After decades of lasting peace, even with its painful sacrifices and with the inherent hurdles of freedom, the grand old continent - Europe - is once again stricken by the dehumanizing specter of war. The Russian lawless assault on its peaceful, unthreatening neighbor has unearthed a quintessential, yet contentious, EU agenda: the future of enlargement amidst geopolitical concerns and pernicious Eurosceptic propaganda.
Ever since its foundation, the European ideal of regional integration has always been motivated by the unremitting quest for peace, harmony, unity, security and stability. The 2004 admission of ten new Member States into the EU sheds light upon a successful story of expansion. However, a geographical area of utmost strategic interest seems to be left behind and overwhelmed by unending bureaucratic mechanisms and prolonged negotiations over chapters of integration under the Copenhagen criteria: the Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Serbia).
How could a region so deeply and inextricably intertwined with the history and culture of Europe not be able to become part of the EU? The present article seeks to investigate the situation of four out of six Western Balkan countries in connection with EU accession, while attempting to provide a series of policy directions that may facilitate their legitimate European path.
Albania and North Macedonia
The accession of Albania and North Macedonia to the EU has long been considered a package for Brussels. However, this part of the Balkans has encountered several domestic issues concerning the adequate enforcement of the rule of law and corruption within the state apparatus.
After receiving the candidate country status at the end of 2005, Macedonian politicians began demanding the initiation of open accession negotiations. In spite of the continued diplomatic dialogue between the European bureaucrats and state officials, the process itself was actualized only in 2020 when the General Affairs Council, through the support of the European Council, designed the framework of negotiations.
To this day for North Macedonia, certain disputes with two EU Member States still have to be settled, should the Macedonian European allegiance be realized. Specifically, there is a persistent sense of discontent and ideological dissension between the governments of Athens and Skopje which clashed several times over the historical region of Macedonia. Notwithstanding the significant historic agreement of 2018 when the country Macedonia officially changed its name to “North Macedonia”, the political deadlock with the Hellenic government remains in place. When it comes to the unanimity vote for accession, a potential veto can arise from Bulgaria. The Sofia political elite claims that its neighbor is a historically, culturally, and linguistically contiguous component of the Bulgarian state, even though the Macedonian opinion differs considerably.
As for Albania, whose European destiny is inherently tied to the fate of North Macedonia, the open accession negotiations demand that the country should implement proactive policies to combat trans-frontier organized crime, safeguard the independence of the judiciary, reform the public administration, tackle corruption and foster regional coordination within the Balkans. With a public approval rate of over 90% among the Albanians, the EU still runs the risk of losing its credibility if it does not renew its pledge to actively facilitate the accession of North Macedonia and Albania.
As a front-runner in the European enlargement debate, Montenegro has successfully managed to implement a compelling agenda of structural reforms as requested by Brussels. Recent NATO member (since 2017) with a political class and a civil society largely supporting EU membership, Montenegro is nonetheless facing pressing issues, both in terms of domestic and foreign affairs. Within its confines, the Podgorica government has to reform its bureaucratic machinery, ensure genuine freedom of expression, consolidate the reign of the legal system, discourage social fragmentation, and cultivate authentic political deliberation. As regards the international landscape, Montenegro should stray away from Russia, which has always perceived Podgorica as an undeniable part of its umbrella of protection and influence.
Candidate country since 2012, Serbia has demonstrated an uncontestable advancement of European commitments which culminated with this year’s public referendum on amending the constitution to protect the autonomy of Serbian courts. Following the meeting of the EU-Serbia Stabilization and Association Council in January, the Serbian Prime Minister and Minister for European Integration, the EU Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy agreed that the Belgrade government is expected to deepen its reforms in the area of rule of law along with systematic measures to enhance media freedom, civil liberal institutions, and the transparency of the electoral process. Serbia is also asked to reinforce its constant participation in EU-led military missions and operations as a means of harmonizing regional security policies, as well as to stabilize the problematic relationship with Kosovo via an EU-overseen dialogue.
Further steps and integration policies
In face of extensive Russian and Chinese socio-economic and political influence in the region, the Union must bolster its pre-integration pleas and pledges by taking concrete actions to prove its commitment towards the Western Balkans. The expansion of the community bloc relies heavily on state reform, cooperation, and stability across the Balkans. At the same time, worsened labor conditions and thus high unemployment, dire lack of investment projects, demographic decline, and a stagnant economy may sooner or later render the European ideal unfeasible for these nations.
Alignment of the Western Balkan candidates to the standards of the European Common Security and Defense Policy mechanism through joint military exercises and intergovernmental cooperation on border control and migration policy;
Establishment of interconnectivity between intra-European law enforcement and criminal justice agencies (Europol, Eurojust, and Frontex) and regional police structures in order to tackle organized crime networks and trans-frontier illicit trafficking;
Comprehensive implementation procedures and recommendations to develop a legal framework for regional cybersecurity policy adjusted for the EU community acts;
Macroeconomic assistance, improved trade, and commerce via the already existing channels.
As John F. Kennedy once claimed, “freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect”, but, I shall add, the strive for peace and prosperity can only be achieved under full-fledged democratic governance. Rule of law, respect for human rights, integrity and dignity, tolerance, non-discrimination, equality of opportunity, openness and unity in diversity are all traits of mature democracies. These are the core values and principles that have given rise across time to free, sovereign nations co-existing in grand concord and good faith. With the just attitude in mind and tangible enlargement policies to be enforced accordingly, the Western Balkans are bound to rise anew led by the beacon of democratic hope, enter the Union and confirm once again the successful story of EU enlargement.