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Promises, but still no horizon for EU integration of the Western Balkans




WESTERN BALKANS. Sofia in May 2018, Zagreb in May 2020, summits between the leaders of the European Union and the six Western Balkan countries follow one another, but with the same result. Nice promises, some subsidies, but still no timetable for the integration of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, Northern Macedonia and Serbia.

This was confirmed on Wednesday 6 October 2021 at Brdo Castle in Slovenia. The EU "reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans and welcomes the commitment of the Western Balkan partners to this perspective, which is in our mutual strategic interest and remains our common strategic choice", states the first point of the final declaration of this summit. The text also includes proposals for further cooperation in the fields of transport, health, security and the economy. The €30bn Economic and Investment Plan (EIP) (see graphic below) was approved. It will support the construction of new infrastructure in the region to boost economic development. The plan consists of €9bn in grants and €20bn in investments funded by the new Western Balkans Guarantee Facility.

This is in addition to the €14.2bn of pre-accession aid over the period 2021-2027. Granted at the beginning of September 2021 by the Council of the EU, it will support the implementation of "the political, institutional, legal, administrative, social and economic reforms necessary to conform to the values of the Union and to align progressively with the rules, standards, policies and practices of the Union", as stated in a Council communiqué. But also to the €3.3 billion in European aid granted to the Western Balkans by the European institutions to help them fight the pandemic. Not to mention the 2.9 million doses of vaccine provided.

The EU is the leading investor and the region's main trading partner (with 69% of trade). Ties are real, but they are not getting any closer.

"Additional and decisive efforts are needed"

In October 2019, France, Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark dashed Albania's hopes by vetoing its membership. Paris even voted at the same meeting of EU affairs ministers in Luxembourg against North Macedonia's application.

If Athens and Skopje finally settled their problem (by a change of name in particular) in January 2019 - so Greece is no longer opposed to seeing Northern Macedonia join it in Brussels -, the neighbourhood problems persist. The non-recognition of Kosovo, which has been independent since 2008, by Serbia (and by five Member States: Cyprus, Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia) is one of them. Bulgaria's refusal to let Northern Macedonia in, due to a cultural dispute over linguistic, historical and identity issues, is another. And these are all barriers to European integration.

The Brdo Declaration also recognises that "further and decisive efforts are needed to foster reconciliation and regional stability, as well as to find and implement final, inclusive and binding solutions to the partners' bilateral issues and disputes, inherited from the past, in accordance with international law and established principles, including the agreement on succession issues, as well as to the remaining files of missing persons and war crimes issues. However, no timetable has yet emerged from this and previous EU-Western Balkans summits.

"The Western Balkans belong to the EU"

Family photo of the Brdo Summit (photo: European Union)
Family photo of the Brdo Summit (photo: European Union)
In Brdo, the Slovenian presidency of the EU Council wanted to push the advantage of its neighbours, before France, rather hostile to any entry of new members, takes over the seat in January 2022. Ljubjana wanted a commitment to welcome them by 2030, but was not followed by the other capitals. It was not until July 2027 that another country, Greece, close to the Western Balkans, took over the Council Presidency.

Germany, through Heiko Maas, has indicated that it is in favour of opening the EU to Albania and Northern Macedonia. The German Foreign Minister stressed the need to "send a clear message: the accession of the Western Balkans is an achievable goal". For her part, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, repeated: "We want to send a very clear message: the Western Balkans belong to the EU, we share the same history, the same values and, I am convinced, the same destiny."

Meanwhile, the six Western Balkan countries continue to knock on the EU's door. But it is not about to open. Serbia has been waiting for eighteen years. So much so that three of them have decided to sign a free trade agreement called "Open Balkans"   at the end of July 2021 in Skopje during the Economic Forum on Regional Cooperation. This antechamber to the EU brings together Albania, Northern Macedonia and Serbia. The opening of the borders will be operational by 1 January 2023.
"Open Balkans" is intended to include the other three states in the region. "We are starting today to do in the region what we will do tomorrow in the EU", commented Edi Rama, Albanian Prime Minister. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic spoke of "enlargement fatigue in the EU. We have to see what we can do for ourselves instead, what we can do for our citizens, how we can expand our markets."

To date, five countries are officially candidates for membership : Albania, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. Four of them are therefore in the Western Balkans. However, since 2014, only Serbia has begun the process of negotiations prior to its accession. The last country to join the EU, Croatia in July 2013, is also in this region.

See the final declaration of the Brno summit.

Frédéric Dubessy


Thursday, October 7th 2021



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