The European Union wants the countries in the Western Balkans to know that it has big plans for them. On Feb. 5, the European Commission released a document outlining its strategy for the six countries in the region — Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia — that aspire to joining the European Union. In the document, the commission has outlined a plan for the bloc to increase cooperation with the Western Balkans on such issues as security, the rule of law, immigration, and infrastructure for energy and transportation. However, the document also states that none of the countries are expected to join the European Union until at least 2025, and it warns their governments that they must introduce important political, economic and institutional reforms before they can become EU members.
The document demonstrates the EU's quandary in the Western Balkans. On the one hand, the bloc is keen to preserve its influence in the region — especially since such players as Russia, Turkey and even China have become active there. The promise of EU membership is an important stabilizing factor in the Western Balkans, enabling Brussels to influence the region and prevent a return to the instability of the 1990s. Money, as well, has been a big part of the union's influence, and the bloc has allocated about 9 billion euros of financial assistance for the region between 2007 and 2017. On the other hand, the European Union is not ready to incorporate new members anytime soon. With 28 members, the bloc is already hard to govern, and the European Union wants to reform its structures before accepting additional countries. In addition, the rise of nationalist and Euroskeptic sentiments has complicated matters.
The Western Balkans are relatively stable these days, but a dwindling promise of EU membership could reduce the incentive for governments to keep things that way.
As a result, the European Commission needs to keep the promise of EU membership alive for the countries in the Western Balkans, while also telling their governments not to expect membership in the near future. Even the goal to add new members in 2025 is easier said than done. Serbia has made the most progress toward EU accession, but it still needs to finish normalizing relations with Kosovo first. Kosovo, for its part, is not recognized by all the EU member states, and Macedonia is still embroiled in a dispute with Greece. And Bosnia still has weak, ineffective political institutions two decades after achieving peace. And in all six countries, the European Union is concerned about pervasive corruption, weak institutions and organized crime.
The Western Balkans are relatively stable these days, but a dwindling promise of EU membership could reduce the incentive for governments to keep things that way. Unless doing so could mean EU accession, countries may not push forward with initiatives to reform their political and economic institutions, or they may not keep their ethnic disputes in check. Weak governments and opaque institutions in the Western Balkans could make it harder for the European Union to cooperate with the countries there to fight terrorism or organized crime. Because of this, Brussels is trying to send the message that EU membership is still a realistic possibility for them. But the more that membership is delayed, the less effective the promise becomes.