The EU accession dream in the Western Balkans

Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia hope for a future in the European Union

EU and Balkan leaders are welcomed to the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Tirana, Albania
EU and Balkan leaders at the summit in Tirana, Albania, today
(Image credit: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images)

Leaders from the EU and Western Balkans are meeting in Albania to discuss the region’s stalled efforts to join the bloc.

EU officials have travelled to the Albanian capital of Tirana today for a one-day summit “intended to reinvigorate” the European Union’s expansion into the Balkans, said AP.

The EU’s executive commission has “repeatedly promised” that the summit’s six non-EU attendees – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – “have a future within the bloc”. But each nation has found that its journey towards accession has “stalled in recent years”.

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The Balkan nations are all at “different stages in their bids” to join the bloc, said Politico, but they are “united in one regard – frustration with the slow pace of their journey”.

Balkan nations ‘belong in the European family’

The six Balkan nations hoping to join the EU have each seen their process stall, “due in part to a lack of appetite for further enlargement among EU capitals”, said Euronews. But the ongoing invasion of Ukraine means that in recent months there has been “increased support for integrating these countries”.

Divisions remain over the “pace of accession talks” as well as “complicated bilateral issues”, but “EU officials think it’s more crucial than ever to make clear the six Western Balkans nations belong in the European family so they don’t turn in frustration toward Russia or China instead”, said AP.

“Enlargement policy is among the top three priorities of EU leaders,” said Olivér Várhelyi, the EU commissioner for neighborhood and enlargement, during a visit to Belgrade, Serbia’s capital, last week. “The only real long-term solution for peace, stability and prosperity is EU membership.”

Accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia were opened over the summer, while Bosnia “moved a small step closer on its path” to join the bloc when the commission advised member countries to grant it candidate status in October.

Kosovo has announced its intention to submit an application for membership to the EU by the end of the year, reported Reuters. Its president, Vjosa Osmani-Sadriu, said in Tirana today that she remains “committed to an EU-sponsored dialogue” with Serbia to resolve outstanding differences between the two nations.

‘Too little reward for too many conditions’

But significant hurdles remain for the nations hoping to join the bloc.

The visa-free travel agreements that Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo have with low-income countries has “vexed” EU officials, who say the arrangements “provide a backdoor to EU entry”, said the Financial Times.

There has been a “growing tension” with the EU over the number of undocumented migrants using the Balkan nations to enter the EU, said the paper, and numbers have “soared to almost 130,000 people in the first 10 months of this year, a level not seen since 2015”.

But under new agreements with Balkan governments hoping to join the bloc, the EU will now deploy its Frontex border agents “at crossings inside the Balkans”. The use of EU border officials outside the EU is “a totally massive step”, one EU official told the paper. They added that it “underscored both how seriously the EU took the issue and its commitment to engage with the region”.

Yet, for many of the countries hoping to join the bloc, the “EU has not deemed their economies and political institutions ready for integration into the EU’s single market of open trade and Western democratic ideals”, said AP.

Luigi Scazzieri, a researcher at the Centre for European Reform, a think tank based in London, told the news site that each country still had “substantial hurdles” to overcome in order to meet the Copenhagen criteria, “which define the EU’s standards on strong democratic institutions, a functioning market economy and the ability to take on the obligations of membership”.

Today’s summit will also see Ukraine’s “fast-tracked” progress to formal candidate status officially agreed, which has only served to increase the feeling among Balkan nations that they are “being sidelined”. Many Balkan officials now say that the EU “offers too little reward tied to too many conditions”, according to Reuters – raising fears that Balkan nations could begin to increase their alignment with Russia and China instead of the West.

“Too many EU governments think we can keep handing the Balkans new demands and say: come back when you’re done,” said a senior EU diplomat involved in the talks, speaking to Reuters. “But it doesn’t work like that. At some point they are going to give up.”

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 Sorcha Bradley is a writer at The Week and a regular on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast. She worked at The Week magazine for a year and a half before taking up her current role with the digital team, where she mostly covers UK current affairs and politics. Before joining The Week, Sorcha worked at slow-news start-up Tortoise Media. She has also written for Sky News, The Sunday Times, the London Evening Standard and Grazia magazine, among other publications. She has a master’s in newspaper journalism from City, University of London, where she specialised in political journalism.