EU leaders granted candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, leaving BiH without the long-awaited candidate status. Moreover, accession negotiations weren’t open with Tirana and Skopje. And there was no visa liberalisation for Kosovo. How damaging could be these new delays in the enlargement process?
These are extremely disappointing outcomes. In terms of the Western Balkans, but for several empty phrases, nothing has moved. This is confirming that the enlargement process continues to be broken despite big promises by EU politicians who visited the region in past three months. The broken accession process cannot reward the performers also because it is excessively misused by EU member states to achieve their own particular interests.
Most of the issues you refer to are European, and must be resolved by the EU itself. I’ll provide two examples. First, the Council decision to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia, and thus Albania, is blocked by Bulgaria. The French Presidency, in attempt to broker a deal in last minute proposed something that opened more questions than it answered. If it was accepted in the way it was proposed, in medium term it would have come to haunt us back very soon. Not only in case of North Macedonia and Bulgaria but in all other countries similar “solutions” could be demanded by neighbours. In short-term, such proposals raised the appetite of Bulgaria, damaging the relations between Skopje and Sofia. It was good that no deal was made but I fear that due to the raised appetite in Sofia it could create circumstances where in the years to come there will be no government in Skopje willing to accept these terms, and no government in Sofia to accept less that what they got from Paris.
Second, Kosovo has fulfilled the conditions set by the European Commission to be granted visa liberalization. However, since many years, even though this decision does not need unanimity, the EU member states cannot reach a decision, putting citizens in a very bad and unjust position of being the only Western Balkans country without the possibility for a visa-free travel. *
What about Bosnia?
Member states have said they would be ready to grant Bosnia and Herzegovina candidate status. To do that, they need two things. First, European Commission’s report on implementation of the 14 priorities it set in May 2019, which is expected in autumn together with other country report. Second, they need to see progress in implementation of these priorities. Will this happen? Maybe, but taking into account that country is heading to elections in October, it is hard to imagine its politicians putting their differences and election campaign aside to implement reforms, of which some require constitutional reforms. In particular when they see what happened to North Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo, which implemented reforms but still are waiting for a positive EU decision. While many in Brussels and member states capitals will jump to blame Bosnian politicians, to some extent rightfully, this lack of appetite for EU reform cannot be detached from an overall disappointment in the region with EU’s lack of response to those that do reform.
There is a growing sense of disillusion in the Balkans, both among people and political leadership, regarding the European integration process. Who’s more ‘guilty’ for the delays?
An unproductive blame game does not help anyone in the process. In general, both sides have contributed to this situation. But they have all agreed that this region, these countries from the Western Balkans will become members of the EU. Of course, if and when they do reforms. The only acceptable way forward is to proceed with full steam towards integrating those countries that have completed reforms and align with the EU. In this new geopolitical reality with the unjustified and unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine, EU and the Western Balkans need to work together to find the necessary political will and interest to see enlargement happening. The solution of this puzzle goes beyond the region in question. If nothing moves in the next weeks/months, the candidate status of Ukraine and Moldova would not mean anything; on the contrary, the eventual disillusionment, if things do not evolve in a positive way in the future, will help Russia achieve its goals and objectives that it could not by military means. And will make EU obsolete beyond its borders, proving it is no longer able to model European architecture.
Even before the war, Russia has been exerting various kinds of pressure on several countries in the Balkan. Do you expect, without an EU decisive action, that Moscow could increase its influence in the region? And how?
Russia, through its peacekeepers, left the Western Balkan region in 2003. Ever since, the only game Putin played in the region is one of a spoiler. However, following the West’s response to the war in Ukraine, I’d expect Russia’s come back to the region in a vengeance mode. By scaling-up its efforts, it could try to exploit all possible loose ends, especially and starting with Bosnia and continuing to held hostage the enlargement process by influencing political elites in Sofia. How much these efforts will be successful depends entirely on the seriousness of the political leadership in Bosnia, including the ones in Serbia, and on the EU willingness to bring these countries back in the EU accession process. The snail-like pace of integration provides Russia with ample opportunities to play its game. A decisive action towards full integration in the EU will change the situation overnight on a positive and Russia’s spoiler tactics will become unsuccessful. The EU must acknowledge how fundamentally the world has changed with Russia’s war on Ukraine and what immense responsibility it has to make choices that are right and resolute at this particular time.
While the EU integration process is stalled, the Balkans are waiting for winter with growing fears. Inflation, rapid increase of food and fuel prices, and possible energy supply disruptions are among the challenges expected. Are you concerned about a destabilisation of the region?
The uncertainty that the Russian aggression on Ukraine produces is immense, not only for the Western Balkans but also for Europe as a whole. The Western Balkan countries have some of the highest levels of dependence on Russian gas, therefore, the expected economic and energy crisis is an additional layer that will hit hard the economies in the Balkans, already financially vulnerable due to the Covid-19 crisis. I don’t envisage immediate destabilization with regards to the region’s stability and security, however, if this uncertainty continues it will surely have profound consequences on the region. Thus, the EU needs to inject substantial financial means in order to address the development challenges of these countries and prevent the population exodus that is currently happening.
*This interview was made before Macron’s statement on June 30.