Will the EU’s breadcrumbing of the Western Balkans hit back?

Copyright: © European Union 2004 – EP

by Juliane Ørsøe Nyborg

Lately, the European Union has attempted to give impetus to the enlargement process regarding the Western Balkans. The endeavor from the EU is not only driven by the question of security in the perspective of the Western Balkans as the geographical frontline towards Russia, but also a question of China’s economic and strategic interest in the Western Balkans. 

Since the Russian attempt on a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, the Western Balkans governments have been put on the spot again as historical Russo-allies, impelling them to take a stand on the relation in the aspect of a future in the European Union. 

The breadcrumbing strategy

Breadcrumbing is not usually a term used in politics. Most often it is used as slang about dating, referring to sending strong signals of interest, but holding back from committing to the person. The relation and history are of course much more complicated and on a higher level, but breadcrumbing hints to a pattern regarding the enlargement of the EU. 

The EU accession process is at center of the EU-Western Balkans relations and the conditions were laid down in the Council Conclusions of April 1997. Two years later in 1999 the EU’s Stabilization and Association Process was established with the aim of eventual membership. 

20 years ago, in June 2003 the EU-Western Balkans summit affirmed that the future of the Balkans are within the EU. This was assured by the Thessaloniki Declaration, but since then only Slovenia and Croatia have entered. 

Today, among the six Western Balkan accession countries, Montenegro and Serbia have already started EU accession negotiations, in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Albania and North Macedonia received the green light for opening the accession negotiations in 2020, and in July 2022 they finally started. Bosnia and Herzegovina were granted candidate status on December 15 2022, while Kosovo is still a potential candidate.

The Western Balkans are expected to fully align with EU’s foreign and security policy, and it is true that necessary democratic reforms are yet to be made, including on media freedom, human rights and rule of law to meet the Copenhagen Criteria.

The new endeavor of the EU enlargement

The integration of the Western Balkans in the EU has been nearly stagnating for years causing internal challenges in the EU and external crisis leading to a general deprioritizing of the region on the EU agenda. Internally the EU member states have not agreed on the enlargement causing roadblocks and delays. All along the EU has been breadcrumbing the Western Balkans. Keeping the hope alive with initiatives, summits, status upgrades and long drawn-out accession negotiations.

But as a direct effect of the changed situation of security in the EU, the eastward enlargement of the union has reclaimed attention on the political agenda. The European Council granting EU candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina was a strong symbol of the revived political interest. 

Only two days before the Council recommended this determination whereon the Czech Minister of European Relation, Mikuláš Bek, commentedThe EU enlargement policy is a strong anchor for peace, democracy, prosperity, security and stability on our continent. With its conclusions, the Council is sending a strong message of its commitment to EU enlargement.” Mr. Bek’s words were clear and so is the signal, that EU sends toward the region.

Nevertheless, the grant was also given in anticipations and bringing the update, European Council President, Charles Michel, expressed his thoughts on the decision this way: “A strong signal to the people, but also a clear expectation for the new authorities to deliver on reforms. The future of the Western Balkans is in the EU.”

EU have reaffirmed the Western Balkan on their future in the EU, but an enlargement is still not in sight and the new political hesitancy might just end up raising unrealistic hopes, as there is still a long way before meeting the Copenhagen Criteria. 

The direction is set, but the process is lacking, which is leaving space for doubt on both sides. 

Are they on the same page?

As historical allies to Russia the EU-dream among citizens within the Western Balkans is not given and is important for the EU to keep alive. On a briefing April 18, 2023 the European Parliament was briefed by Branislav Stanicek and Anna Caprile from the Members Research Service that polls show considerable support for EU membership across the Western Balkan, but in Serbia a large majority continue to consider Russia as their true ally, despite EU being Serbia’s major financial supporter. The 2022 Balkan Barometer showed that the support of EU membership had declined by 2% compared to 2021, despite the big new engagement from the EU. It could seem as the EU and the Western Balkans are maybe not on the same page on the future and Russia holds substantial soft-power in the region. 

On an earlier briefing on June 24 2022 by the Member Research Service, Branislav Stanicek briefed the parliament on the strategic interests of China in the Western Balkans. The gap between the average EU member state and the Western Balkans infrastructure negatively affects the regions prospects for growth. Compared with the EU average the Western Balkans average has low rail- and motorway densities, low capacities for power generation and scarce broadband internet connection. To close the gap, the EU and the Berlin Process has been putting forward the “Connectivity Agenda” to create conditions for sustainable development. The goal is to link the region to the Trans European Transport Network and implement the electricity projects of Energy Community Interest as connectivity is a key factor for growth. But as many other things concerning the EU and Western Balkans this also have long-sight prospects. The drawing-out of the enlargement can be a threat to the integration of the Western Balkans as the stagnation have created an opening for other players. 

China established the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 in which the Western Balkans has been given a role. The Western Balkans have substantial economic potential. Estimates from the Berlin Process claim an annual need of investments of €7.7 billion, that would provide the region with an additional 1% GDP growth and a positive employment effect. 

Investments from the EU are often attached to environmental, political and social conditionalities and decisions on quality investments that serves in the favor of the integration have to be thorough and are time-consuming. China has taken the initiative to benefit from this. According to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, China invested €32 billion in the region from 2009-2021. On the first note China does not seem to intervene in internal political affairs and portrays as a strategic investor focusing on transport, infrastructure, energy and IT/communication, but according to The European Council on Foreign affairs, bilateral agreements between China and the Western Balkans on loans and investments comprise many legal traps requiring compensation.

Yet the EU remains the most important economic partner with 70% of the regions total trade. Also in the period between 2011 to 2021 the EU trade with Western Balkans has grown almost 130%, the export from the region to the EU have increased by 207% and EU businesses are leading investors in the region. 

The disunity of the EU and the slow process is creating a weakness for the EU, even with the initiative of the Berlin Process and the more recent agreements, it is hard to deliver results here and now for the region. China has the ability to be more effective, and in a further future claim compensation on basis on agreements made before the Western Balkans entered the EU (if or when they enter). Russia has soft-power ties in especially Serbia even after the aggressions towards Ukraine. EU’s economic support of the region is substantial and the growth of trade the last decade have been important as trade creates change and relations. Still the mutual commitment between the EU and the Western Balkans must be renewed and strengthened to get closer to the enlargement and time might not be in the favor of the integration.