Photo: Bulgarian EU Presidency / Flickr

BELGRADE – The recently concluded EU – Western Balkans Summit in Sofia, the first of this kind after the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, drew a lot of attention when it was first announced. Along with the European Commission’s Strategy on the Western Balkans, presented on 6 February, it was considered as a part of the wave of the newfound dedication of the EU towards enlargement in the Western Balkans, first announced in EC President’s Juncker’s State of the Union speech last September.

However, enlargement itself was not on the agenda of the Summit, and while there were strong words of encouragement by several EU officials, such as EP president Antonio Tajani and EC president Jean Claude Juncker, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron expressed caution and reservation towards promises of EU enlargement.

Florian Bieber, professor at the University of Graz and coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), considers the Sofia Summit to be a “disappointment”.

“This was very much an isolated initiative of the Bulgarian presidency and never was able to gain full support from all other members. However, what made the summit disappointing is that effort of the Commission to reconceptualise and re-energise the enlargement process has been torpedoed by some member states.”

According to Bieber, “dropping the target date 2025, not offering a new dynamism to membership, not offering a new toolkit towards enlargement are some of the flaws. There are some good points, such as offering more Erasmus funding, but they are mere drops in the ocean.”

Referring to the Declaration of the Summit, Bieber points out that it “mentions key issues such as democracy, media freedom and bilateral relations, drawing on the Commission strategy, but offer no path or engagement.” According to him, “the hands off and passive approach of the EU and its members suggests that enlargement will remain on autopilot.”

Florian Bieber; Photo: Belgrade Security Forum / Aleksandar Anđić

However, Srđan Cvijić, senior policy analyst on the EU external relations at the Open Society European Policy Institute and member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), believes that the very fact that the Summit took place after a very long 15-year period is a success.

“It was important and timely, following the publication of the EU-Western Balkans Strategy on 6 February, to reiterate the EU membership perspective of the Western Balkans countries.”, he told EWB.

Cvijić pointed out at the importance of numerous side events and bilateral meetings that took place on the sidelines of the Sofia Summit.

“I must admit that I lost count as to how many conferences dedicated to the Western Balkans took place. This would be something unheard of only 2-3 years ago. Before 2015-16 and the migration crisis many big European think tanks, such as the European Council of Foreign Relations barely covered the Western Balkans countries. Now the situation is totally different and they for example hosted one of the main side events dedicated to the region in cooperation with the Bulgarian presidency of the European Union.”

Cvijić singled out the event that the European Fund for the Balkans, Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Centre for the Study of Democracy event held on 16 May, which was dedicated to a large extent to corruption and rule of law in the region. According to him, “this and similar crucial topics for the successful EU integration of the Western Balkans were not directly covered by the Summit so the civil society organised side events that to an extent filled the void.”

Cvijić believes that the message sent to Western Balkan states by EU leaders are overall positive.

“Reconfirming the membership perspective, providing additional funds for connectivity and infrastructure, recognising that endogenous drivers, such as corruption and organised crime present one of the biggest threats to the stability of the region etc.”

Srđan Cvijić; Photo: BSF 2017/ Aleksandar Anđić

Florian Bieber considers that it is clear that enlargement depends on double reforms, of the Western Balkan 6 and the EU itself.

“The need of the EU to reform itself has been clear for years, but there is no willingness from some governments, to tackle this difficult issues. Thus, there is a risk of enlargement being delayed as a result.”

According to Bieber, “the Union should be able to both pursue enlargement and reform itself. What it lacks is the absence of political will, in particular in Germany.” As he explains, “Merkel has been a reluctant leader, unwilling to engage in strategic planning for the future and thus, the reform of the EU is being held back by Germany. Now that the Merkel era is nearing its end, the government is particularly weak and it is unclear whether it will have the courage and initiative to engage in a reform initiative.”

Regarding Macron’s statements that reform of the EU represents a priority over enlargement, Bieber states that Macron was trying to put pressure on Germany, stating “If you want enlargement, you have to reform the EU with us first.”

According to Bieber, “this is a good and important point. It is clear that backsliding in terms of democracy and rule of law cannot be tackled during the enlargement process alone, but requires reform of the EU to deal with such challenges among its members.

“In addition, the EU needs to adapt and reform after the crises of the past decade. Now that the most immediate crises have passed and support for the EU is increasing, the moment is ripe.”, says Bieber.

However, Bieber believes that “the way Macron delivered the message was discouraging and ill-timed and in effect is pushing the point at the expense of discouraging enlargement.”

Photo: Bulgarian EU Presidency / Flickr

Srđan Cvijić also disagrees with the “pessimistic reading” of French President Macron’s statements about enlargement at the Summit. According to him, “it is certain that France is not one of the main driving forces of enlargement. However, having a French president talk about enlargement and the Western Balkans in one sentence is already a positive change.”

According to Cvijić, “Macron’s message about internal reform first, enlargement second, is of an internal political nature both in France and the EU. It is not directed at the region but more towards Berlin that sees the Western Balkans as its strategic area of influence, but that doesn’t seem so enthusiastic about the French proposal for an economic and fiscal reform of the Union. “

Cvijić believes the French internal political dimension in also present in the calculus.

“On the one hand, talking about enlargement doesn’t necessarily help in terms of generating political support back home. On the other, implementing the enlargement policies and working towards that goal is not politically toxic, especially when it comes to small, essentially European states of the Western Balkans.”

Cvijić believes that in the long run, the states in the Western Balkans should feel encouraged. As for Albania and Macedonia, who are expecting accession negotiations to be open soon, Cvijić reminds that the Summit “did not formally discuss the recommendation of the European Commission to open the accession negotiations with the two chapters. This decision will be made in June.”

“Let’s hope that it happens and that bilateral issues unrelated to the criteria required to open the accession negotiations, especially in the case of Macedonia, will not further block its EU integration path”, concludes Cvijić.