing EU directives. For example, in the case of Montenegro, negotiations were stalled largely because of political instability and because the country was only “moderately prepared to deal with competitive pressure and market forces within the EU.” However, for Serbia, the report emphasizes that Belgrade must align with EU foreign policy – ​​a reference to the country’s refusal to join EU sanctions against Russia. He also spoke of the need to normalize relations with Kosovo in order to advance the accession process.

Although Albania and North Macedonia have had moderate success in implementing the regulations, Kosovo was called upon to “engage more constructively and make additional substantial efforts towards the implementation of all past agreements and contribute to reaching a comprehensive legally binding normalization agreement with Serbia”. In case of Bosnia, Republika Srpska was said to have obstructed the functioning of government institutions in 2022 and had also “challenged the country’s alignment with EU statements and hindered the full implementation of restrictive measures against Russia”.

Accelerated membership

While the Western Balkan countries were on track to join, enlargement fatigue in many member states blocked progress. However, two crucial issues provided the necessary impetus for the EU to accelerate the process. First, the Ukrainian crisis has prompted the Union to preserve its security and influence, as member states worry about Russian influence in the region. The crisis has raised awareness that the EU must do more for its wider neighborhood. This was highlighted in the speech of High Representative Josep Borrell statement that “this war sends a shock wave, it affects everyone and particularly this region”. On enlargement, he said that “the path to membership was a two-way street”, making it clear that further reforms were needed before these countries could become members of the Union. However, the summit also appears to be an attempt to align the foreign policies of these countries with the EU line. This was mainly due to the position taken by Serbia. Belgrade has refused both to condemn Russia for its actions and to join Western sanctions against Moscow.

Second, the growing presence of China. Beijing has engaged alongside Western Balkan countries within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the 14+1 initiative. This means that the region has been able to attract Chinese investment, as Beijing has become an important economic partner, with investments ranging from the energy sector to infrastructure development. THE main beneficiary was Serbia with more than 7 billion euros of investment, mainly in the form of loans to finance infrastructure and energy projects. The Union is concerned that the BRI undermines its rules and regulations related to the environment, labor standards, debt crisis, non-transparency of financial regulations, etc. These concerns have come to the fore with Montenegro whose debt has soared to more than 100 percent. of its gross domestic product because it fight for repay a Chinese loan taken out in 2014 to help finance the highway project. According to Balkan Investigative Reporting Networkthere are a total of 122 projects involving China, worth around 28 billion euros.

Is the EU ready?

The current push for enlargement appears to be driven largely by fears of a spillover from the Ukraine conflict and China’s growing influence in the region. The question is whether this momentum can be maintained. This is mainly due to the fact that, although the region is on the EU’s agenda, the EU is already under pressure with many other political priorities: the management of the Ukrainian conflict, the energy crisis, post-Covid economic recovery, migration, climate change, energy transition and the fight against the crisis. inflation, to name a few. Furthermore, the accession process is long and candidate countries are expected to fulfill a series of detailed economic and political conditions defined in chapters grouped into thematic groups.

While European public opinion is in favor of enlargement – ​​it reaches 57 percent according to the EU Barometer. Summer survey 2022 compared to 47 percent in the Winter Survey 2021—the integration process remains progressive. This is mainly because, on the one hand, the annual enlargement reports emphasize that substantial reforms are necessary before these countries can become part of the Union and, on the other hand, several states members like France, Austria, etc. approach to the process. As enlargement also poses crucial questions about migration, foreign policy alignment, national budgets and the integration of economic markets, these questions risk blocking progress. Additionally, the Conclusion of the June 2022 Council stressed that the process would also depend on “the EU’s capacity to absorb new members”. The conflict in Ukraine and China’s focus on the region may have provided the impetus for EU enlargement, but that momentum may be difficult to maintain.

Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo
Accession negotiations were blocked by Greece due to the use of the name Macedonia. Greece and North Macedonia signed the Prespa Agreement in 2018 to resolve the issue and pave the way for new accession negotiations.

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