During her visit to Kosovo this week, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen assessed that, while there is more work to be done, Kosovo is making steady progress on EU reforms.
“Let me reassure you that the EU is fully committed to a future with all six Western Balkan countries as part of our European Union”, von der Leyen said.
She did not mention the exact date, but the year 2030 has already become a regular part of discussions of the future of the enlargement in the Western Balkans, ever since President of the European Council Charles Michel mentioned it at the end of August and the report of the German-French working group reiterated it in September. By this date, according to these proposals, both the EU and the candidates should get ready for the admission of new states.
Kosovo remains farthest away from the membership in the Western Balkans, at least according to the formal steps of the process. It officially submitted its candidacy for full EU membership last December. Following the decision of the EU to grant the candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina that same month, Kosovo remains the only country of the Western Balkans that is not an official candidate.
The dominant issue in Kosovo’s EU accession process remains its relations with Serbia, which contributes to the fact that five member states of the EU have still not recognized its independence. The recent sequence of tensions that culminated in September’s Banjska attack, together with early elections in Serbia scheduled for December, have made the near future of the EU-mediated dialogue uncertain.
However, even without taking the Dialogue with Belgrade into consideration, Kosovo will need to implement a wide set of reforms in order to have an opportunity to join the EU. How close can it get to reaching this goal by 2030?
According to remarks of Prime Minister Albin Kurti, delivered at the 10th meeting of the EU-Kosovo Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee back in March, the country is ready to seriously embark on the path of meeting the EU’s criteria.
“For more than seven years, Kosova has been officially aligning its legislation with the EU acquis and has built its EU institutional capacities… All of the… mentioned work, and more, gives us a solid ground and responsible hope for the candidate status questionnaire”, said the Prime Minister, referring to the questionnaire a potential candidate needs to fulfill before the official decision on its status is made.
Kurti’s remarks were made before the 2030 target was proposed by Charles Michel. Following this announcement, members of the government, including Kurti and Deputy Prime Minister Besnik Bislimi, have stressed their appreciation for the date, but have not been explicit about the chances for Kosovo to reach EU membership by then.
Asked about these chances, Visar Xhambazi, Project Manager and Editor of Sbunker, says for European Western Balkans that the 2030 target for EU integration does not encompass all countries equally.
“Realistically, Montenegro and Moldova, along with a potential prospect for North Macedonia, seem to be the most likely candidates for successful integration into the EU”, Xhambazi says.
According to him, Kosovo continues to grapple with significant socio-economic and political challenges that impede its progress towards EU integration.
“Despite some incremental improvements, the European Union’s country report on Kosovo still classifies it as being at an early stage in terms of judicial reform and anti-corruption efforts. These factors are pivotal in paving the way for Kosovo’s deeper integration into the EU”, Xhambazi says.
The new annual European Commission reports for candidate countries are expected to be published next week. Last year, Kosovo was, indeed, assessed to be at an early stage of the well-functioning judicial system and the fight against corruption.
“Justice reform should be addressed first and foremost by improving the implementation of existing tools to safeguard the integrity, the independence, and the efficiency of the judicial system”, the 2022 European Commission Report stated.
When it comes to corruption, the main problem remains the lack of implementation of existing legislation, the Commission assessed.
Other political criteria, including democracy and freedom of expression, received somewhat more positive assessments in the Report. The recent advancement of Kosovo on the international indices of democracy and media freedom, such as Freedom House and World Press Freedom Index, have often been emphasised by the country’s leadership. It remains to be seen, though, how some recent controversies, including the one over the license for Klan Kosova TV, will be reflected in this year’s reports.
Political criteria for membership, however, are not the only important condition. EU legal acts that each candidate country needs to adopt are divided into more than 30 chapters, and Kosovo still has a lot of ground to cover here.
“In terms of readiness, Kosovo is still between an early stage and some level of preparation for EU membership. Of the 31 chapters, Kosovo is at an early stage of preparation in 11 of them, has some level of preparation in 15 chapters, and it is moderately prepared in five chapters”, says Ramadan Ilazi, head of research at the Kosovar Centre for Security Studies, for our portal.
How does this level of preparation compare to the rest of the countries? According to the calculation carried out by the European Stability Initiative earlier this year, based on the European Commission 2022 reports, Kosovo’s level of preparedness for EU membership on a scale from 0 to 4 is 0.9. Montenegro has the highest level of preparedness with 2.1, while Serbia and North Macedonia are tied for second place with 2.0.
Kosovo is ahead of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Moldova, which each have a grade of 0.7, and just behind Georgia, another potential candidate country, with 1.1.
Nevertheless, despite the overall level of preparedness, Ramadan Ilazi emphasisez that the conclusion of a comprehensive agreement on the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia remains the crucial element of Kosovo’s EU accession path.
“It is a conditio sine qua non not only for turning a new page in the EU-Kosovo relations but also for solidifying regional stability and fostering regional cooperation and good-neighborly relations in all Western Balkans countries’ EU path”, Ilazi says.
Visar Xhambazi also says that, even under an optimistic scenario where Kosovo makes substantial improvements in the rule of law and anti-corruption measures, it faces two key obstacles: the absence of recognition from five EU member states and the lack of a final settlement with Serbia.
“Among all the Western Balkan countries, Kosovo encounters the most difficult journey on its path to EU integration”, he concludes.