By: Strahinja Subotić and Lukáš Macek
Twenty years ago, on 21 June 2003, the Thessaloniki Summit heralded a new era in the EU’s relationship with the Balkans, promising a European perspective for the region and thus igniting hope for a better, pacific, and joint future.
While Western Balkan countries have progressively achieved candidate status, visa abolishment, and free-trade deals with the EU, they are yet to see EU membership prospects materialise, with Croatia being the sole exception. The diluted accession process has blurred the distinction between “frontrunners” and “backbenchers”, rendering the guiding principle of “more-for-more; less-for-less” ineffective.
Moreover, the relative lack of impact on citizens’ lives and the EU’s inadequate response to democratic setbacks have greatly diminished the appeal of the enlargement process. In short, it has become a drawn-out and low-effort exercise with limited transformative power.
How did this situation come about? Of course, much of the responsibility rests on political elites in the region. Yet the 2014 proclamation by Jean-Claude Juncker, the then European Commission President, that further enlargement would not happen during his term had a disastrous effect on the candidate governments’ motivation to engage faithfully in the process. The EU’s ambiguous attitude towards the development of “stabilitocracies” – hybrid regimes whose autocratic tendencies were tolerated for the sake of stability – has further hindered democratic progress in the region.
Additionally, several unreasonable vetoes used by some member states have sent a detrimental message about the benefits of enforcing politically difficult decisions. At the same time, the need to successfully conclude the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue has not been given adequate attention until recently, leading to alarming consequences.
To make matters worse, the EU’s geopolitical immaturity made it overlook the concerning trends in its backyard, enabling China and Russia to fill the void and limit the EU’s political, economic, and social leverage. In essence, the EU has remained content with merely singing the lullaby of the European perspective rather than taking tangible action to change the course meaningfully.
Today, nevertheless, the aggression against Ukraine is prompting a redefinition of the continent’s architecture. In fact, Ukraine and Moldova’s attainment of candidate status reignited the enlargement agenda, followed by granting candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina, abolishing visas for citizens from Kosovo, and starting the accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.
Although encouraging, these steps should be just the beginning of a reinvigorated enlargement process. The stakes are high: rekindling the motivation of the Balkans is imperative to achieve European strategic autonomy while preserving the EU as a genuine and efficient community of values.
This is where the idea of a “gradual accession” comes into play. Initially introduced as a broad concept, it found a concrete and detailed application under the concept of “Staged Accession” developed by European Policy Centre (CEP – Belgrade) and the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS – Brussels) and later promoted and discussed by the Jacques Delors Institute in France.
This approach, applicable both to the Balkans and to Ukraine and Moldova, aims to incentivise reforms, foster socialisation between EU member and candidate states, and make the process both more progressive and predictable. It envisions additional financial and institutional benefits along the way for those who make real progress in preparing for membership (and vice versa). It also proposes the introduction of a post-accession monitoring system and a temporary limitation of veto rights for newcomers, giving the “old” EU more time to undergo its own institutional reforms and build trust.
Applying gradual integration would thus make a firm bridge between the existing and future EU member states and thus give a true meaning to the term “membership perspective”.
The time is ripe for decisive action. In June 2022, the European Council endorsed the notion of “gradual integration” and called upon other EU institutions to transpose the idea into concrete proposals. In his Bratislava speech, President Macron was correct in asserting, while taking a resolutely positive stance on enlargement, that the current method is no longer effective and needs to be wholly redefined.
President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen’s “New Growth Plan for the Western Balkans” hints in the same direction. In the region, recent political developments in Montenegro allow for the hope that the “stabilitocracy” problem can be overcome with a new generation of pro-European politicians.
With time running out, especially in light of the escalating war in Ukraine, we must act now to restore hope to those who believe that the EU can indeed be a transformative force.
By abandoning the lullabies of the past and embracing a new gradual approach, the EU will possess the means to revitalise the Balkans’ EU integration process while giving hope to Ukraine and others that enlargement is indeed on the table. Let us seize this moment and work towards a future where the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit will be recalled not as a symbol of unfulfilled promises but as the beginning of the last stage of European reunification.
Strahinja Subotic is Programme Manager and Senior Researcher at the European Policy Centre (CEP-Belgrade); Lukáš Macek is Head of the Grande Europe Center at the Jacques Delors Institute.