Wednesday’s (5 February) expected announcement by the European Commission that it is proposing to reform the EU enlargement process should be seen as a real opportunity to offer pathways to membership for the countries of the Western Balkans. Too often, in the recent past, EU leaders have hidden behind the veneer of enlargement-reform in order to slow the process down, where enlargement fatigue amongst member states and their respective publics is certainly nothing new.
Under President von der Leyen, the European Commission is supposed to a “geopolitical Commission” and indeed, in Wednesday’s communication on its new approach to enlargement, the Commission was clear that this point remains, highlighting the fact that “the goal remains accession and full EU membership”. The EU, whilst losing one of its largest members, cannot take its eye off the ball when it comes to the fact that the Western Balkans provides the EU with the opportunity to cement its power – if it is to be a geopolitical actor, in the region.
Whilst there may be little appetite for further enlargement amongst the 27, a failure to eventually offer membership to Montenegro or Serbia (where talks are currently ongoing) or indeed to either North Macedonia or Albania, where the Commission on Wednesday once again, underlined its desire to open negotiations with those two countries, would call into question the EU’s aims in that part of Europe. Indeed, a failure to be serious about the Western Balkans runs the risk of losing countries into the orbit of either Russia or Turkey, both of which have strong cultural and economic ties to the region, where Presidents Erodgan and Putin do not need to be offered any further assistance in exerting their own illiberal democratic influences.
The new approach proposed by the Commission is straight out of the “Macron-playbook”, where the idea to “clusterise” areas of the negotiations was initially suggested by the French President in a non-paper last year. Nevertheless, it was the French President who was the leading protagonist in blocking the opening of accession negotiations with both Albania and North Macedonia at the last time of asking at the October European Council. President Macron, having got his way on the new methodology now must also be ready to embrace new members, too. Above all, the EU has the opportunity to financially muscle-in in the region, where according to its own statistics €11.7bn have been committed to the region in assisting with EU membership obligations in the 2014-2020 period with more to come in the 2021-2027 period.
EU enlargement has turned the EU into the entity which it is today and enlargement fatigue or populist concerns around immigration should in no way act as a block in the EU welcoming in new members. These are challenges and hurdles which need to addressed but also to be overcome.
The Western Balkans may well be frustrating at times with the feeling of little progress in either finding a long-lasting solution to Bosnia or a full resolution of the Serbia-Kosovo issue but the EU has demonstrated in the recent past both through the Kosovo-Pristina dialogue launched under the former High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, as well as more recently in finding a solution to the North Macedonia name issue that by sticking it out, solutions can be found. In this vein, looking ahead to the EU-Western Balkans summit in Zagreb in May, EU leaders need to think seriously about sending the right signal, in particular the starting of negotiations with both Albania and North Macedonia. Above all, if the EU is to be a true geopolitical actor, it must get serious about welcoming more members into the club and continue to provide them with the relevant tools to do so.