The much-awaited new Enlargement Strategy, entitled “The Credible Enlargement Perspective for the Western Balkans” was presented earlier today by the High Representative Vice-President Federica Mogherini and Commissionaire Johannes Hahn during the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Acknowledging the fact that some eighteen years after the launch of the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) the EU Western Balkan accession candidates are still far away from actual membership, the Strategy aims to provide a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans.

It is important therefore to remind ourselves once again of what “credibility of enlargement” actually means. For the sake of this text, I will argue that the credibility of EU’s membership promise is measured against two variables, the first being determinacy, clarity and consistency of membership conditions, and the second being the certainty of the promise of full membership when these conditions are met.

Fueled by various versions of the allegedly leaked document that signaled a clear prospect of accession to the EU by the end of 2025, the hope in the Western Balkans, and particularly among the frontrunners in the current enlargement round – Serbia and Montenegro, was that the Strategy will draw a clear finish line in Brussels for the aspiring members. However, this hope was not reciprocating on-the-ground realities. Currently none of the “Western Balkans six” have met basic membership conditions: to build institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities; to establish a functioning market economy and the capacity to cope with competition and market forces in the EU; and to prove their ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of membership.

Hence it came as no surprise to hear the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker who warned against too much excitement over the prospect of Serbia and Montenegro joining by 2025. Instead he described the year 2025 as an indicative and encouragement date that should keep the countries concerned focused on the difficult reforms that lay ahead.

Indeed, the Strategy does not provide much reason for optimism that enlargement could be achieved by 2025. The document goes way beyond the usual diplomatic language used in EU Progress Reports in identifying three main structural weaknesses impeding the Western Balkans progress to the EU.

The first weakness concerns the poor rule of law performance of the “Western Balkans six”, claiming that they show clear elements of state capture, including links with organized crime and corruption at all levels of government and administration. This precedent shies away from the earlier practice when the EU remained rather silent on democratic backsliding in the region, even when confronted with concrete evidence, as in the case of the recent wiretapping scandal in Macedonia, or the Savamala incident in Serbia. Similarly, contrary to its previous practice of turning a blind eye towards breaching of media freedoms in the region, the EU now acknowledges extensive political interference in and control of the media.

Second, the Strategy states bluntly that in spite of all progress on reforms, none of the Western Balkan membership candidates can currently be considered a functioning market economy, nor to have the capacity to cope with the competitive pressure and market forces in the union.

Third, the EU expects that the Western Balkan (potential) candidate countries must adopt binding solutions to their bilateral disputes prior to their accession.

This said, it becomes clear that the goal of reaching EU membership by 2025 remains a very difficult object of desire for Western Balkan countries. To remind us, it took Croatia six years to conclude formal negotiations after having started them back in 2005, and it took almost another two years for the final accession phase before full membership. Hence, the Western Balkans have no more time to lose in their reform process.

This seems to be the main message of the new Western Balkans Strategy. While it does not explicitly deny the possibility of membership in 2025, the text clearly states that in order to make the ambitious best-case scenario a reality, ‘action must be taken now’ by the authorities and societies of the “Western Balkans six”.

In order to support the reform process in the Western Balkans, the EU is pledging a significant enhancement of its own engagement with the countries of the region. By listing a range of upgraded flagship initiatives aimed at supporting the transformation process in the region, the EU is reiterating its credible commitment to the Western Balkans. However, the first test for credibility of the new Strategy will come already later this year when the EU will negotiate its budget. Furthermore, it remains to be seen how this ambitious Action Plan will be welcomed by European institutions and EU Member States.

Finally, there is couple of spoilers to the EU’s declared credibility, which the Strategy fails to address.

First, the Strategy closely follows the current enlargement policy of the EU that favors individual admission over the idea of grouping the countries of the Western Balkans into one whole. Remembering cases when other former Yugoslav countries were successful at slowing down the accession processes of their neighbors by imposing bilateral membership conditions, leads us to believe that preventing the future blockages in the accession process has to be more clearly elaborated in any future strategy.

Second, the Strategy fails to address the involvement of member states in EU accession talks that threatens the credibility of EU conditionality, most notably Kosovo’s non-recognition by five EU member states – particularly in the light of the Spain’s non-paper, and still ongoing Greece-Macedonia name dispute.

Despite of all of this, the Strategy does spell good news for the Balkans. It presents an opportunity for the countries’ authorities to take ownership and deliver on the well-known conditions for accession. The next opportunity to measure their progress will come already in May, when EU leaders will hold a summit in Bulgaria with the leaders of the six Balkan nations involved in the Strategy.


The article has previously been published on the BiEPAG Blog and can be found at http://www.biepag.eu/2018/02/08/eu-western-balkans-strategy-on-named-and-unnamed-elephants-in-the-room/