Increased competition for influence in Balkans lends new urgency to accession negotiations between EU and Western Balkans

Zoe Mize

October 14, 2019

BOLOGNA, Italy — This week, the European Council was expected to open formal talks with North Macedonia and Albania concerning the matter of their potential inclusion in the European Union (EU) as member states. The French delegation expressed reluctance to take further steps, momentarily halting the process. While negotiations would represent an important next step in the integration process, the two Western Balkan states still have a long way to go to achieve member status.

The offer of membership is important not only to the Western Balkans, but to the EU itself. According to Michael Leigh, Senior Adjunct Professor of European and Eurasian Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS, “It’s a real test of credibility that the EU will be as good as its word now.” He added, “What we’re really talking about is giving a political signal that the EU is ready, in principle, to embrace Albania and North Macedonia in light of the progress that they’ve made.”

For these nations, according to Professor Leigh, EU integration “is a kind of legitimization or endorsement of them as states, which have met the fundamental criteria of being democracies like other European democracies.” The Western Balkan states have made economic and political sacrifices on behalf of the EU accession process. Forward momentum validates those sacrifices while also providing access to structural funds and other tangible economic benefits. 

The EU may have competition for influence in the region, lending a sense of urgency to membership talks. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has increased Chinese investment in Balkan infrastructure following the BRI’s purchase of the port Piraeus in Greece. Nearly EUR 7.8 billion worth of investment deals are destined for the Western Balkans under the auspices of the BRI. Most recently, an agreement signed on April 28 granted China’s Power Construction Corporation permission to construct a metro network in Belgrade, Serbia. 

Russia has also shown interest in the region, though its investments have been more political than economic. Russia has extended to Serbia an offer of membership in the Eurasian Economic Union, and has been a vocal opponent of Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. For the Balkan states, Russia offers an alternative to the EU power structure.

Western Balkan integration into the EU would reduce the region’s vulnerability to outside influence by offering the economic resources necessary to strengthen institutions and increase security. Chinese BRI investment in particular has raised concerns for both the EU and the Western Balkan states around its potential to increase debt accumulation and worsen corruption in the region. “The presence of all these outside powers has given the EU a new sense of urgency — of geopolitical urgency,” added Professor Leigh.

The process of accession for each of the Western Balkan states — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia — has been arduously slow, with each step advancing the process only marginally. 

The Thessaloniki Council in 2003 launched the accession process for the region with the European Union affirming its shared interests with Western Balkan states. Since that 2003 council, all of the Western Balkan nations, barring Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo, have been further recommended for negotiations. Negotiations can only proceed if nations meet certain basic criteria outlined in Articles 6 and 49 of the EU Treaty. These articles establish the EU core principles of “liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law” necessary to start the membership process. The European Commission’s Western Balkans Strategy and the Sofia Declaration, established in February and May 2018, and most recently the 2019 Communication on EU Enlargement Policy have each reaffirmed the importance of these principles in proceeding with the EU integration process. 

Each new summit further clarifies the efforts that must be made on the part of the Western Balkan nations to strengthen areas such as rule of law, democratic institutions, security and economic stability. 

North Macedonia has shown significant progress in these areas, having notably settled a 27-year dispute with Greece in June 2018, satisfying EU concerns over regional cooperation. It has also increased parliamentary oversight and restored checks and balances in the government. Albania has instituted wide-reaching judicial reform and continued to cooperate with EU agencies. 

Other states have had difficulty establishing credible institutions and effective rule of law, slowing the process of membership. Montenegro started negotiations in 2012, but has seen setbacks due to parliamentary boycotts and allegations of corruption. Kosovo’s high levels of corruption and organized crime, in addition to its decision to implement a 100% tariff against goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, have effectively halted all discussions on re-opening negotiation talks. For these states, the prospect of integration would require far greater effort in addressing internal problems according to EU guidelines. 

France’s reluctance to further the process suggests that North Macedonia and Albania have not made sufficient changes. Professor Leigh emphasizes that membership for these states may still be a distant reality. “It’s anybody’s guess how long that process will take,” he said.

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