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Stalled EU Membership for Western Balkans Prompts Fears of Democratic Backsliding


FILE - European Union and Western Balkans leaders stand during a group photo at the EU-Western Balkans summit, at the Brdo Congress Center in Kranj, Slovenia, Oct. 6, 2021.

It wasn’t the deal they were hoping to be offered. Instead of agreeing on a timetable for aspiring Balkan countries to join the European Union, the bloc’s 27 member states offered warm words at a summit in Slovenia last week, some pandemic recovery cash and a commitment to cut mobile-phone roaming charges for Balkan nationals when traveling in any part of the EU bloc.

The refusal of the EU member states earlier this month to outline a membership schedule is reverberating across the Balkans and stands in contrast to the intense courtship of countries in the region by the United States. Midweek, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken signed an amended defense cooperation agreement with his Greek counterpart, Nikos Dendias.

Dendias said the amended agreement not only will safeguard Greek security interests but will enable deeper collaboration beyond defense issues. “It also creates a shell [framework] that allows the United States to invest in Greece, not only for the improvement of our country’s defense facilities, but to do so in a broader framework of cooperation that is being established and improved,” he said.

Warming relations between the U.S. and Greece are seen in Washington as a crucial part of a broader courtship strategy in the Balkans, one that has been pursued with mounting intensity in recent years by a succession of U.S. administrations, aimed at stemming and reversing the growing influence in the region of China and Russia.

In an interview with RFE/RL last month, and ahead of the Slovenia summit, Gabriel Escobar, deputy assistant secretary of state, said Washington would make a renewed push to help the countries of the region achieve EU integration. He urged the bloc to begin accession talks this year with at least Albania and North Macedonia. Both had hoped two years ago to begin concrete negotiations that would see them join the European bloc.

France and The Netherlands blocked the membership schedule for Albania and North Macedonia last year in what advocates of EU enlargement, including Jean-Claude Juncker, then president of the European Commission, called an “historic error.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said the EU wasn’t in any shape to admit new members, let alone states from the Balkans, which, he noted, are still struggling with crime and corruption and had not yet overcome the ethnic divisions that led to wars in the 1990s.

North Macedonia, Albania and four other Balkan countries — Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia — have been trying to join the world’s biggest trading bloc since 2004. But they keep encountering setbacks. And frustration is rising in the Balkans at the obstacles being thrown up and at the lack of progress.

At the summit in Slovenia on October 6, featuring all 27 EU leaders and their six Balkan counterparts, the bloc declined to agree on a timetable for membership. EU leaders reaffirmed the bloc's commitment to an enlargement process for the six Western Balkans states and acknowledged their future lies as members of the bloc. In a joint declaration, the EU leaders said the bloc “reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans.”

But the lack of a concrete schedule is prompting fears the delay will only serve to further the influence of Russia and China, especially in Serbia, and won’t help to stabilize a region that has still to lay to rest the ghosts of the ethnic wars of the 1990s.

“If the EU doesn't expand, others will expand,” Slovenia’s Prime Minister, Janez Jansa, told German broadcaster ARD, referring to Russia and China.

FILE - Slovenia's Prime Minister Janez Jansa speaks during a media conference at the conclusion of the EU-Western Balkans Summit, at the Brdo Congress Center in Kranj, Slovenia, Oct. 6, 2021.
FILE - Slovenia's Prime Minister Janez Jansa speaks during a media conference at the conclusion of the EU-Western Balkans Summit, at the Brdo Congress Center in Kranj, Slovenia, Oct. 6, 2021.

Germany’s Angela Merkel, currently acting as her country’s caretaker chancellor, has also expressed concern. “There is an absolute geo-strategic interest for us to really accept these countries into the European Union,” she said in Slovenia.

But geo-strategic interests have failed to overcome objections, large and small, to enlargement from most of the EU member states. Bulgaria wants North Macedonia to acknowledge its language has Bulgarian roots, and until it does Sofia plans to continue to veto enlargement.

Other EU governments are worried about a migration surge from the Balkans, if the candidate countries are admitted.

“Western Balkans citizens are increasingly losing faith in seeing their countries ever joining the EU,” notes Engjellushe Morina, a Balkans expert at the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR), a pan-European think tank.

And there are risks of democratic back-sliding as a consequence of the delay, she fears.

“Progress toward EU membership has been slow for these countries, which is arguably part of the reason for the region’s recent democratic backsliding,” Morina notes in an ECFR commentary. “Populist nationalism is now a powerful force, which combined with an absence of functioning checks and balances, has created new political and security risks for the region.”

She adds: “The risks for the EU are considerable. Any greater flourishing of the nationalist and illiberal leadership in the region could at some point cause a slide into ethnic violence.”

The prospects of EU membership have been a major driver of political and judicial reforms in the Balkans since the former Yugoslavia disintegrated in the early 1990s into warring parts. Candidate countries are required to meet certain democratic standards, implement socio-economic reforms and show due respect for the rule of law.

And the chance to join the EU also has helped to drive some progress toward a normalization of relations between the states of the Western Balkans, according to European diplomats and analysts. With membership prospects dashed, or forever stalled, they fear the determination to reform and to overcome a past of ethnic grievance will be lost, too.

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