By Sara Macrì
The Western Balkan region and its integration in the European Union represent two of the main priorities for the EU, as the High Representative of the Union for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell, recently stated. The Union has always collaborated with the single countries of the Peninsula from both an economic and a political point of view, to help them reach a state of peace and balance. Once this goal is completely achieved, Balkan countries will be granted access to the organisation. Bearing this in mind, six countries have applied for membership so far: Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Republic of North Macedonia. However, the position they have reached along the road to European integration differs from one country to another.
In the case of Serbia, one of the main actors of the region, it submitted its application for membership in 2009 and has been considered a candidate since 2012. Accession negotiations were unlocked after two years, but they stopped in 2019. The Commission is considering the possibility for the country to join the European Union by 2025, but discussions cannot proceed up until disputes between the country and Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are settled down. Besides, we need to consider the consequences that the current Russo-Ukrainian war is having on Serbia, weighing on the equilibria between the Union and the State.
Earlier this year, the European Union appeared satisfied with the results that the country achieved, to which the Union itself contributed: Serbia improved its judicial system and rule of law through a referendum aiming at decreasing the political and parliamentarian influence on judiciary, especially regarding the election of judges and prosecutors. Still, the country needs to work on some of its weakest spots to get a place in the European Union. Brussels is indeed concerned about the rampant organised criminality and corruption, about the sympathetic treatment reserved to Serbian war criminals and about the low levels of media freedom. As long as proper democratic rules and principles are not completely respected and electoral processes freely conducted, the Serbian path towards the integration in the European Union needs to pause.
One aspect the European Union was worried about even months before the breakout of the war concerned the foreign and security policy, which in the EU is clearly harmonised. Some features of the Serbian foreign policy, such as the close ties between Russia and Serbian nationalism, are indeed not particularly welcomed by the 27 Member States. This strong bond may further imperil talks between Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Pristina, whose success is requested for the advancement of negotiations between the three States, and Serbia in particular, and the European Union.
Belgrade-Pristina struggles and their consequences
The Union cannot afford an enlargement that would include unstable and warring countries. Therefore, before the Western Balkans’ integration materialises, the States of the region should overcome rivalries and hostilities and assure Brussels that peace can be reached in the Peninsula.
The situation appears particularly challenging when it comes to the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo. Brussels can stand as a mediator, but negotiations cannot be carried out up until Belgrade does not recognize the Kosovan statehood, and such a horizon still appears everything but near. This is even truer if we consider that far-right Vučić won the presidential elections last month with a nationalist platform, meaning that the population shares his radical views. The situation further worsened when former president of Kosovo, Haradinaj, stated that he would refuse dialogue with Belgrade until Serbia’s recognition of its country’s independence.
Thus, Serbia’s integration path does not lie in its hands alone, but we need to consider the role of the whole Balkan region. In order to join the Union, Balkan countries need to make considerable efforts together; however, they appear to be a long way from collaborating. As a consequence, the Union’s enlargement still seems unlikely.
Upshots of the Russo-Ukrainian war
Things actually changed due to the interweaving of two major events: the Russo-Ukrainian war and the presidential elections of April 2022, which saw Aleksandar Vučić triumph also thanks to his exploitation of the conflict and of the Serbian pro-Russian sentiment. It’s been almost three months since the invasion, and, despite pressures, Serbia does not align with Brussels’ position and has not introduced any sanctions yet (and does not plan to do so). Despite specifying that a country’s territorial integrity cannot be endangered, President Vučić said that Serbia has some vital interests and that traditional friends like Moscow cannot be jeopardized.
Belgrade is therefore swinging between two main positions and two important partners: it cannot take a neutral stance and some interests will be forcibly put at risk. On the one hand, it is clear that Serbia should stick to Brussels’ requests and positions not to endanger the enlargement process of which it is the main beneficiary. On the other, however, it cannot endanger its own existence and survival: as Russia is one of Serbia’s main allies, it has always taken an anti-Kosovan position in international forums. In addition to this, Belgrade is highly dependent on Russia’s energy supplies, importing almost the 90% of its energy mix’s component from Russia.
To conclude, we cannot underestimate the improvements accomplished by Serbia to comply with Brussels’ requests in order to join the organisation. Still, to become a Member State, Belgrade – as any Western Balkan country – needs to give up parts of its sovereignty and come to terms with inconvenient neighbours and former rivals. All 27 Member States underwent through this same process. When the European Coal and Steel Community was founded, France and Germany needed to settle their hostilities in the name of a greater good. This was an extremely forward-looking decision, as the new communities that stemmed from the ECSC would bring peace and balance in a continent that, up until that moment, had always been turbulent and warlike.
Becoming part of the European Union would allow Balkan countries to follow the same path and come to the same conclusion as the other 27. But the question here is: are these countries actually ready and willing to do so, or present and ancient rivalries and resentments are still too strong to be overcome? The European Union cannot grant them a spot counting on the fact that relationships will be settled in the future, but can this situation of high uncertainty go on any longer?