Western Balkan leaders’ eyes were all on Brussels on Wednesday as the European Commission unveiled its annual assessment of candidate countries’ bids to become members of the European Union.
Six countries in the Western Balkans have expressed their wish to join the EU, of which five – all except Kosovo – have already been granted official candidate status.
But while the Commission promised to push Ukraine and Moldova further along on their EU membership paths on Wednesday, few new promises were made to the Western Balkans despite a vow to open formal accession talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina once conditions have been met.
Accession negotiations with Western Balkan states have largely stalled in recent years as countries, many plagued by political instability, have been slow to meet the EU’s tough demands, including constitutional and judicial reforms and crackdowns on corruption. Montenegro and Serbia have been stuck in negotiations for more than a decade.
Western Balkan leaders have warned their EU counterparts of a growing sense of frustration amongst their citizens as they look for assurances that Brussels is serious about expanding.
This has led to a change in EU tactics, with Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen touring countries last week to unveil the new €6-billion growth plan for the Western Balkans, designed to offer economic incentives for implementing enlargement-linked reforms, including phased access to the bloc’s world-leading single market.
The funds, which include €2 billion in grants and €4 billion in loans through 2027, will be distributed based on countries’ GDP per capita, but will operate on a purely “results-based system”, the Commission said. Failure to fulfil enlargement criteria, such as reforms on rule of law and anti-corruption, could lead to funds being diverted to other countries, according to a senior EU official.
The EU’s aim is to bring the countries’ economies closer to its own and to soften the potential political and budgetary shock of welcoming new members with significantly weaker economies – the average income per capita in the Western Balkans ranges from just 27% to 50% of the bloc’s average.
But despite new incentives, the Commission’s extensive reports published Wednesday show the Western Balkans still face multiple hurdles on the path to EU membership.
Euronews brings a breakdown of where countries stand.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Deeply entrenched ethnic divisions and delays in constitutional, judicial and electoral reforms have prevented Bosnia and Herzegovina from catching up with its neighbours on the path to EU membership.
The country of 3.2 million inhabitants was granted official candidate status in December last year, but is the only of the five official Western Balkan candidate countries not yet in formal talks.
Negotiations can only open “once certain criteria are met,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday.
“We open the door very wide, and we invite Bosnia and Herzegovina now to go through this door,” von der Leyen added.
Electoral reforms have not been adequately addressed. In its report, the Commission says elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina were “marked by mistrust in public institutions and ethnically divisive rhetoric.”
In an August ruling, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights described Bosnia and Herzegovina as an “ethnocracy” where elections are undemocratic and entrench the privileged position of dominant ethnic groups.
Brussels is also concerned by how Republika Srpska, one of the country’s two territorial entities where ethnic Serbs form the majority, has argued in favour of a neutral stance on the war in Ukraine, whilst the rest of the country has attempted to align with the EU’s harsh stance against Russia’s war of aggression.
Alignment on foreign and security policy also figures prominently among the EU’s demands for Serbia.
Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić has in the past criticised the bloc for “pressuring” him to join sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine, describing it as a “brutal” interference of his country’s sovereignty.
The country’s minister of economy Rade Basta was dismissed in July after calling on his government to sanction Russia.
In its report, the EU executive also criticises the escalating tensions between Serbia and Kosovo, saying the “pace of negotiations” will depend on both countries’ ability to normalise their relations.
The bloc’s efforts to support dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina, led by its top diplomat Josep Borrell, have consistently failed to bear fruit. Both sides continue to clash over plans to establish an association of municipalities of Serbian majority in the north of Kosovo, where tensions have concentrated.
Kosovo, which is not yet an official EU candidate country, has arguably the most challenging road to EU membership given that five of the bloc’s member states do not recognise its sovereignty.
The troubled relationship between Serbia and Kosovo also means both country’s bids are inevitably intertwined.
Tensions sharply escalated in late September when a Kosovan policeman was killed in a violent ambush by gunmen in a village in northern Kosovo, with Kosovo’s prime minister Albin Kurti pinning the blame on the Serbian government.
Both sides need to show “more serious commitment” and “make compromises” to break the stalemate in normalisation discussions, the Commission’s report says.
From a range of 1-5, 1 being early stage and 5 being well advanced, a Commission document reveals it awards Kosovo an average score of 1.5 on its progress in meeting a raft of reforms, including relating to the judiciary, corruption, organised crime and freedom of expression. It gives the same score to Turkey, whose EU-oriented reforms are considered to be moving in a backward trend.
Widely considered in pole position for EU accession, the smallest and wealthiest of the Western Balkan states improved its prospects of accession last week when a new coalition government of pro-European, pro-Serb and Albanian minority parties was formed.
The restoration of political stability gives hope that the country could advance quickly, despite pending tasks to strengthen the rule of law, tackle corruption, promote the role of civil society and speed up judicial reforms.
“If reforms really picks up speed, it could go pretty fast indeed,” a senior EU official said on Wednesday.
North Macedonia and Albania
With EU accession talks open since July 2022, both North Macedonia and Albania are progressing on a similar pace.
Skopje has already taken steps to amend its constitution to recognise the Bulgarian minority living within its territory as part of a French-brokered deal to lift Bulgaria’s veto on opening EU accession talks. But the changes are being blocked by the main conservative opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE.
The country also has work to do to strengthen the rule of law, reform its public administration and fight corruption.
Albania faces a similar raft of reforms as part of negotiation talks, including strengthening free speech, improving the rights of minorities and fighting organised crime.
Speaking to Euronews back in September, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama called for the EU to reinvent the accession wheel by coming up with interim solutions such as staggered entry to the bloc.
“Instead of nothing or all for us, the non-EU members, a new approach should be found,” Rama said.