Over the past few years, the European Union (EU) has taken a stricter approach to accepting new members. Currently, five countries are in the process of applying for EU membership, with two more potential candidates in the works – all of which are in part or fully on the Balkan peninsula. This reflects a continued movement of further European integration in the post-communism context, with many eastern European nations having joined in the 2000s and 2010s. In particular, former Yugoslav nations Slovenia and Croatia have joined over the past two decades, showing the ability of ex-Yugoslav nations to integrate into the wider European political economy.
Membership in the EU brings with it many economic benefits, namely access to an open market and border, which means that many countries in the region feel the need to either join the bloc or be excluded from continental trade. For these Balkan nations, though, the EU application process is notoriously difficult and long. Potential member states have to meet many hurdles, such as human rights requirements and approval from every member state in the bloc. This painstaking bureaucratic process makes it so that one opposing member can easily shoot down the application of another nation with whom it has political grievances over the smallest of blemishes.
Two recent examples are Albania and North Macedonia, who, despite being formally approved by the EU to start accession talks, have been blocked by Bulgaria over North Macedonian-Bulgarian cultural disputes. The plight of Albania and North Macedonia is not unique; it is also shared by the other EU applicants of Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey, with Serbia and Turkey having additional large issues that hinder their hopes of joining the bloc.
Serbia: Kosovo and alliance with Russia biggest challenges in joining EU
Kosovo is a region of the former Yugoslavia that declared its independence in 2008, after over a decade of tension and war. Today, Kosovo is recognised by around 100 countries, but Serbia, and its allies in the Eastern bloc, still claim Kosovo as an autonomous province of Serbia. Although EU-mediated talks have been ongoing since 2011, the two sides are still far apart on many issues, and hopes of any further agreements being reached in the near future are slim.
In this case, the Brussels Agreement of 2013, which provided a start for normal relations between Kosovo and Serbia, is proving to be important for both nations’ EU applications. This is because a clause in that agreement stipulated that neither party would block the other’s accession into the EU. However, even without Kosovo blocking its joining of the union, Serbia’s hopes of joining the EU will still hinge on this issue, as Brussels has indicated that normalised relations with Kosovo are a requirement for Serbia to join the bloc.
In addition, Serbia’s close relations with the Eastern bloc also remain an issue that will need to be sorted out before EU accession. The speaker of the Serbian parliament recently referred to Russia as “Serbia’s best ally,” and Serbia has promised to never impose sanctions on Russia, contrary to the actions of the current EU member states. This highlights the difficulty of playing both sides in the global struggle, which ultimately may lead to Serbia having to pick a side: East or West. Regardless, with Hungary’s democratic backsliding under Viktor Orban serving as a warning against growing Eastern influence in the EU, decision-makers at the EU may be much warier of any potential members being friendly with Moscow.
Turkey: Democratic Backsliding, Relations with Neighbours Main Roadblocks to EU Accession
Turkey has been in the EU application process since 1987 but is still nowhere near accession. Like Hungary and Poland, Turkey is experiencing democratic backsliding under its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Also like Hungary and Poland, this has soured EU-Turkey relations, with the European Parliament calling for the suspension of accession talks with Turkey due to severe human rights abuses. With the human rights situation in the nation not improving, and a member of the European Parliament even saying that the EU protests for improvements in human rights were “falling on deaf ears in Ankara,” EU-Turkey relations are at a low point.
To make matters worse, Turkey’s relations with its neighbours and Western allies are on a low note, with Northern Cyprus, a self-proclaimed nation recognised by only Turkey, souring Ankara’s relations with Greece, and the migrant crisis, souring relations with the entire EU. As accession into the union requires approval from all members, even one bad relationship with an EU member state could ruin any chances of accession. Turkey’s EU application, therefore, will likely fail, as many EU members have expressed their opposition to Turkey’s accession.
Montenegro, Albania, and North Macedonia
Montenegro is furthest ahead in its EU application, with 3 out of 35 chapters required for accession closed, and progress being made on most of the other open chapters. At this point, Montenegro’s leaders are hoping to be able to formally be a part of the EU by 2025.
In March 2020, the EU approved formal accession talks with both North Macedonia and Albania, which would have been great news for the two nations. However, as of June 2021, there is still no official date for the start of accession talks, and Bulgaria has vetoed starting these discussions with North Macedonia due to disagreements over “history and language.” As the start of Albania’s talks is contingent on North Macedonia’s also being open, progress on these two nations’ accession into the EU has remained slow. However, there may still be hope; several EU members, including Germany, Slovakia, and Slovenia, have spoken out against the Bulgarian veto, with the Slovenian President even travelling to Sofia personally to try to sort out the differences on both sides. This disagreement shows the internal divides and inefficiencies in the EU that will need to be resolved if the EU wants to be a union for all Europeans, not just those in Western Europe.
Bridging the Divide
The EU has affirmed its commitment to Western Balkan integration and has even made it official policy. Despite this, the Balkan nations still face a long path towards EU accession and true European integration. Democratic backsliding and the East-West balance in the region, particularly in Serbia and Turkey, remain big issues that will need to be addressed before the Balkans can truly be integrated into the wider Western bloc. Furthermore, the EU is still split on whether to add more members into the union, and these differences will also need to be addressed in order for more Balkan nations to join the bloc. Thirty years have passed since the fall of communism in Europe – yet, the scars of separation still run across the European continent.