The EU and the Western Balkans: it is a complete impasse?

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In her annual State of the Union Address, Ursula von der Leyen named the countries which have to join the European Union as soon as possible. Among them, President von der Leyen highlighted Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. The potential candidacy of these three post-Soviet states is naturally enhanced by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict on the EU’s immediate border. On the other hand, the Western Balkan (WB) countries – who had waited long for EU membership – only mentioned by the European Commission (EC) President as an unspecified block. This tells a lot about the EU’s own commitment to this region.


This article was originally published by ‘The Long Brief’. To purchase access to the original full-length article please click here.


While Brussels is showing its teeth to the Kremlin, EU enlargement is falling flat when it comes to motivating the WB countries. North Macedonia, despite becoming a candidate in 2005, its path to EU membership negotiations has been blocked by first the French then the Bulgarian administrations. After the latest EU-Western Balkans conference in June, Bulgaria accepted a French-brokered deal, and withdrew its veto. Another example is Bosnia and Herzegovina, the country that applied to join the bloc back in 2016 and just received candidate status.


EU enlargement in the Balkans is a two-way street. On the one hand, the EC sets out in its country reports the on specific areas where progress is expected from the candidate countries.

On the other, the accession process cannot be viewed independently of the Union’s internal events. In 2004 and 2007, there was an increasing number of voices in opposition to the EU’s accession process. One of the main counterarguments for enlargement is – correctly – the need for institutional reform of the EU. Two of the most obvious warning signs, absorption capacity and enlargement fatigue have been referred to frequently. This suggests that the European Union prioritizes the issue of stability in the region over integration, seeking to achieve stability through integration. However, the WB states cannot be expected to meet the accession criteria without having any reward. The EU’s financial assistance is not a sufficient reason for a government to embark on costly reforms, such as ensuring the judiciary is free of political interference or the media can investigate someone’s business partners.


On 31 December 1989, a few weeks aft er the fall of the Berlin Wall, President François Mitterrand of France called for the creation of ‘a European confederation’ designed to ‘associate all states of [the]continent in a common and permanent organisation for exchanges, peace and security’. But the project collapsed in less than a year, because of the lack of interest. Twenty-three years later, on the day of Europe, another visionary French president, Emmanuel Macron called for the establishment of a European Political Community (EPC), a club to foster co-operation between the EU and its neighbors.


This means a Europe of concentric circles where the six Western Balkan countries are relegated to another circle together with Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and possibly the UK and Turkey. The consequence is in short to medium term is that these countries would stay out of the Union and they would not enjoy the privileges of membership, including access to decision-making power. On the other hand, they could be eligible for some of the benefits of integration, namely access to the single market and access to the EU budget. Macron’s vision is not universally shared in the EU. Western Balkan countries run the risk of being forever stuck in the waiting room.


The Balkans is a conducive environment for Russia to punch back against the United States and the EU. Russia has several strategic goals in the region. First and foremost, prevent the countries’ Euro-Atlantic approach.  Meanwhile, the region is witnessing a relatively slow but dynamic Chinese take-up.


The EU’s credibility deficit in the region foreshadows the emergence of a power vacuum. The historical players Turkey and Russia, in addition with the US and China as relatively new actors are very active and able to gain influence here.


Please note this article is an extract from the original one. To purchase access to the original article please click here.

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István started his studies in 2003 at the Department of Political Science, in the University of Miskolc. He received his degree in Political Science in 2008. The focus area of his degree was security policy issues in international relations. The topic of his thesis was the American geopolitics in the Middle East and the Iraq War. After graduation, he was admitted to the Hungarian Administrative Scholarship. He spent his traineeship in the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice, and at the Hungarian Permanent Representation in Brussels, at the Press and Protocol Department. Meanwhile, he finished a correspondence master’s course in European and International Administration in the Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest. Formerly, he worked as a press officer in various ministries. He successfully completed training of journalism and project management.

István was the organizer and participant of numerous international conferences: Visegrád School of Political Studies in the V4 capitals (2015, participant); the annual World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg (2015, participant), the joint workshop of the CDDG Committee of the Council of Europe on e-democracy and e-government in Budapest (2015, organizer) International Conference on Christian Persecution in Budapest (2019, organizer) GLOBSEC Tatra Summit (2021, participant)
Currently, he works as a project manager and freelance journalist for various Hungarian online magazines focusing on security policy and the post-soviet region.


1 What Has Stopped EU Enlargement in the Western Balkans?


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