Juncker waves ‘credible EU prospects’ at Balkans, but no fast membership

SotEU 2017 - Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during the State of the Union address. [European Parliament]

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker stayed true to form on the EU’s enlargement prospects in his annual address on Wednesday (13 September), calling for a “credible enlargement perspective” for the Western Balkans while ruling out any fast track to membership.

“If we want more stability in our neighbourhood, then we need to offer a credible enlargement prospect to the countries of the Western Balkans,” Juncker told the European Parliament in Strasbourg in his State of the European Union speech.

As soon as the applause from more than 700 MEPs and guests died down, the veteran of EU politics went on to caution:

“It is clear that there will be no further enlargement during the mandate of this Commission and this Parliament [in 2019]. No candidate is ready yet. But thereafter, the EU will be greater than 27 in number.”

Of the six Western Balkans countries, only Serbia and Montenegro have opened accession talks. Albania and Macedonia have been granted candidate status while the two economically poorest states, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, are lagging behind.

In a separate move,  Juncker and Commission First Vice-President Frans Timmermans outlined ten short- and medium-term priorities in a letter to the Estonian presidency, one of which was to prepare a “strategy for a successful EU accession of Serbia and Montenegro as frontrunner candidates in the Western Balkans”.

Economic and democratic reforms have been slow across the Western Balkans, which remains burdened by lingering ethnic hostilities more than two decades after the Yugoslav federation broke up.

There were few immediate reactions in the region to Juncker’s remarks. A lone comment from a Serbian man on Facebook summed up the reason:

“Nothing new there, this is what he said three years ago”.

The Commission boss seized the opportunity to take another stab at Turkey, recalling the need for all EU hopefuls to respect the rule of law and human rights.

“Accession candidates must give the rule of law, justice and fundamental rights utmost priority. This rules out EU membership for Turkey for the foreseeable future. Turkey has been taking giant strides away from the European Union for some time,” he emphasised.

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On a more positive note, he said Croatia, which joined the bloc in 2013, should be allowed to join the passport-free Schengen area “once it meets all the criteria”. Croatia’s EU neighbour Slovenia has indicated recently it may seek to block Zagreb from joining Schengen because of a border row between the two former ex-Yugoslav republics.

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