The European Union wants to show it still cares about the Balkans, but not everyone is feeling the love.
Brussels has been accused for years of not paying enough attention to the six Western Balkan countries that want to join the bloc. After taking office in 2014, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared the EU would not take in any new members during his five-year term.
In recent months, though, the EU has rediscovered an interest in the Balkans, after becoming alarmed by attempts from Russia to exert influence there and by deteriorating relations between some countries in a region that was engulfed in war just a couple of decades ago. Officials from Serbia and Montenegro will be in Brussels on Monday to discuss their path to the EU.
EU leaders have begun sending signals that the path to Brussels is still open. Juncker, in his State of the Union address in September, and French President Emmanuel Macron, in his big speech setting out his vision for the future of Europe, both stressed that the bloc has to be open to new members from the Western Balkans.
Juncker and European Parliament President Antonio Tajani are expected to visit the region early next year, according to spokespeople for both leaders. And Bulgaria has said it wants to make helping Western Balkan countries move toward membership a priority of its six-month presidency of the Council of the EU, which starts in January.
Brussels does not envisage all six Western Balkan countries — Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia — joining the EU at the same time, if ever. Instead, the Commission has named Serbia and Montenegro “frontrunners” and aims to have them as members by 2025, if not sooner. Both countries are expected to open new chapters in their membership negotiations in Brussels on Monday.
The focus on these two countries has triggered alarm, confusion and anger among countries not included in the leading group.
Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj suggested Serbia was getting preferential treatment because it had played up the possibility of moving closer to its traditional ally, Russia.
“Belgrade has benefited a lot from playing the card of the alternative — and that’s Moscow, Russia … The message towards our region should be a clear one, not with double standards,” Haradinaj said in an interview during a recent visit to Brussels.
Haradinaj, who said his government hoped to submit an application for EU membership in the second half of next year, declared that all Western Balkan countries should join the bloc at the same time.
Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaçi has suggested the “frontrunner” strategy could be Islamophobic as it puts countries with substantial Muslim populations lower in the pecking order than two predominantly Orthodox Christian states.
Other countries have been less critical but made clear the new strategy, at the very least, led to confusion.
Janina Suela, Albania’s ambassador to the EU, said Juncker’s signal to the region in his State of the Union speech was “very much appreciated” but the accompanying letter setting out the frontrunner strategy “caused some concerns.”
“Seeing these two documents, we asked ‘What is this about?’ What we needed was clarification,” she said.
The Commission says that identifying Serbia and Montenegro as frontrunners simply reflects the fact they are the only two of the six countries to have started membership negotiations. But regional diplomats are concerned that the duo will now get the lion’s share of Brussels’ attention.
The Commission’s work program for the coming year promises a strategy “for the EU accession of Serbia and Montenegro” but does not even mention the other Western Balkan aspirants.
“We don’t have a problem with mentioning these two countries that have already opened negotiations. We’ll have a problem if the strategy will be concentrated only on these two countries,” Suela said.
The plan even irritated one of the designated frontrunners, Montenegro. The nation of some 620,000 people sees itself far ahead of Serbia on the path to the EU and does not like the suggestion that it may have to wait for its larger neighbor to catch up.
“We are in the process much longer than them and we are nearly closing the [negotiating] chapters when they are just beginning,” said Bojan Šarkić, Montenegro’s ambassador to the EU.
Montenegrin officials even dislike Serbia being named first when the two countries are mentioned as frontrunners, feeling that this implies Belgrade is at the head of the queue. “Montenegro is the frontrunner,” Foreign Minister Andrija Pejović declared bluntly.
Defending the EU strategy, Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner responsible for enlargement, said it stimulated a healthy rivalry among countries to carry out the reforms necessary to join the EU.
“What we have is a kind of positive competition amongst them, they’re looking jealously on each other,” he told POLITICO.
The Commission is also getting ready to recommend the start of accession talks with Albania and possibly Macedonia in the first half of next year, according to Hahn, although he said this would only happen if he could be sure EU governments would receive the proposals positively.
EU leaders who favor enlargement argue that bringing the Western Balkan countries into the fold is in the bloc’s own interests. The six countries are surrounded by EU members to their north, west and east. The 2015 refugee crisis, during which hundreds of thousands of migrants made their way to Western Europe via the Western Balkan route, demonstrated the region’s importance to the stability of the EU.
