Guy Mulders // 2 October 2023
‘The future of the Balkans is within the European Union’ – we now know that this statement made after the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003 was more of a sentimental outcry than an actual call to action. After the ‘big bang’ enlargement, which saw 10 of the Balkan countries joining the EU in 2004, and Bulgaria, Romania, and Croatia in the following years, enlargement has been put on the back burner. The Western Balkans (WB6) – Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Kosovo – remain in the waiting room.
This lack of progression is much to the detriment of both the Western Balkans as well as the EU itself. Even though accession talks have started – the ones with Montenegro and Serbia having progressed the most – the goals set out in 2003 have failed, and a fresh approach is needed.
A country aspiring to be an EU member must fulfil the Copenhagen criteria on themes such as the rule of law, democracy, human rights, and the economy and adopt all existing EU legislation, otherwise known as acquis communautaire. Since the Western Balkans have not fulfilled all these conditions, some existing EU member states are not willing to commit fully to their accession, which requires unanimity among the EU27.
At a recent GLOBSEC Bratislava Forum, von der Leyen argued that further alignment is needed between the EU and the Western Balkans. One way to achieve this is accelerating the enlargement process by granting pre-accession benefits. Even before all the Copenhagen criteria are met, two cornerstones of EU policy can be made accessible to aspiring members: the single market and the customs union. This would be beneficial in several ways.
First, this would be a beneficial step from a socio-economic perspective. If any of the WB6 are forecasted to join the EU, they will see their real GDP grow after entering the single market. Because each country’s main trading partners, the other Western Balkan countries, would be in the single market as well, trade would get an impetus. Barriers and tariffs that hamper their growth would become a thing of the past, opening the wider EU market to the Western Balkans. Vice versa, EU27’s business will face lesser interventions when extending their markets to these countries.
After ascending to the customs union, citizens of the Western Balkans can freely move to work and study in the rest of the Union, while the EU27, in turn, would benefit from migrating workers who can fill much-needed vacancies. This may appear to pose a significant burden on existing member states, but allowing the WB6 into the single market in the near future is estimated to cost between €1.60 and €10.80 more per capita per year.
Second, this would result in democratic and liberal elements becoming more established in the Western Balkans. Personal freedom and the rule of law are still fragile in some of the countries, delaying approval by the EU27. Accession requires the respective governments to align to EU rule of law. This would mean governments’ influence in, for example, the elections or the media would come to an end. But fulfilling all these criteria will take time, especially if not spurred on by credible promises. To prevent countries from resorting to more authoritarian tendencies and moving further away from the EU, immediate action is required.
Third, these steps will also be beneficial from a security perspective. Even though the overwhelming majority of trade in the WB6 is with the EU (81 per cent exports and 57.9 per cent imports, against 3.2 per cent and 11.6 per cent for China), debt and loans from China range from 7 per cent to 22 per cent, and their investments are increasing. Such investments are tied together with socio-political influence, characterised by a lack of transparency, and hardly existent checks and balances on democracy and human rights. The same goes for Russia, whose influence is exemplified by the reluctance of some of the Western Balkan states to adopt EU sanctions following the invasion of Ukraine. The EU should reward choosing the EU over others. Granting pre-accession benefits will deter the Western Balkans from accepting too much influence from non-EU actors.
Moreover, given the lack of progress, optimism about the EU has suffered some hits in the WB6 in the last few years. Public perception in Serbia and Montenegro values non-EU actors as equally important partners for the future. To change this, the EU needs to show that it takes enlargement seriously. As all criteria for the same have not yet been fulfilled, it is fair that the EU does not want to rush into enlargement too hastily. Yet, conditions in the Western Balkans will not improve if China and Russia both continue and even increase their harmful influence. Then, meeting the accession criteria will be an even more distant goal.
The willingness of the Western Balkans to integrate and reform is in part demonstrated in the recently established Open Balkan initiative, which ties Albania, North Macedonia, and Serbia together on subjects such as free movement. The WB6 states are each other’s main trading partners, and therefore, the effectiveness of the Open Balkan initiative can serve as a good barometer for an eventual larger accession into the EU. Although the project is still in its infancy, this ‘mini-Schengen’ is backed by the EU as having a credible future.
The EU needs to build upon this initiative and expand it. It needs to grant the Western Balkans access to the single market and customs union, rather than waiting on all the Copenhagen criteria to be met. This would improve both the socio-economic status of the WB6 and the EU itself, while also ensuring security in the critical geopolitical situation Europe finds itself in. Currently, the unwillingness to commit and take bold steps has made the Western Balkans feel disregarded – and it has left the EU’s credibility tarnished. Pre-accession benefits will work both ways: as a reward for progress achieved as well as an incentive to keep improving and receiving further rewards with more benefits in the future, i.e., eventually realising complete accession.
EPICENTER publications and contributions from our member think tanks are designed to promote the discussion of economic issues and the role of markets in solving economic and social problems. As with all EPICENTER publications, the views expressed here are those of the author and not EPICENTER or its member think tanks (which have no corporate view).