The delays in the integration process and the EU accession strategy and the perception of sluggish delivery of vaccines from the European Union have exacerbated an already robust sense of disillusionment towards enlargement in the Western Balkans. And the EU is aware that losing momentum in the enlargement process could lead to more instability in the region and beyond.
The scenario, connected with potential risks of an increased geopolitical influence of external power in the region, was confirmed by an internal document distributed at the European Union Council this month. A non-paper on “EU reinforced engagement in the Western Balkans”, sent to the foreign ministers of the 27 EU member countries, warned that “the people in the region are experiencing a sense of deep disappointment in the enlargement process”.
There are several reasons behind the disillusionment that permeates the region, the paper noted. Among them, the delays in the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, countries that underwent painful reforms to achieve the goal, but are blocked by the scepticism of some EU member countries and by a Bulgarian veto.
Furthermore, people in the region are disillusioned due to the slow pace in the integration process of Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the latter two still potential candidates, and by the uncertainties around the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo.
The “perception of tardy EU delivery of the COVID-19 vaccines has further fed a narrative of disillusionment” this year, the non-paper noted, recalling that the EU “treated the partners in a privileged manner, giving them access to several initiatives normally reserved for member states” during the pandemic. However, the lack of vaccines in the region has led several countries, firstly Serbia, to turn to Russia and China to get millions of doses, additionally fuelling the external actors’ grip on the Balkans.
There is a concerning and widespread “perception in the Western Balkans that the prospect of accession is receding and that European aspirations are lost under a complex set of conditions and procedures that keeps the Western Balkans locked into a Sisyphean destiny”, the non-paper reads.
On the other hand, the region is not lost, with public opinion across the region still favouring EU accession. A study by the think tank BiEPAG–European Fund for the Balkans earlier this year confirmed this perception, with a survey revealing that a vast majority of citizens of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia are in favour of their country joining the EU. However, 58% of people in Albania, 75% in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 40% in Kosovo, 49% in Montenegro, 47% in North Macedonia and 45% in Serbia stated that they are dissatisfied with the progress in the EU integration process.
The study noted that people in the region are aware that their leaderships also have some part of responsibility in the slow integration process, citing “poor situation in institutions and state, inadequate laws and corruption” and “inadequate policies” as the gaps to work on.
Journalist based in the Balkans since 2005, he covers Central- and Eastern Europe for a wide range of media outlets, including the Italian national news agency ANSA, and the dailies La Stampa and Il Piccolo.