In the first entry of this series, I referred to the Western Balkans (WB) as a border and contact region between the East and the West, known for its conflicts and border issues. The European Union (EU) considers it crucial to maintain stability in this region due to its strategic importance and the presence of actors like Russia and China, who are vying for influence. However, the EU’s legal framework and requirements are not present in the Western Balkans, despite the EU demanding them for membership.
To join the EU, a country in the Western Balkans needs to follow a specific process, which involves 1) submitting a formal application, 2) receiving a positive opinion from the European Commission, 3) obtaining candidate status, and 4) start accession negotiations. However, it’s important to note that None of these steps are automatic. The EU can to halt or freeze the accession process to apply pressure and ensure that the country meets the required criteria. Serbia serves as a notable example of this approach.
The EU’s engagement with the Western Balkans is based on a specific process outlined in the EU Treaty and the Copenhagen/Madrid Criteria. However, it’s important to note that the EU’s authority to suspend the accession process acts as an additional prerequisite, in addition to the existing requirements for EU membership.
Daily Menu Copenhagen/Madrid… but also à la carte.
However, the aforementioned criteria are adaptable and can be customized to suit the unique circumstances of each applicant country. Here are a few instances that exemplify how the criteria can differ based on the country and its particular context:
- Bulgaria and Romania: Their non-compliance with the criteria was evident, particularly regarding issues such as organized crime and corruption, especially within the police force. Despite this, the EU admitted them as member states but will continue to monitor their progress. AA Cooperation and Verification Mechanism was put in place to monitor their progress and situation.
- Admission of Croatia in 2013: Croatia was required to extradite war criminals to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). This is also applicable to Serbia, which will be addressed separately in another posts.
- Serbia’s accession process: Serbia is subject to additional requirements, such as cooperation with the ICTY and the normalization of relations with its neighbours, especially Kosovo.
- Turkey’s case is representative of its efforts to meet the EU accession criteria, but without significant progress. The EU’s reluctance stems from concerns over the influence of Islam, authoritarianism, and the erosion of freedoms. In the 2023 presidential elections, Erdogan won with the support of an ultranationalist candidate, and this support did not come without a cost.
- The existence of previous conflicts did not pose a barrier to EU accession. But the accession of Turkey and Serbia is questioned due to geopolitical and political factors. In the case of Turkey, there is fear that a Muslim country of Turkey’s size and population could disrupt the balance and decision-making in the EU. Additionally, the EU’s carrot and stick approach, has generated rejection and frustration among the Turkish government, which is likely also present in Serbia.
Conditionality, communitarization, and de-Balkanization
The recent application of conditionality, exemplified by the extensive enlargement of the European Union between 2004 and 2007 (including ten countries from the Nice Treaty, as well as Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania), has yielded a combination of successes and shortcomings. Nevertheless, it is crucial to recognize the adverse effects resulting from insufficiently addressed underlying challenges. These effects encompass diminished credibility of the enlargement strategy and persisting ethnic and border conflicts, further compounded by the limited public endorsement of the European project within the Western Balkans
The European Union, tired and cautious
The EU faced «enlargement fatigue» and concerns emerged regarding the preparedness of prospective member states. The enthusiasm for the massive enlargement in 2004 faded as the diverse levels of development and political traditions became apparent. Like Eastern Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the new EU members encountered challenges related to privatization and unemployment. This fatigue has led to caution and reluctance towards future enlargements. Frustration is growing in the Western Balkans, particularly in Serbia, where opposition to EU accession is evident. North Macedonia, having resolved one dispute with Greece, now faces another with Bulgaria. The EU deccission to grant candidate status to Ukraine raises concerns about potential double standards for other countries in the region that are still awaiting their turn. It is true that the situation of Ukraine is more critical, but swift granting of candidate status for Ukraine creates a sense of comparative grievance: such a sense is understandable. Anyway, It must be made clear about one thing: it really meant nothing at all. It is just symbolic value, as the example of the Western Balkans has shown: there is no fast-tracked Accession procedure.
Conditionality as communitarization and de-Balkanization: Adaptation or «imposition»?
