Any discussion about the European Union’s (EU) enlargement is implicitly a discussion on the future of Europe and vice versa. Brexit seems to have brought a visible shift towards exploring the possibilities of including new members, in an EU that has been affected for years by signs of ‘enlargement fatigue’, especially after Romania and Bulgaria’s accession in 2007. The so-called ‘road to Sibiu’ which sought to shape the future of the European Union started in Rome in March 2017 and will come to an end in May 2019. Will we experience then a new ‘hour for Europe’? How will the debate on the ‘future of Europe’ affect the Western Balkans’ accession process?
#EURoad2Sibiu is one of the newest and most popular hashtags in EU-affairs circles. It is used on social media when discussing the Summit in Sibiu that is scheduled for 9 May 2019 during the Romania’s Presidency of the European Council. The event is much-debated for several reasons: it will take place six weeks after the UK’s exit from the EU and two weeks before the European Parliament elections. Moreover, the summit is meant to present the conclusion of the debate on the ‘future of Europe’, which was launched by President Juncker on 25 March 2017 on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome. As such, the Summit in Sibiu is considered a turning point for post-Brexit EU, but it also represents an important moment for the countries in the so-called ‘EU’s waiting room’: the Western Balkans. What is the connection between Sibiu and the enlargement agenda? Let’s dig in the overall context first.
EU’s Future: from Rome to Sibiu and beyond
The summit in Sibiu is directly linked to the March 2017 event in Rome, when President Juncker unveiled the White Paper on the Future of Europe which lists five possible scenarios for the European Union, among which deeper integration, multi-speed Europe, and limiting the EU only to the Single Market. In Sibiu, only one of the scenarios will be finally identified. The idea of the whole summit is to paint a compelling picture of the EU’s future without the United Kingdom, as well as to encourage voters to participate in the May 2019 elections (taking into consideration the low turnout of the previous elections of May 2014). The key point is that these recent events inside the EU, mainly provoked by the results in the Brexit referendum, have coincided with a sort of ‘revival’ of the enlargement project championed by the European Commission. Again, there are high expectations for the decisions taken at Sibiu, even beyond EU borders.
The Balkans have been a priority for the EU most visibly after the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003. But their presence on the EU’s priority list has fluctuated, being downgraded most visibly after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014. From that moment on, in the context of the EU’s preoccupation with its domestic crises and the halting of the Western Balkans membership prospects (announced by Juncker himself in 2014 at the beginning of his mandate), enlargement-driven reforms were stagnating. Renewed attention on the issue started in September 2017, with Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union address and later in Emmanuel Macron’s Sorbonne speech. They were followed by the initiative of Donald Tusk in launching a ‘Leaders’ Agenda’ which not only made a critical contribution to ‘the Future of Europe’ debate but also represented an institutional innovation for the European Council. The Leaders’ Agenda consists of a list of the most pressing issues and challenges for which solutions need to be found, ahead of the European elections in 2019. At the summit in Sibiu, national leaders are expected to mark the culmination of this process with a renewed commitment to an EU that delivers on the issues that really matter to people, as collected in a wide consultation process over the last year. Therefore, the Sibiu summit can be understood as part of a complex reform process that will culminate in a declaration enshrining the vision of national leaders for a reformed European Union, hopefully more relevant and appealing to all European citizens.
The renewed focus on the Balkans resulted in a programmatic document launched by the Commission, containing six flagships initiatives entitled ‘A credible enlargement perspective for an enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans’. The message was simple: enlargement, but not without reforms (especially the ones that have been long postponed). The project has the ambitious goal of achieving EU accession for Montenegro and Serbia by 2025, and expects negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania in the near future, while Bosnia-Herzegovina and, above all, Kosovo, lag behind. This document announces a date for the first time in a decade. Further impulse was given last May, when the EU Western Balkans Summit took place in Sofia, under the auspices of the Bulgarian Presidency. The Summit focused on the two main principles brought by the 2018 Enlargement strategy: credibility and engagement. The Sofia Declaration reiterated the same message of the Commission’s Enlargement Strategy, but with less ‘unity’ among member states than initially expected. Most recently, the European Council referred to the situation in the Western Balkans this June, following a Council meeting dedicated to enlargement, when it confirmed that a decision on starting the negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia would be announced in June 2019.
All these enlargement-friendly political initiatives were indeed necessary, because of the deteriorating situation in the Western Balkans in recent years. Initially, the discussion on enlargement was completely frozen by the same President Juncker back in 2014, when he stated that there would be no more enlargement in his term. As an alternative, Germany launched the Berlin process, (an inter-governmental process aiming at increasing cooperation with the Western Balkans and promoting the overarching goal of EU membership), that managed to bring various stakeholders to the table and kept up the momentum for EU integration in the Balkans over the last 5 years. This year, the Bulgarian Presidency listed among its main priorities support for the enlargement process. Indeed in Sofia, EU leaders sent a clear message: the Western Balkans countries remain key to European stability and security. In this context, I argue that the result of the Sibiu Summit will directly impact the Balkans since any decision on what the EU should look like necessarily implies actions in the deepening or widening dilemma. In other words, we expect a new beginning for the EU after Sibiu and this new beginning will directly influence the political processes in the Western Balkans – for better or for worse. Even if the WB states have been united by the common goal of joining the EU since the Thessaloniki Summit, 15 years later they still face unresolved bilateral issues, contested borders and instability that provide disunity and obstacles to this common objective. But somehow unexpectedly, Brexit has created a favourable context for the EU integration process in the Balkans.
In conclusion, Brexit has proved helpful, albeit unintentionally, to the Western Balkans; Brussels now feels the need to reaffirm the attraction of the European project in its strategic neighbourhood. But the credibility of the promise made by the EU needs to meet the seriousness of purpose of actors in candidate countries. High expectations are now on both sides. So a more credible implementation of reforms is expected (from countries in the Balkans) and a new narrative for European Balkans is needed in EU member states. These elements combined put additional pressure on the decisions to be taken in Sibiu. Nevertheless, these are multiple opportunities that should not be missed and remains to be seen how the Sibiu summit will be remembered in the European history books and how its impact will be perceived in the Balkans.