Imagine how the map of the European Union could look like in 2030. A compact conglomerate of Member States, with only two small black holes – Switzerland and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Oh, three actually. Great Britain will have become the third one by that year.
While the UK is slowly putting out to the sea, definitively leaving the well-known harbor of the European Union, there are some countries which are struggling to join those that might seem safe and still waters. Lucky for them, they do not have to cross any stormy sea, as they are in the heart of the continent. According to captains, the first Balkan ships should enter the EU in 2025 if nothing goes wrong during the remaining voyage. But bad weather seems to be a permanent feature of the European political scene and by that time the secure Union could have become an even more troubled and tempestuous harbor unprepared to welcome the newcomers.
At the moment, the incoming fleet counts six components. While Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina still hold the position of potential candidates, Albania and the FYR Macedonia already have the candidate status; Serbia and Montenegro are progressing with access negotiations and thus are at the forefront in the path towards the European harbor.
Apparently, Serbia and Montenegro now start to see the light at the end of the tunnel – a very long one. The integration process of Western Balkan countries has been on the European agenda since the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003. Afterwards, stabilization and association agreements have entered into force with all six partners. However, expected progress has faltered. Enlargement has been hindered by numerous hitches, including the slow pace of reforms and economic growth, the influence of external actors such as Russia and Turkey, together with problems both in the domestic and European contexts.
2018 might prove a pivotal year in this long and turbulent voyage. Enlargement in the Balkans is one of the priorities of Bulgarian Presidency at the Council of the EU and in May a summit will be organized in Sofia for Western Balkan countries – for the first time since 2003. This new wave of engagement could lead to advances in each country’s process.
The accession of Western Balkan states into the European Union is seen as an important step in the process of European integration, as mentioned also by Jean-Claude Junker during the State of the Union Address 2017. According to the President of the Commission, “if we want more stability in our neighbourhood, thenwe must also maintain a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans. It is clear that there will be no further enlargement during the mandate of this Commission and this Parliament. No candidate is ready. But thereafter the European Union will be greater than 27 in number”. The significance given by Junker to the enlargement was evident also during a tour he made last February in the six Balkan countries, when he once again affirmed the strong European commitment to the region. However, even if Junker dreams of a larger Union, there are many internal struggles that should be resolved before addressing the newcomers’ problems and weaknesses.
Some of the Balkan States have already made significant and conrete efforts to attain to the European requirements and will continue to do so. For instance, a plan has been implemented to prepare a Strategy for a successful EU accession of Serbia and Montenegro as frontrunner candidates in the Western Balkansin 2025. The document stresses that Serbia and Montenegro in particular need to step up joint cooperation in the fight against organized crime and terrorism. It also asks for improved coordination with EU agencies on border security and migration management and an increased focus on employment and social policies. Obviously, the implementation of these policies will be supported by EU funds. 1.07 billion Euros were already reserved for the region in 2018 and also the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance will financially aid the countries in the following years.
However, 2025 is not a fixed date for accession. Even if Serbia and Montenegro could be potentially ready by that date, the enlargement still depends on the merits and results of each country. Therefore, 2025 should rather be considered more of an indication, reflecting the European commitment to enlargement in the region.
The main question at stake seems to be if Serbia and Montenegro will be able to meet the accession criteria by that year. The main challenges for the Western Balkans regard reforms in the domain of the judiciary, rule of law and fundamental rights. Also, the countries’ economies must be strengthened. Poverty needs to decrease and living standards must be improved. The solution of the disputes with neighbors is also required – in particular, the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia is necessary to progress on the European path and to assure lasting stability in the Balkans.
While 2025 is approaching, there are different views on the future enlargement. Hungary’s foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto, said he was “very much disappointed” by the 2025 target, which he defined “very late“. According to Szijjarto, Serbia and Montenegro should be admitted by 2022, in order to avoid any further influence of China, Russia and Turkey in the region. Also the Austrian Defense Minister Hans-Peter Doskozil asked the EU to take action quickly, warning about the growing influence of Turkey and Saudi Arabia in the Balkans. According to the Minister, the European Union has been losing influence in the region during the past years, while these countries are increasing their power and spreading Islamic values in an area which is already home of a great number of Muslims. The integration process should speed up to avoid a change of direction of the Balkan ships towards Middle East states, with the risk of running into Islamic radicalization. But there are also some reluctant positions. For the Slovenian foreign minister Karl Erjavec, 2025 is not a realistic target because it is improbable that Serbia and Montenegro will have found solutions regarding their borders by that date. Also Germany and France expressed some criticism about the fulfillment of all conditions by the due date.
However, the achievement of accession criteria does not automatically mean that the time is ripe for enlargement. What if, in 2025, Serbia and Montenegro will be ready to join the EU but the EU will not be prepared to open its doors? The enlargement will take the European Commission from 27 to 33 members, and there is wide agreement that the Commission is already too large – in fact, the Lisbon Treaty envisages a smaller Commission. What about the parliament? Will the new MEPs take the British seats in the plenary? Apart from the institutional context, we should ask ourselves if the European Union will be able to face the arrival of the Balkan ships in its troubled harbor. Enlargement is not only about the fulfillment of criteria. It is also about sharing responsibilities, addressing other counties’ problems and the promotion of the European values. Brexit is an example of what can happen when the EU does so insufficiently. The enlargement risks to deepen the gap between Western and Eastern countries and to highlight the multi-speed pace of European integration. Seeing other EU members leaving while new ones will be joining the EU would be a striking paradox.
Therefore, a stronger Union is needed in order to face the Balkans enlargement. Before finding themselves in an overcrowded harbor without any wiggle room, Member States should solve current internal problems – otherwise the EU risks to become larger but weaker, unable to cooperate and take decisions because of the presence of many and quarrelsome countries. The focus on the enlargement process should be switched form the candidate states to the European Union itself. There are no criteria to assess this, but – will the EU be ready to welcome the first Balkan states in 2025?