Diplomacy Foreign direct investment Market Access & Entry Strategy Serbia

Summit shows West Balkans remain in EU limbo

| 2021-10-01 5 min read

Summit shows West Balkans remain in EU limbo

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Leaders of EU member states and six countries in the Western Balkans – known as the WB6 – will renew vows of a “shared future” at Brdo Castle near Slovenia capital Ljubljana on 6 October. 

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen travelled to all of the WB6 capitals in advance to deliver her message: “you belong to Europe”.  

Apart from the repetition of well-worn phrases such as a “European perspective for the Western Balkans” and “dedication to European values and principles”, little is expected from the summit as regards concrete progress towards EU membership.

The bloc’s will to enlarge has dissipated in recent years, in tandem with WB6 dedication to fulfil EU accession criteria.

A carefully-worded joint declaration to be adopted at the summit will “reaffirm its unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkans, and (welcome) the commitment of the Western Balkans partners to the European perspective… in our mutual strategic interest (as a) shared strategic choice”. It will also promise to further intensify “joint engagement to take forward the region’s political economic and social transformation”.

The draft is conspicuously missing three words: Enlargement, Membership and Integration. Each implies the other two: an enlargement process would lead to integration, by achieving membership of the EU.

This shows that there is no consensus among existing member states to publicly commit to WB6 membership. That represents a reverse from what the EU pledged at the Zagreb summit in 2000 and in Thessaloniki three years later. 

According to the declaration made at the Thessaloniki summit in June 2003: “The future of the Balkans is within the European Union. The ongoing enlargement and the signing of the Treaty of Athens in April 2003 inspire and encourage the countries of the Western Balkans to follow the same successful path. Preparation for integration into European structures and ultimate membership into the European Union”.

Almost 20 years on, Croatia is the only Balkan EU member state and the bloc cannot even repeat that pledge. Diplomats from the EU member states were reportedly struggling to agree on their joint declaration text for days.

The EU is split between those members who support enlargement, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, and those who are sceptical, most notably France and The Netherlands.

Photo: EC

The Slovenian EU Presidency has debated the future of the WB6 in Bled. Several leaders of EU member states expressed support for enlargement, including Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, Hungarian Viktor Orban and Polish Mateusz Morawietzski. Any such support is welcomed in the WB6,  but successful enlargement processes will require support from France, Germany, The Netherlands, and elsewhere in the bloc. Furthermore, some EU countries cite developments in Slovenia, Poland and Hungary as examples of how, once in the EU, states may start to flout those “shared values and basic principles”. The three aforementioned EU countries are widely seen as having issues regarding media freedom, judicial independence and respect for rule of law. As a consequence there is hesitance from some member states to support further enlargement at this time.  

But even if the summit is not about enlargement, it is of import for relations between EU and the WB6, which remains an enclave of non-EU member states.

The EU is by far the biggest donor and investor in the region and a major player in regional cooperation and reconciliation. It will reiterate that “further and decisive efforts by the Western Balkans leaders are needed to deliver on their commitment to establish a Common Regional Market, as agreed in Sofia in 2020”.

The Brdo declaration is also expected to say that “this will help advance the region on its European path and will deliver tangible benefits for citizens and businesses. Exploiting the potential of regional economic integration is essential to boost the socio-economic recovery of the region, and maximising the benefit from the investments.”

The EU believes that the creation of a common regional market will enhance the market integration of the Western Balkans with the EU Single Market. The 27-country bloc will likewise reiterate its support for the development of sustainable transport connectivity, both within the region and with the EU.

Ursula von der Leyen, on the left with representatives of the Bosnia and Herzegovina government Photo: EC/  Dati Bendo

There is a political aspect to the relations too. Despite public statements on commitments to the EU and a “shared future” some Western Balkan countries are increasingly aligning with “other global factors”. As EU diplomats were discussing the wording of the Brdo declaration and Von der Leyen was touring the region, the Serb defence minister, Russian diplomats and military personnel were saluting soldiers deployed at Serbia’s border with Kosovo, where NATO has a military presence in an international peace mission. Tensions were high due to the problem related to the design of car registration plates: evidence that any small issue in the region brings the potential for escalation. Eventually the EU, with the help of the US, managed to mediate a temporary solution between Kosovo and Serbia to deescalate the situation. However, the question remains whether a region where the design of number plates can provoke such tensions has any chance of joining the EU in the near future.

Serbia is just one WB6 country that does not always support EU foreign policy. The Brdo Declaration is expected to call on the WB6 to show their strategic orientation by supporting EU foreign policy positions.

“Standing together with the EU is a clear sign of our partners’ strategic orientation. Therefore, we reassert our expectation that Partners will further deepen cooperation in the area of Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and make progress towards full alignment with EU foreign policy positions, including with positions in international fora as an important part of their European path” says the draft to be adopted at the summit. 

At the end of the declaration leaders will propose making the summit a regular event, with the next one planned during the Czech EU Presidency. 

At present only Montenegro and Serbia have ongoing membership talks with the EU. Progress is glacial, however, with not a single chapter of the 35 required closed in the last 12 months. Albania and North Macedonia have meanwhile been waiting for years to commence accession talks. The European Commission has repeatedly confirmed that the two aspirant countries have met all criteria and recommended that talks open. However there is no such consensus on the European Council: Bulgaria is blocking North Macedonia, while Bosnia and Herzegovina does not have even a positive opinion from the European Commission regarding its application to get candidate status. Kosovo has not applied for membership, given that it is not yet recognised by five EU member states. All are merely getting a message that they have a “clear European perspective”, which will be repeatedly stated at the summit in Slovenia.