In an effort to push forward what would be the largest addition to the European Union in two decades, the EU Commission has released a strategy for bringing the Western Balkans into the bloc.
The Commission laid out six flagship initiatives that it will conduct over the next several years in an effort to aid the Western Balkans in what Brussels hopes will be “progress along the European path.” The strategy, titled ‘A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans,’ released February 6th, serves as the Commission’s official vow to help Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and the former Yugoslavic Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) make the 2025 deadline for EU accession. The four former Yugoslavian republics, plus Kosovo and neighbouring Albania, would augment the bloc to an enormous 33-member group, and increase the EU population by nearly 18 million.
The motivating factors behind this increased support are many. These countries have long desired to be a part of Europe’s biggest club, but each lack several fundamental requirements for EU membership. While FYROM, Montenegro, Albania, and Serbia, who applied in 2004, 2008, and 2009 respectively, have all been recognised candidates for future membership, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are currently recognised as potential candidates for membership. The migration crisis that began in 2015 highlighted the geographical significance of the Western Balkans, which served as entrance points for millions of refugees into Europe. What’s more, Europe has been keen to subdue further Russian influence in the region, following the annexation of Crimea to Russia in 2014.
President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker stated, “investing in the stability and prosperity of the Western Balkans means investing in the security and future of our Union.” Juncker said the decision to bring these countries into the EU would ultimately be a result of each state’s efforts to implement comprehensive reforms in critical areas including governance and rule of law, corruption and organised crime, and overall economic improvement. “Whether this is achieved will depend on their objective merits. The European Commission will be rigorous but it will also be fair.”
When the UK officially makes its exit from the European Union, it will take with it 13% of the bloc’s funding. This is undoubtedly another motivating factor for widening the pack. However, while the EU needs to find a way to fill the capital vacuum Brexit will leave behind, it’s not certain that adding members, particularly these economically poorer nations, is the ideal solution. According to statistics from the International Monetary Fund, current member states with developing economies like Bulgaria, Romania, and Latvia, all saw substantial GDP growth following their accession into the EU. However, the six potential new members all have smaller GDPs than any of those previously drafted into the bloc.
The strategy spoke directly to some of the more sensitive obstacles that stand in the way of incorporating these countries into the Union, including the necessity for “reconciliation and solving open issues, in particular border disputes, well before accession to the European Union.” Five EU member states, Slovakia, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Spain, three of which are part of the South EU Summit, do not recognise Kosovo as an independent state. The ongoing conflict between Greece and FYROM over the official name of the latter is anything but settled, as Greeks took to the streets in protest over the issue the same week as the Commission published their strategy. However, it did directly address one dispute. “There needs to be a comprehensive, legally-binding normalisation agreement between Serbia and Kosovo so that they can advance on their respective European paths.” All of these, as well as several other regional obstacles, will need to be sorted before a 6-nation increase can be seriously considered.
The strategy underlined the need for other members of the bloc to be ready to welcome new nations who have met the criteria (ideally with open arms). Brussels’ increased focus on the Western Balkans is ramping up just as Bulgaria has taken over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency. The country has already demonstrated that its top priority while at the helm is to bring its neighbouring states into the fold of the Union. However, more economically robust members of the bloc will be focused on constructing mechanisms to more fully integrate the economies of the Eurozone, rather than expanding what some believe is an already full boat.
So far, the only two countries close to hitting the 2025 timeline are Serbia and Montenegro, both of which have begun accession talks. President Juncker will visit each of the six nations in February, followed by a summit in Sofia in May focused on the region. “I will travel to each of the countries of the Western Balkans at the end of this month with a clear message: keep reforming and we will keep supporting your European future.”