European Union and Western Balkans complex relationship: should we be disappointed by the Sofia Summit?

08. June 2018

by Hatidza Jahic

Copyright: European Union, 2018

The European Union (EU) has developed close relationship with the Western Balkans (WB). The EU is the biggest trading partner and financial assistance provider (in terms of pre – accession funds, loans, support to civil society organisations etc.) for most of the WB countries. In 2018 alone, €1.07 billion of pre-accession assistance funds is foreseen for the Western Balkans, on top of the €9 billion during the 2007-2017 period. However, security challenges and other competitors such as Turkey and Russia have emerged in the region. This, among other factors, creates the demand for  new approach, instruments and actions. And Balkan people continuously ask themselves: is this really going to happen?

The year 2018 is considered to be of great importance for the WB region. It started with the launch of the Enlargement Strategy, followed by the positive vibes from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (it seems that Greece and Macedonian sides are approaching the name issue solution) and the EU – WB Summit that took place on the 17 May in Sofia, the first one in 15 years.

2018:  so far so good?

  • On 6 February, the European Commission adopted an Enlargement Strategy for WB called “A credible enlargement perspective for an enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans.“This strategy includes six new initiatives for the region. Two countries, Serbia and Montenegro, are identified as front-runners in the EU accession process and they may be able to join the Union as early as 2025.
  • The Bulgarian presidency has put much effort into WB-EU integration and has hosted an EU–Western Balkans Summit on 17 May in Sofia. Bulgaria has been actively pushing for a more proactive role for the EU institutions in the WB region.
  • The Bulgarian presidency will be followed by the Austrian one, a country that has had a long-standing interest in the region. According to Vedran Dzihic, Senior Researcher at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs, Austria “should and is already liaising with Bulgaria and Romania to create a broader time-frame of three presidencies to upgrade the enlargement process. It should put in an extra effort to try to place the Balkans on the map of larger EU reform debates, which will definitely culminate in 2019.”
  • The Berlin Process will continue with a summit in London scheduled for 10 July. The UK has stressed several times that, despite Brexit, it plans to stay active on the WB agenda. Also, it is expected that this year’s summit will focus on the connectivity among the countries of the region.
  • Lastly, hopes have been rekindled regarding the Macedonian name issue. There is a positive momentum on the Macedonian political scene and it is expected that this issue, which was in gridlock for many years, might finally be resolved.

What was expected from the summit in Sofia?

Once again the leaders of WB countries met with High Representative Mogherini, Council President Tusk, Commission President Juncker and Commissioner Hahn and they all together reaffirmed that “the EU will never be complete without the Western Balkans”. The hope is that they did not go back to their capitals with a “business as usual“ agenda and that they will use instead the current momentum of Bulgarian and Austrian presidencies to demand more credibility and engagement on both sides. At the end of the day, political leaders in the Western Balkans have to understand that the member states are responsible for the reforms. From time to time it seems they expect the EU to come and implement reforms, ‘spread’ the rule of law and eliminate corruption over night. However, the view from this side is that more credibility and responsibility is needed from Brussels too.

At the Thessaloniki Summit in June 2003, the EU promised that all WB countries will one day become member states. It is very important to keep this promise and  avoid impossible and inconsistent standards, as Krsto Lazarevic, Berlin based journalist from Bosnia and Heregovina, writes. He also states that the WB countries are willing to make big compromises for the sake of joining the club. Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia are close to solving the name dispute; Serbia has done more than many other European countries by accepting 8,000 refugees during the migration crisis and it is also active in the dialogue with Prishtina. So, according to Mr. Lazarevic, the EU cannot accuse these countries of lacking commitment.
At the same time, improving connectivity between Western Balkan states and the EU was one of the priorities of the EU–Western Balkans summit in Sofia. This includes transport, energy, digital, economic and human connectivity that is lacking in the region as it was stressed in the Sofia Summit Declaration. Some even expected that the roaming charges between Western Balkans and the EU would have been removed as sign of an increase in connectivity, however this didn’t happen.

Post- Sofia vibes

The new Declaration of the Sofia Summit does not offer new assistance on the path to the EU nor does it propose new forms of engagement as it was expected. It mostly focuses on issues such as democracy, freedom of the press, regional cooperation and bilateral relations. Despite its historical significance the summit was partially marred by France’s rather skeptic perspective of WB integration. French President Macron’s message was “internal reform first, enlargement second.” Other member states have also called for more actions against organised crime and corruption, as well as institutional reform and solving existing bilateral disputes. It seems that only one thing is clear: if enlargement to the Western Balkans is ever going to happen, it will depend on both sides to take responsibility and keep their promises.  To sum up, the overall result of the Sofia Declaration is somehow between “encouragement but without great expectations.“