European Western Balkans

Western Balkans and the EU in 2022: Resolution of problems or escalation of crises?

EU-Western Balkans Summit in Slovenia; Photo: Flickr / Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the EU

In 2021, there were not too many positive milestones when it comes to the EU perspective of the Western Balkans. Despite expectations, North Macedonia and Albania did not open EU accession negotiations for the second year. Kosovo did not get visa liberalization. Montenegro has changed its government, but reform processes appear to be stalled. Bosnia and Herzegovina ended the year in the most serious political crisis since the 1995 Dayton Agreement, and practically no one mentions EU candidate status anymore.

After fulfilling technical preconditions, Serbia opened the “green” Cluster 4 in negotiations with the EU in December 2021, making the first step in the process after two years. This decision came after a number of reforms were launched, including a constitutional change in the field of judicial reform. However, the experts are still not convinced that these reforms will have much impact except on paper.

With 2022 underway, we take a look at some of the expected highlights of the year at hand. Some items on this list represent material facts, while others represent predictions of our editorial board.

1. The French Presidency over the Council of the EU

Since 1 January, France holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for six months. It will play a central role to move forward on negotiations to ensure „a more sovereign Europe, a new European growth model, and human-centered Europe“. The first objective of the French Presidency will be to move from a Europe of cooperation within borders to a powerful Europe in the world.

Although there are not many words about the region among the French priorities, President Emmanuel Macron said that it was necessary to clarify the issue of the European perspective for the countries of the Western Balkans, and announced the holding of a conference dedicated to the region in June. He assessed that the Western Balkans is more than Europe’s neighborhood because it is “in the heart of Europe”.

2. Opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania

Bulgaria’s new pro-European government vows to resolve the impasse resulting from the country’s veto on opening EU accession talks with Skopje. Bulgaria has blocked the opening of formal EU membership talks with North Macedonia due to a dispute over history and language. It has since been under pressure from its Western allies in the EU and NATO to break the diplomatic deadlock.

“Giving consent to begin the EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia should not be bound to any timeline, but to achieving tangible results, especially concerning the rights of the Bulgarian nationals in the country,” Bulgarian President Radev said.

The Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov will visit Skopje on 18 January. Petkov, who leads a four-party coalition government that took office last month, plans to expand the debate with Skopje to economic and infrastructure development between the two countries that could make solving other problems easier. Petkov has said progress that could allow Bulgaria to revisit its position could come in six months.

Both North Macedonia and Albania are expected to finally begin their accession negotiations by the end of the year, as there appears to be political will among EU member states to finally break to deadlock and make steps forward in EU enlargement.

3. Intensifying the Open Balkan initiative

In 2021, the “Open Balkan” initiative, which has been bearing that name since the end of July, received its more concrete form. 2022 will show whether this initiative is a substitute for the EU’s lack of commitment to the region, genuine push for regional economic integration, or just a cheap political trick that looks good only on paper.

At the two-day summit of the initiative held in December, six agreements were signed, whose implementation is expected this year. One of the most important is the Agreement on Conditions for Free Access to the Labor Market in the Western Balkans, which should facilitate and shorten the procedure for obtaining work permits.

Open Balkan meeting in Albania, December 2021; Photo: FoNet

The Open Balkan is still causing mistrust at various levels, both among neighbours in the region and in the EU and US. Despite the invitation for other countries in the region to join, this remains unlikely in 2022, although positive signals recently seem to be coming from Montenegro. The real test of this initiative in 2022 will be the abolition of customs controls when the single market between the three countries should be implemented.

4. Elections in Serbia: Normalisation or escalation of the political crisis?

This will, by all accounts, be one of the most challenging years when it comes to Serbia. A referendum on constitutional changes in the area of judiciary is scheduled for January 16. The outcome is uncertain, and it seems that neither the government nor the opposition wants to spend too much energy on it because the strength should be saved for the upcoming elections.

Presidential, parliamentary and elections for the city of Belgrade will probably be held on 3 April. After months of preparatory talks with the relevant political actors, mediators from the European Parliament continued the inter-party dialogue in Serbia that began in 2019. However, nobody is satisfied with the achieved measures, and most of the opposition decided to end the boycott and take part in the elections despite rejecting the proposed agreement within the EP-mediated dialogue.

Inter Party Dialogue; Photo: EU Delegation in Serbia

Analysts see the elections in Serbia as a turning point, as they could lead towards either the normalization of political life in the country or deepen the political crisis in the case of massive electoral irregularities. The forecasts are such that it is possible that Vučić will suffer his first defeat in Belgrade, while he appears to be quite confident in victories in the parliamentary and presidential elections. Recent protests, however, have shown cracks in Vučić’s regime and the question remains whether the opposition will be able to exploit it.

5. Resolving the political crisis in BiH by the EU?

The most difficult problem, along with the non-existent progress in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, is the political blockade in Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to many, this is the most serious political crisis since the 1995 Dayton Agreement which ended the war in this country..

Amendments to the Criminal Code of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the so-called Inzko Law, initiated a political crisis in the country that has paralyzed institutions and has not yet come to an end. Now, however, there is speculation about a possible EU plan to “correct” an amended law banning and sanctioning genocide denials imposed by former High Representative to BiH Valentin Inzko on the last day of his term.

However, it remains questionable, if the allegations are true, whether this is the position of the European Union or Varhelyi himself and whether the European Union intends to really change the disputed law and thus influence the resolution of the crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina and return representatives of the Republika Srpska in the work of institutions.

While some member states are calling for the imposition of sanctions on Dodik, such as Germany and Austria, the United States has already done so.

The United States has imposed sanctions on Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, who aims to take the Serb Republic out of Bosnia’s armed forces, accusing him of corruption and threatening the stability and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The US also slapped sanctions on media outlet Alternativna Televizija, accusing Dodik of acquiring it to further his own agenda and exerting personal control over it.

6.  Elections in Hungary, Slovenia and France

From the “reformer of the European Union” Emmanuel Macron to the “problematic” Viktor Orban, some of the loudest supporters and critics of the EU are facing electoral challenges at home in 2022, and they could shake the political dynamics across the Old Continent as well as in the Western Balkans.

Regular parliamentary elections will be held in Hungary in spring. On the one hand, the opposition, which is united for the first time, has a good chance of defeating Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party after 12 years. After winning the second round of preliminary elections, the conservative Hungarian mayor and non-partisan political outsider will lead an opposition united in an effort to oust Prime Minister Viktor Orban and dismantle his “illiberal state”.

Oliver Varhelyi and Viktor Orban; Photo: Twitter/zoltanspox

The first round of the French presidential elections will be held on 10 April.  According to polls, President Macron, who has not officially announced his candidacy, but is expected to do so at the beginning of the new year, will pass the first round. However, the question is who he will face in the second round. It has long been thought that Marin Le Pen from the right-wing National Assembly will be his main rival again after 2017, but her popularity has been jeopardised by the rise of another right-wing figure, Eric Zemmour, as well as conservative Republican candidate Valerie Pecresse who is already being placed in front of Le Pen.

Parliamentary elections in Slovenia will be held at the end of April, and regional and presidential elections in autumn. Current president Borut Pahor can not participate in them due to constitutional restrictions after two full terms in office. One of Pahor’s most difficult tasks ahead of the end of his term could be to determine after the April parliamentary elections who has the best chance of forming a new government and who to offer the first chance to be prime minister.

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