Can the war in Ukraine lead to a faster EU integration of the Western Balkans?

by Aleksandar Ivković

The war in Ukraine has gotten the talk of accelerating the EU integration of the Western Balkans going. After two months, however, the talk has not been followed by political decisions, and there are differing opinions on how likely they are.

In the light of the war, the geopolitical argument for EU enlargement to the Western Balkans has become more prominent than ever in recent years. The EU, proponents say, should counter the influence of third actors in the region by integrating it more decisively. The ways in which this can be done have also become a part of the conversation.

It soon became obvious that there is no consensus in the EU on a fast-track accession requested by Ukraine, which applied for membership together with Georgia and Moldova soon after the war had started. The hopes for accelerated integration of the Western Balkans are still there – but for how long?

Talking the talk…

The accession process of the Western Balkans has returned as a talking point among the EU leaders.

On 28 March, during a joint press conference with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that any further delay of accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania would make the region more vulnerable to the third actors. He repeated the argument a couple of days later during a meeting with Austrian counterpart Karl Nehammer.

While on a visit to the region in March, EU High Representative Josep Borrell also stated that it was “high time to reinvigorate the enlargement process”.

Josep Borrell with the parliamentary parties of North Macedonia; Photo: Twitter / @JosepBorrellF

Even the President of France Emmanuel Macron, who famously vetoed the Intergovernmental Conferences with North Macedonia and Albania in 2019, stated in the European Parliament in January that Western Balkans should have a clear perspective while repeating that the decision-making rules of the EU need to be reformed first. Macron’s speech came at a time when a full-blown war in Ukraine still had not started.

Following the aggression, the voices from the Balkans also made it clear that this moment should be used to make political decisions on enlargement. This was stressed by the Secretary-General of the Regional Cooperation Council Majlinda Bregu in an op-ed in March.

“The geopolitical context blatantly reminds us that EU membership is not simply a methodological process of legislative approximation but political action. And a political action does not take a lifetime to be enacted”, she wrote.

Some commentators in the region stated that it is the Western Balkans that should get a fast-track accession process or at least a concrete date of EU accession.

Despite all this, there are currently no indications that these ideas might be accepted in the near future. And even the less ambitious goal of getting the already established process moving still seems to be a struggle.

…but still not walking the walk

North Macedonia and Albania are the obvious places to make the next step. The two countries have been waiting for their first Intergovernmental Conferences with the EU for almost three years. Bulgaria is currently blocking the accession of North Macedonia and, by extension, Albania, and the issue is still unresolved.

Last week in Sofia, Bulgarian leadership stuck to its demands, repeating that the Bulgarian minority should be included in the Constitution of North Macedonia for the veto to be lifted.

The June Council meeting will be the next opportunity for a decision on Skopje and Tirana, but even if that happens, it would only be interpreted as a long-overdue step rather than a breakthrough.

Kosovo’s visa liberalization is another longstanding issue, but it is scarcely mentioned anymore, even though the European Commission assessed back in 2018 that the conditions for the decision had been met.

Meanwhile, leaders of Bosnia and Herzegovina still occasionally express the hope of getting an official candidate status, but this issue too has long been marginalized, with the EU and the United States trying, and failing, to mediate the change of the electoral legislation against the backdrop of the crisis of the state institutions in recent months.

Serbia was the last country to formally make any progress in the EU accession process, opening Cluster 4 in December last year. It is now unlikely to get the opening of another one soon, given its decision not to align with the sanctions on Russia and a general slowdown in reforms since the start of the year due to the elections in April.

The new Government of Montenegro was elected on 28 April, one of its primary stated goals being to accelerate the country’s EU path. According to the new accession methodology, no further chapters will be closed until Montenegro fulfills the interim benchmarks for the rule of law chapters, which is expected to take some time.

The (limited) power of geopolitics

While in late February and early March it seemed likely that the situation in the region, together with the rest of the continent, would significantly change, not everybody is sure about that now.

