STRASBOURG — Accession of the Western Balkans countries to the European Union is its geostrategic priority, now more than ever, and if the EU fails to act in accordance with this, third actors — such as Russia, China and Turkey — will seize the opportunity to fill the void and increase their influence in the region. This was the attitude shared by the majority of European Parliament Members who participated in the debate on EU-Western Balkans relations in light of the new enlargement package during the plenary session held on 19 October.
The MPs mostly agreed that the EU needs to step up its efforts in fulfilling its promises to the Western Balkans countries in order to show that their European future is still foreseeable. They shared a positive perception of the new enlargement policy momentum because it will allow the EU to reestablish its credibility among its Western Balkans partners, which started to wear off as a result of their slow and inconsistent accession process.
However, the countries need to continue demonstrating their commitment to the accession process by implementing reforms and — in the case of one country in particular — aligning with the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Serbia’s failure to adopt the sanctions against Russia and to align its foreign policy regarding the war in Ukraine with the EU was one of the main topics of the debate. The most-discussed issues also included the launch of the accession negotiation process for Albania and North Macedonia, the recommendation of candidate status for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo’s visa liberalization process.
European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Várhelyi opened the debate by sharing the most important remarks from the 2022 enlargement package and an assurance that the EU will stay the key partner to the Western Balkans six. He identified COVID, the energy crisis and migration as the crucial areas in which the EU supported and will continue to support the candidate states from the region in this period.
“We will not leave the Western Balkans alone. We will deliver on our part, both politically and financially. We intend to significantly — by 60 per cent — increase our funding to address migration challenges in the Western Balkans during the period of 2021-2024, meaning more than 350 million Euros,” Várhelyi stated in his opening address.
David McAllister (EPP), chair of the Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET), emphasized the influence Russian aggression on Ukraine had on the EU rethinking its enlargement policy and “the need to advance EU enlargement policy as a single most effective instrument for securing peace, prosperity and fundamental values on the continent.” McAllister further pointed out other conclusions of the AFET committee, such as the necessity for strong support of the Western Balkans’ European perspective and for judging each country by its own merits.
Credibility is the key word, by the impression of Catalin Cseh (Renew). “We are talking about a geopolitical buffer zone. Russia and China understand this as much as we do. If you are serious about enlargement, we need to highlight the contrast that makes us the only viable ally in the Western Balkans region,” Cseh indicated.
Most of the MPs recognized the need to fast-track the accession negotiation process for Albania and North Macedonia. Isabel Santos (S&D) said that the two countries “have been held hostage by different internal processes of the EU” and that the EU needs to send clear messages.
Tineke Strik (Verts/ALE) called upon Bulgaria to fulfil its promise and restrain from using the veto in the case of North Macedonia. However, Bulgarian right-wing MPs from harshly criticized the treatment of the Bulgarian minority in North Macedonia, with Angel Dzhambazki of ECR going as far as calling the perpetrators of a recent attack on the Bulgarian country club in Bitola “government-led arsonists.”
Montenegro, the frontrunner of the accession process, needs EU support to overcome its institutional crisis. According to Vladimir Bilčik (EPP), the country needs a “fresh political start.” Thomas Waitz (Verts/ALE) called Montenegro’s efforts in the fight against organized crime, and prosecution of high-ranking politicians and corrupt judges really remarkable and suggested that the government lost support from the Đukanović-led DPS precisely because of their progress in these areas.
Serbia’s backsliding in chapter 31 caused by its nonalignment with the EU policy towards Russia caused a lot of concern among MPs. “The CFSP might not be defined as key criteria, but it has become today one of the critical indicators of the commitment of candidate countries. It cannot be dismissed or treated as a side issue that will gradually be aligned,” Tonino Picula (S&D) warned.
Standing rapporteur of the European Parliament for Serbia, Vladimir Bilčik, expressed hope that the situation will improve. “As a friend of Europe and Serbia, I want Serbia to work with us and to stand with us. I really hope Serbia will work with us on turning the Western Balkans into European Western Balkans,” Bilčik stated.
MPs expressed concern that Kosovo citizens might lose trust in the EU accession process, given that they haven’t been granted visa liberalization even though the European Commission found that Kosovo fulfilled all the requirements back in 2018.
“In Kosovo again visa liberalization was blocked by France and some other states. Again, new conditions for the country. Like this, we will lose the support of public opinion and we are losing it,” as Thomas Waitz warned.
Bosnia and Herzegovina being recommended for the candidate status by the European Commission received much praise from the MPs. However, they pointed out the need for the EU to regain credibility among the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina. “We can’t abandon the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina now that the recent elections have shown they want to boot out former elites,” as Thomas Waitz (Verts/ALE) emphasized.
However, there is a strong need for Bosnia and Herzegovina to continue with reforms and fulfil the conditions of the European Commission. Moreover, Croatian MPs from PPE said that the electoral reform that will ensure ethnic representation must be conducted, with Tomislav Sokol warning that the dynamics of the country’s accession process will depend on this.