Serbia: 10 years. Montenegro: 11 years. North Macedonia: 14.
That’s how long these Western Balkan nations have been stuck in various stages of applying to join the European Union, along with Albania, with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo at even earlier points in the process. As the EU prepares for one of the most pivotal elections of its history later this month, the discontent of countries on the EU accession list provides one way to understand the challenges facing the bloc now and in the future.
The EU was founded in 1993 with 12 Western European member states. Since then, it’s grown—slowly—to 28, with the last member state, Croatia, added in 2013. Eight countries, largely in the Western Balkan region, are on the accession waiting list to join the union, their entry determined by a long process that involves aligning their national laws (pdf) with EU policy, and receiving the support of EU member states, the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, and the European Parliament.
It also means demonstrating progress on resolving the domestic issues and ethnic tensions that have kept the region in a state of relative economic paucity. But the candidate countries complain that the process is too slow and the conditions for entry too rigid. In the meantime, anti-EU sentiment is growing, and countries like China, Turkey, and Russia, have stepped into the breach.
In the past two years, the EU has opened up to the prospect of taking in new members from the Western Balkans. When the EU released its 2018 enhanced strategy for the region, it included an ambitious goal of adding at least two Balkan EU members, most likely Serbia and Montenegro (paywall), by 2025. The project of “EU enlargement” isn’t just beneficial to potential member states. EU leaders believe it will allow them to export stability, democracy, and economic development to their neighbors; gain control over a strategic geographic area; prevent countries like Russia and China from gaining too strong a foothold in Europe; and give them even more power on the global stage.
But Western Balkan nations seem to be losing patience with the process. Opinion polls suggest 26% of people surveyed in the region don’t believe their countries will ever join the EU. Some opposition politicians in Serbia have suggested that their country should withdraw their accession application. And at the recent Berlin Summit, Kosovo’s president Hashim Thaci called for the US to become more involved in negotiations to resolve the rift between Kosovo and Serbia, telling Reuters TV that “without the US, we can never have any dialogue, negotiations or any agreement,” because “the EU is not united in this process.”
This frustration is likely to worsen if the EU doesn’t open formal accession proceedings for North Macedonia and Albania in June—something the European commissioner for enlargement is confident will happen. The decision was postponed last June when some EU member states, including France and the Netherlands, felt the countries hadn’t done enough to improve the rule of law and fight organized crime.
In the meantime, other countries have stepped up their presence in the region. China views it as a strategic way to reach central Europe and beyond with its “Belt and Road Initiative.” The country holds a “16+1” business summit every year with central and eastern European states, including Albania, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) is building roads, bridges, a tire company, and an industrial park in Serbia; as well as a controversial highway that will link the country to Montenegro’s Adriatic coast.
“It would not be immodest or wrong to call Serbia China’s main partner in Europe,” Serbian Minister for Construction Zorana Mihajlovic (paywall) recently stated.
Israel and the United Arab Emirates have also stepped up their investments in infrastructure and real estate projects in the Western Balkans, along with Turkey, which is no stranger to the EU accession list. It first broached the idea of joining EU as early as 2004, but membership has stalled to the point where the European Parliament recently passed a non-binding resolution urging the EU to suspend the negotiations.
Meanwhile, Russia’s commercial investments appears to some experts to signal a desire “to create Balkan political and economic dependence,” write Paul Stronski and Annie Himes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Russia opposes Balkan EU accession and North Macedonia’s bid to join NATO.
Fear that these countries are trying to weaken European influence in the region and, in the case of Russia, exacerbate ethnic tensions, may have prompted France and Germany (paywall) to call for a much-talked-about Balkans summit in Berlin on April 29. But if their goal was to reassure the countries that the EU still wants to bring them into the fold, they seem to have failed. Kosovo’s Thaci told (paywall) the Financial Times after the summit: “Not only I, but all of us from the region were disappointed by the Berlin meeting. There was nothing concrete, just all these empty speeches.”
To be fair, the EU is trying to solve a variety of intractable obstacles. Eight unresolved border disputes are still dividing Balkan countries today, leftover from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. France’s Macron and Germany’s Merkel are hoping to resolve the ongoing dispute between Kosovo and Serbia, which EU officials say is holding back the entire region. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, a move that Serbia still does not recognize. In response to Serbia blocking its Interpol membership bid, Kosovo recently imposed 100% tariffs on Serbian goods. There were no breakthroughs at the Berlin summit, though another meeting with the two countries was set for July.
There are also recent protests over the alleged corruption, state scandals, and authoritarianism of governments in Albania, Serbia, and Montenegro to be reckoned with. And EU leaders themselves disagree among themselves about whether the Balkans are ready to join the bloc. Some worry that talks of enlargement will empower the growing arm of Euroskeptics in the upcoming European elections. “They don’t want to take any chances politically and don’t want to throw fuel on the fire,” says Jonathan Katz, a senior fellow with The German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Western Balkan nations may look to other countries as a “way of hedging and compensating at least temporarily for the slowdown in EU accession process,” says Vuk Vuksanovic, a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and former security policy attaché for the Serbian Foreign Ministry. But Vuksanovic believes EU membership remains “the only option that makes strategic sense.” The EU is by far the region’s largest trading partner. And the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development announced last month that it will invest €1.1 billion ($1.25 billion) into the Western Balkans this year.
European leaders say that membership is a slow but worthwhile process that will eventually bring greater prosperity and peace to a region that has had very little of both. Western Balkan countries might be willing to hold out for that promise—but it’s unclear for how long, and who will step up in the meantime.