Nikolaos TzifakisProfessor at the University of Peloponnese and a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), agrees with the interpretation that Russia’s military aggression on Ukraine has alerted the EU about the danger of crisis spillover in areas such as the Western Balkans. However, he says, we should not expect any dramatic policy change anytime soon.

“First, while all EU members share the concern of eliminating any Russian sphere of influence from the Western Balkans, there is no consensus in Brussels on a speedy round of EU enlargement”, he says.

Moreover, Tzifakis adds, the EU accession of the Western Balkans has not stalled only in Brussels, it has also been sluggish due to the lack of commitment of most of the region’s leadership to the EU-prescribed reform agenda.

“Western Balkan decision-makers should not nurture any expectations that the EU might lower the bar of accession requirements in reply to the Russian war on Ukraine”, he explains.

Ana Brnabić, Josep Borrell, Oliver Varhelyi at the EU-Serbia Intergovernmental Conference in 2021; Photo: Twitter/@olivervarhelyi

In the Strategic Compass, a document outlining the EU’s global strategy adopted in March, Western Balkans is recognized as a region where EU’s security interests are at stake. Nevertheless, enlargement to the region is only mentioned once, together with the assertion that a “tangible progress on the rule of law and reforms based on European values, rules, and standards needs to continue”.

On the other hand, Strahinja Subotić, Programme Manager and Senior Researcher at the European Policy Centre (CEP) in Belgrade, sees more signs of optimism for the region in the messages coming from Germany as well as the re-election of President Macron.

“For those who do make credible reforms, I believe that German messages should be considered as a possible signal. In a short period of time, Germany has shown that it is proactive, it follows the Western Balkans closely, it will not allow the status quo to remain in place, but at the same time, it would expect stronger alignment with the EU’s position on Ukraine”, Subotić points out.

Meanwhile, now that President Macron has won the second term, Subotić expects that the next five years will be a “second phase” for him, which could also have an impact on the Western Balkans.

“In his first term, he was a man of words, now I expect him to be a man of action. Enlargement has not moved too much ahead during his first term. We expect him now to be more active and to do things he might not have been able to do during the first term out of the fear of how his citizens and voters would react”, he says.

Subotić concludes that signals have been there for those who want to look at them, but also that the EU has a lot more to do for these signals to become more visible to the citizens of the Western Balkans.

Are alternative models more likely than the “traditional” accession process?

The first mention of the Western Balkans in the EU Strategic Compass stresses the need to develop a “tailored partnership” with the region. The phrase could be interpreted in various ways, which corresponds to multiple viewpoints on the future of the relations.

Recently, several ideas for an alternative path to the EU integration of the Western Balkans have been put forward. They propose including the region in some EU policies or even the Single Market. This is regarded by some as a more realistic option than insisting on full membership status, which would then come later, after the intermediate stages.

The discussion about these proposals among the experts has also intensified since the start of the war in Ukraine. Last year, European Policy Centre from Belgrade and the Centre for European Policy Studies from Brussels proposed a model of staged accession. It prevents the Western Balkan countries from gaining veto rights until the final stage, thus aiming to reassure more skeptical Member States. At the same time, it provides the countries of the region with other benefits of membership, such as funding, in earlier stages.

Strahinja Subotić says that CEP has been discussing the model with multiple interlocutors in the EU and that the situation has noticeably changed since the start of the war in Ukraine.

“One interlocutor told us that October 2021 is not February 2022. Meaning that even some who are skeptical are now more likely have different look and show understanding of such ideas”, Subotić says.

If nothing is done to the enlargement, it is unlikely that the current process will lead to tangible results, he warns.

Nikolaos Tzifakis also believes that the proposal for a staged accession merits some consideration.

“Admittedly, EU accession is a too long process that is deficient in tangible interim rewards. Nevertheless, I am not entirely sure that all contemporary Western Balkan leaderships are eager to sacrifice much of their grip on power to advance the EU accession of their countries”, he says.

So far, the proposals for alternative ways of integrating the Western Balkans into the EU have not been tackled by the political leaders. On the other hand, the acceleration of the current enlargement process remains theoretical. June will bring more clarity as the Council will once again decide at least on the IGCs of North Macedonia and Albania.