European Western Balkans

EU enlargement in the Western Balkans hostage of bilateral issues

Zaev and Borisov; Photo: Government of Macedonia

The last attempt of the German Presidency to unlock membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania at the end of the year ended unsuccessfully. Due to the Bulgarian veto, the EU failed to approve the negotiating framework for North Macedonia. On the other hand, Albania’s accession process is blocked due failing to fulfil the set conditions for the first intergovernmental conference.

According to Radio Free Europe, the Conclusions on the Western Balkans were not adopted during the ministerial meeting of the EU member states held on Thursday, which was confirmed by Czech Foreign Minister Tomaš Petriček. Such conclusions are regularly adopted at the level of ministers of EU member states, but at the last meeting held on 8 December, that was not possible due to the Bulgarian veto.

However, contrary to expectations expressed in Brussels the day before, this issue was not even discussed, as it was clear that there was no unanimity on the content of the final conclusions. What message is the European Union sending to the countries of the Western Balkans with these blockade of the accession process?

Marika Djolai, Senior Researcher and Head of Conflict and Security Cluster at the European Centre for Minority Issues and member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) member, says for EWB that the EU is certainly sending a negative message to the Western Balkans countries when it comes to the EU accession process.

“It shows that any of the member states it any point can decide against being committed to the EU accession process of the Western Balkan countries for whatever reason. That means that bilateral issues between any candidate country and EU member state can become an obstacle” she explains.

She assesses that any blockage in the bureaucratised EU takes months to clear and for that reason, this decision does not seem to be clear strategic thinking of the EU and the member states who blocked the accession process.

“It is only a start of negotiations and not the end. Actually, these issues at the being are something that should be systematically worked on and resolved during the negotiation process”, stresses Djolai.

According to Djolai, the decision not to open negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia is a reflection of EU’s internal problems.

“There are many internal issues, from battling the coronavirus pandemic, to rise of populism, to the rebellion of individual member states and to ultimately confusion about when the EU can join forces and think strategically about Europe as a whole. The EU accession process has become hostage to the crisis of individual states”, Djolai tells.

Djolai adds that the EU does not have a mechanism to deal with internal issues, because the consensus of all 27 member states is needed for such decisions, such as confirming the negotiations framework for the two countries.

“So if any problem arises, there are no inside mechanisms, except diplomacy and background diplomacy, to unblock such problems. It also shows that the accession process itself is not separated from bilateral problems that maybe exist between two countries, and because not separated, that is one of the biggest issues. Any of these problems can affect and is affecting the EU’s accession process at any point for candidate countries”, Djolai says for EWB.

Gjergji Vurmo, Programme Director at the Institute for Democracy and Mediation and member of BiEPAG says for European Western Balkans that the veto is a huge strategic mistake and bears the potential to ruin EU’s and enlargement’s credibility much worse than this was the case with the French insisting last year for a revised methodology.

He stresses that Bulgaria’s veto will fuel populist narratives of autocratic leaders of the region for whom it would be much easier to blame the EU for their own failures.

“It is not only the progress of the country’s EU accession process that pays the price, but also the very idea of Europe. To justify its own failures and the raison d’etre (in power), the government fuels Euroscepticism among Albanians by blaming the internal politics of EU Member States and their allegedly anti-Albanian press, thus following pretty much the example of other populist leaders such as former Macedonian PM N. Gruevski, Hungary’s V. Orban, Turkey’s President Erdogan and other autocrats”, Vurmo says.

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