The European Integration of the Western Balkans: Where we are now
European map

May is dubbed as Europe’s month. On May 9th, or Europe day, the member states of EU once again celebrated the Schuman Declaration established by the forefather of the European Union. The countries of the Western Balkans, 65 years after the Steel and Coal declaration, are yet to become members of the European family. Namely, Albania, Bosnia, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo have all experienced a protracted integration process, with painstaking reforms lying ahead of them. Slovenia in 2005 and Croatia in 2013 have been the only Western Balkan countries that succeeded in fulfilling all the criteria. The former European Commissioner for Enlargement, Mr. Stefan Fule, identified the Croatian paradigm as the roadmap for the integration of the rest of the countries in the region.

Croatia’s accession revealed the real strength of EU’s soft power. Amid, the economic crisis, with the future of the Union into question, the former Yugoslav’s republic accession was needed antidote for all the Cassandras that predicted EU’s demise. Through the incentives that the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) provided, Croatia managed to reform its previously centralized economy, arrest its war criminals, tackle corruption, fight organized crime, reform its judicial system, and ensure human rights for minorities.  One of the most worth noticing events in the country’s efforts towards EU membership was the arrest of its former president, Ivo Sanader under corruption charges. With corruption, being a plague for the rest of the candidate countries, Croatia’s strong resolution to tackle it even in the highest levels, can be used as a blueprint.

Croatia’s fast track integration, demonstrated that EU’s enlargement policy, based on the conditionality doctrines is bound to work. Despite that, the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as the new President of European Commission resulted in a shift in EU’s policy for enlargement. The new EU chief, made a commitment not to accept any new memberships during his term. The enlargement fatigue has become a norm in many EU member states. As a result, this fatigue has shaken the confidence of a European perspective for the rest of the candidate countries.

Where does this May 9th find the countries of Western Balkans?

Albania was granted its candidate status in June 2014. The country is not expected to open the negotiations process, unless it fulfills all the five criteria set by the Commission. These criteria include; the fight against corruption and organized crime, the administrative reform, the reform of the judiciary system, the improvement of human rights, and resolving the problems with media freedom. Until now, there hasn’t been much progress regarding the fulfillment of the criteria. The internal political climate has been characterized by the political confrontation between the government and the opposition, a number of scandals involving members of the country’s ruling elite, and a shaky economy that forced around 50,000 Albanians to immigrate during last year. This stream flow of illegal immigration, mainly in Germany, may put into question the visa liberalization regime with the Schengen countries.

Montenegro is considered as the success story in the region. This was the message that the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter SteinMeier communicated to the Montenegrin delegation in their recent meeting in Berlin.  The country, which begun its negotiations in 2012, has aligned its policies closely with its Euro-Atlantic integration, hoping also to become a member of NATO. Nevertheless, it seems that the enlargement pause will also affect the country, which will be ready to join the EU somewhere around 2019-2020. This means that 70 years from the Schuman declaration will have passed until a third country (after Slovenia, and Croatian) from former-Yugoslavia joins the Union.

FYR Macedonia has been a candidate country since 2005. Its progress has been hampered though by the objections, and the behind the scenes vetoes from Greece, and Bulgaria. The main obstacle for the country is the issue with Greece, an issue that seems irresolvable for the time being. Ten years after the candidacy status and the country is yet to start the accession negotiations. This Europe Day, found Macedonia in a tense political situation, with the opposition staging large protests against the increasingly authoritarian Gruevski government. The right wing government, has been involved in major scandal by wiretapping illegally a number of journalists, judges, members of the opposition, and accredited foreign embassy personnel serving in the country. The relations between the Macedonian and the Albanian ethnic communities have deteriorated during the last months, and a number of incidents and clashes were reported. As it seems, Gruevski’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies may be ominous for the country’s European perspective.

Serbia has made a steady progress towards its accession in the EU. The country has undertaken a number of reforms after it launched its accession negotiation process in 2014. Key Serbian and EU political figures, expect that Serbia will be ready to join the EU around 2020, 70 years after its envision by Schuman. At this point, the country is in the screen process. According to Serbian PM Alexander Vucic, Serbia expects to open negotiations for the each of the 35 chapters by September 2015. Yet, the negotiation process will also have to include a number of delicate issues, such as the relations with Kosovo. The intergovernmental dialogue between Kosovo and the Serbian government will be fundamental for the country’s accession as stated in Chapter 35 of EU acquis.

Kosovo, as the newest country in the region, lags behind the others in its EU accession path. The European Commission approved the Stabilization and Association Agreement in April, and now it is up to the European Council and Parliament to do likewise before the SAA is signed in early 2016. The citizens of Kosovo are the only ones in Europe who do not enjoy the rights of free travel within the Schengen area, and it is high time that it changes, otherwise this exclusion, coupled with the sluggish pace in the accession process may have adverse effects for the country’s future. Already Kosovo faces the largest unemployment in the region, with the official data indicating that unemployment is around 35% in total, and more than 55% in youth. 

Bosnia is a unique case all together. The country is divided among ethnic and religious lines. These divisions are also reflected in its state functioning with the country being divided into the Republika Serpska, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The signing of SAA between EU and BiH was frozen  since 2011, and it was only ratified in 2015. Bosnia, continues to face a number of structural problems and along with Kosovo are the only two countries in the region that have not been granted EU candidate status.

It seems that the accession process for the Western Balkan countries has decreased in pace. The shift in EU policy towards enlargement has made it almost impossible for new members to join before 2019. This was also demonstrated by the downgrading of the post of EU Commissioner for Enlargement which was merged into the  EU Commission of Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations. During these year’s May 9th celebrations, we ought to ask ourselves; how long should we wait until the rest of the Balkans are integrated in the EU family? Five or ten more years?  And if so, how beneficial are these delays for the citizen of the Western Balkan countries? The six remaining countries have a combined population of 18 million people which is smaller than that of a medium sized EU member state. The longer their accession is delayed, the harder will be for them to reform. The EU should start using its sticks and carrots policy more wisely in the region and make clear that those countries European perspective is clear, tangible, and forthcoming.