When discussing EU expansion into the Western Balkans, some argue that the Copenhagen/Madrid criteria are seen as a form of «de-Balkanization» that imposes Western European values to achieve Europeanization of the WB6 countries. This viewpoint is supported by opinons like Putin’s, who claim that Europe imposes its values and that Western democracy is not the only valid form of governance. In Serbia and other countries, including members of the Visegrad Group, there is a strong resonance with Putin’s message. However, when faced with the reality of Russian military intervention in Ukraine, these countries chose to align themselves with the EU. Despite sympathies towards Putin, historical experiences, such as Poland’s struggles in various periods, Hungarian events in 1956, Czech events in 1968, and Yugoslav fears during the Cold War, serve as a reminder that Russians or Soviets were not their best allies. Looking at the countries that joined the EU between 2004 and 2013, there was a transformation of a region with unique characteristics that significantly differed from the Western ones. These characteristics include decades of planned (communist) economic systems in all WB6 states and, in some cases, a Slavic – although not exclusive – component that was unprecedented in the EU. Additionally, there was deindustrialization, poor institutional quality, and an inability of the leaders to effectively address these issues.
While these challenges could be managed to some extent in certain countries, they became highly inflammatory in others, especially in the most significant state in the former Yugoslavia (SFRY under Tito). The mishandling of the problem there led to a violent explosion fueled by pre-existing ethnic antagonisms, many of which originated from those in power.
Regarding communitarization, there is a phase of «pre- communitarization » that involves the adaptation of aspiring states to EU standards. This homogenization process follows the guidelines set by the EU and does not allow for negotiation or amendments. It is not a negotiation on equal terms but rather a form of « communitarization,» characterized by a set of values, political practices, and even an identity of the EU as a civil power with specific features. The countries applying for membership are presented with the famous ultimatum of «take it or leave it”: there is no possibility of negotiation.
Communitarization in the Western Balkans and Serbia
The process of comunitarización/accession in the Western Balkans, specifically in Serbia, involves several key elements. These include political criteria such as the presence of stable institutions that uphold democracy, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, and the protection of minorities. Economic criteria are also important, including the establishment of a competitive market economy within the EU and the ability to adopt and implement EU legislation (acquis communautaire), along with the fulfilment of obligations arising from EU membership. Legal criteria, particularly the adoption of the EU acquis, have been refined through European Council meetings in Feira (2000) and Copenhagen (2002), emphasizing the achievement of maximum political and economic integration in the Western Balkans. Subsequent European Council meetings in Thessaloniki (2003) and Brussels (2006) further stress the need to prepare these countries for a transition to a market economy, taking into account both external and internal parameters. The prevention of conflicts and promotion of political and social stability are overarching objectives in the EU’s framework for the accession of Western Balkan countries.
 I find the term «Europeanization» inadequate, despite its widespread use, as it implies that the European Union is synonymous with Europe. However, this is not the case, as there are still many countries outside the EU. For this reason, I prefer to use the term «comunitarización,» which more precisely refers to the European Union.
This post is part of my doctoral Thesis and articles (revised and updated):
La adhesión de Serbia a la UE como punta de lanza de la integración de los Balcanes occidentales: situación actual
Accession of Serbia to the EU as spearhead of integration process of the Western Balkans: current situation
Revista de estudios europeos 74 (2019): 138-184.
Abstract: The purpose of this article is study and analyse the process of integration of the Republic of Serbia into European Union, taking account of the historical background, which makes Serbian path to integration different from the rest of Western Balkans. Furthermore, this study discusses the singular importance of the issue in the expansion of EU in the Western Balkans region. The study will be structured in five sections looking at the stages of the accession process, taking account of the current state of negotiations
Amistades peligrosas: las relaciones entre Serbia, China y la UE en el contexto de la futura ampliación a los WB6
Dangerous liaisons: relations between Serbia, China and the EU in the context of the future enlargement of the European Union to the WB6
Abstract: The aim of this study is to analyse the relations between Serbia, China and the EU. Such relations had to be seen in the double context: On the one hand Serbia’s accession running process, with the interferences on it of China as global rising power. Beijing, with its ambitious New Silk Road project, erupt as an agent in Europe, specially in Western Balkans and quite particularly in Western Balkans 6 (next UE´s enlargement area). On the other hand, China’s influence on Serbia could determine the future as a Member State of the EU as well as EU enlargement policy in the region.