When the UK leaves the European Union on 29 March 2019, history will be made. For the very first time, the EU will lose an independent member state. We should know by October how the UK’s future relationship with the EU will look. However, three months before this date, the UK will play a role in boosting the prospects of six countries that are trying to join the very club it is leaving.

Beginning on 10 July, the Western Balkan Summit took place in London. The summit is part of the UK’s involvement in the Berlin Process, an agreement with Germany, Italy and France aimed at encouraging the accession of the six Western Balkan nations into the EU. Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro are all involved in discussions to join the EU.

Varying levels of progress

The candidate countries are assessed by the Copenhagen Criteria. In order to join the EU, candidate countries need stable political institutions which guarantee democracy and the rule of law, a functioning market economy, and the ability to take on the obligations of EU membership. Negotiations can take years and the last country to join the EU, Croatia, did so in 2013, 10 years after its first applied in 2003.

The progress of the Western Balkan nations varies considerably. Last month, the European Commission endorsed the formal start of accession talks with Macedonia and Albania, which have been candidates since 2005 and 2014 respectively. The Commission’s recommendation still needs to be endorsed by the individual leaders of the EU member states and is likely to be discussed at this month’s EU Council summit.

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Serbia and Montenegro are the furthest down the line to membership, having applied in 2009 and 2008 respectively. In February this year, the EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, raised the prospects of Serbia and Montenegro joining the EU by 2025 calling it a “realistic but also very ambitious” target date.

That leaves Bosnia & Herzegovina and Kosovo, who are both listed as potential candidates. But with no formal negotiations on the horizon they are some way behind their Western Balkan neighbours.

Accession as a route to stability

A recurring theme when it comes to enlargement in the Western Balkans is the idea that it will provide stability for the region. The ethnic tensions which dominated the breakup of Yugoslavia and led to the violent wars at the end of the 20th century are still present. The murder of a prominent Serbian politician in Northern Kosovo in January this year is the latest flashpoint.

Normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo is a prerequisite for Serbia’s accession to the EU. While it still does not recognise the independence of its former province, its current president Aleksandar Vučić is playing up the prospect of an agreement that brings benefits to Serbia.

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The EU recognises that it will benefit from increased stability and cooperation in the region. Even as it presses on with its own negotiations to leave, the UK’s official position is, “We remain of the view that the EU accession process is important to delivering security, stability and prosperity in the Western Balkans.”

The stability goes both ways and the EU also stands to benefit from the enlargement process. “Either we export stability to the region or we import instability,” Hahn told Reuters when he first revealed the 2025 target date.

Crucial issue

The region is significant strategically as it is right on the EU’s doorstep. As the recent migrant crisis has shown, the Balkans continue to be a route to Northern Europe. High levels of organised crime and corruption so close to the EU’s borders also presents a threat, and the EU benefits from encouraging the development of the rule of law in its neighbourhood.

Growing tensions with Russia in recent years have also played their part and encouraged the EU to give the Western Balkans countries renewed hope of joining, using it as a pull factor away from Russian influence.

Russian intelligence agents were widely believed to have been involved in the plot to assassinate Montenegrin prime minister, Milo Djukanovic, and stage a coup on election day in late 2016. Serbia, in particular, also has historic ties with Russia thanks to the Orthodox Christian religion shared by the two countries.

It is perhaps with this in mind that the president of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, further raised the prospect of accession in his State of the Union address in September last year.  “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he said,  “if we want more stability in our neighbourhood, then we must also maintain a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans.”

european union flags
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Different noises from member states

While Juncker and Hahn have used their voices, however it is not theirs that count. The European Commission may guide the process for accession, but ultimately it is the up to the member states to decide when to admit new members and any decisions need to be unanimous.

Concerns about the rule of law and corruption are currently holding the region back. Last month, French president Emmanuel Macron poured cold water on Western Balkans hopes on hopes for accession. “These last 15 years have shown a path that has weakened Europe by thinking of enlarging it,” he told reporters. “And I don’t think we do a service to the candidate countries or ourselves by having a mechanism that in a way no longer has rules and keeps moving toward more enlargement.”

Macron is perhaps the EU’s most vocal cheerleader at the moment, but in cooling off the talk of enlargement he is demonstrating that he is aware of the political dangers it may bring.

Emmanuel Macron
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Martin Dimitrov, a Bulgarian journalist at Balkan Insight Reporting Network, a pan-Balkan media organisation, highlights some of these political challenges. “Let’s not fool ourselves”, he said “Western European leaders have no intention of letting the Western Balkan states in anytime soon, mostly because they don’t want any more problematic and corrupt societies (like Bulgaria, Greece and to a certain extent – Romania) in, or to allow more migration that is obviously unwelcome in their societies and boosts far right parties.”

This last point is particularly interesting given the role immigration played in the Brexit referendum. One of the arguments which gained significant traction with Leave voters was that Turkey would soon be joining the EU, and in doing so would be bringing with it free movement rights for all of its 80 million citizens. This prospect was remote at the time of the referendum, and is now even more unlikely yet it is clear that voters were influenced.

The EU is dealing with its own surge in populist and right-wing parties across the continent, most recently in Italy, so in some ways it is understandable that its leaders are looking inwards and not outwards in favour expansion.

In the next month the EU Council will meet, followed by the Western Balkan Summit. The noises we hear from these two meetings will be likely to set the enlargement tone for the coming years and make clear precisely how optimistic it is that, in 2025, the EU27 will become 29.


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