If the Western Balkan countries adopt reforms to join the EU, the theory goes, those countries themselves will become more prosperous, more stable and more closely aligned with the EU’s interests.
“If we do not somehow embrace these countries, they will feel abandoned by the EU and they will seek other allies,” said Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar, whose country was the first former Yugoslav republic to join the bloc, in 2004.
In his Sorbonne speech on Europe, French President Macron warned Western Balkan countries would turn toward Russia or Turkey, “or towards authoritarian powers that today do not defend our values” if they do not have a clear perspective of EU membership.
Although China and the Gulf states have also become increasingly active economically in the region, it is the role of Russia that has EU governments most alarmed — even as Moscow insists it is not destabilizing the Balkans.
Montenegro has accused Russian agents of being behind a failed coup last year — a claim senior Western officials believe is credible. Russia has also donated MiG fighter jets to Serbia and encouraged the separatist ambitions of the Serb region of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Yet EU officials acknowledge it is hard to win support among the public for bringing relatively poor countries with a recent history of war and instability into the bloc, especially with right-wing populism still a force to be reckoned with. To many Europeans in older member countries who have struggled to absorb immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, the idea of more migration from east to west is unwelcome.
“It’s not easy to sell new membership to voters in Germany,” said David McAllister, a German MEP from Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats who chairs the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
“But you can win the argument if you deliver concrete reasons why this is beneficial, not only for the country joining the EU but also to the EU in general.”
For regional governments keen to move closer to the EU, the renewed focus from Brussels is very welcome.
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said “it was a very different atmosphere” back in 2014 when Juncker said the EU needed “to take a break from enlargement.”
Brnabić said she could “completely understand why [the enlargement agenda] was left aside a little bit,” and argued Serbia had used that period to prove its commitment to EU accession.
But officials and analysts are divided over whether Juncker’s statement was a good idea. Regional governments had less reason to adopt EU standards in areas such as fighting corruption or defending media freedom if they were not going to be joining the bloc any time soon.
Macedonia, for example, became increasingly authoritarian under longtime leader Nikola Gruevski and tension between his government and its opponents led to violence in the parliament earlier this year. Gruevski eventually stood down and a coalition of Social Democrats and ethnic Albanian parties took charge.
“We had been kept in the waiting room for several years with the doors locked … Probably to some extent this influenced the negative dynamic in the country,” said Nikola Dimitrov, Macedonia’s foreign minister. He did not lay the blame entirely on the EU, saying he didn’t “want to justify our own shortcomings.”
Despite the new mood of openness toward enlargement, the challenges to bringing any of the Western Balkan six into the EU are formidable. Some are unique to each country, some apply to all of them.
Macedonia’s biggest problem when it comes to getting closer to the EU — and NATO — is as fundamental as its name. Greece, which has a northern province of the same name, has blocked Macedonia starting accession talks, first recommended by the Commission back in 2009, because it believes the country’s name applies a claim on its territory and heritage.
A common problem across the region is the strength of organized crime and its close links to a political elite, in which corruption is widespread.
“The leaders are thoroughly corrupt and have an incentive not to go down the EU track,” said Fredrik Wesslau, a senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations.
Wesslau said the EU had “a massive credibility problem” in the region, with a strong sense that it “doesn’t really care that much.”
Support for EU membership is weak in a number of Western Balkan countries — most of all, ironically, in “frontrunner” Serbia, where only 26 percent of people think it would be a good thing, according to the latest annual Balkan Barometer survey.
Serbia has also faced obstacles in the course of its membership talks from Croatia, its wartime foe from the 1990s and an EU member since 2013.
Serbia faces another major problem — its relationship with Kosovo. Belgrade continues to regard the majority ethnic Albanian territory as its province, despite its 2008 unilateral declaration of independence.
Kosovo too faces problems linked to its legal status. Five of the EU’s own member countries do not recognize Kosovo as an independent state, making it hard for it to be accepted by the EU as a candidate for membership, let alone a member.
In another legacy of the breakup of Yugoslavia, a deal that would have given Kosovars visa-free access to the EU was shelved after Kosovo’s parliament could not muster enough votes to back a border demarcation agreement with neighboring Montenegro.
“We have learned our lesson,” Hahn said, referring to an unresolved border dispute between Slovenia and Croatia that rumbles on even though both countries are now EU members. “We today are absolutely clear that border conflicts have to be sorted out before EU accession.”
Andrew Gray contributed reporting.