The German chancellor announced last Saturday (7 June) a high profile conference dedicated to the Western Balkans’ integration in the European Union in sign of support to the ‘forgotten’ EU enlargement process.
“Germany will invite all Balkan states to a conference in the end of August to make it clear that we want to support each other and look to the future together. This is also why we have a strong presence in the region,” Angela Merkel said in an interview posted on her website announcing the event.
The gathering will take place “at the highest level” on 28 August, Deutsche Welle has learned, “from governmental sources”, adding that it received confirmation from the German ministry for foreign affairs that “invitations will be sent to their counterparts in the Western Balkans, including EU member states Croatia and Slovenia, as well as representatives from the EU institutions in Brussels". EurActiv has not been able to confirm this information with the German foreign ministry so far but details should be made public in the beginning of July.
A firm commitment to these countries’ EU accession was given in Thessaloniki in 2003 during the Greek presidency’s EU-Western Balkans summit.
Since then, Montenegro and Serbia have received a green light to start accession negotiations, Macedonia is a candidate country, and Albania is expecting to get the same status. Bosnia and Herzegovina is the country that lags behind the most, while Kosovo’s unresolved international status is still a cause for headaches in the Union.
However, in the last 11 years, progress has been uneven, and countries such as Macedonia or Bosnia have been stuck on their path towards the EU.
While Bosnia and Herzegovina is dealing with important domestic challenges, Greece has prevented Macedonia from starting accession negotiations for the past six years, despite a clear recommendation from the EU executive, a blockade which has fueled a deterioration of democratic standards in the country.
For Corina Stratulat, senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC) in Brussels, “the organisation of this conference is consistent with the pressing need to deal with the unfinished business in the Balkans".
“New life for EU enlargement policy”
“Although peace has taken hold of the region, Balkan countries are still not all in [the EU] and certainly they are not all transformed as we had envisioned, and the policy is stuck for the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Bosnia for example, says Stratulat. "So. from this point of view it’s useful to organise this kind of conference and have a serious and strategic discussion and give a new life to a policy that is struggling to demonstrate its added value.”
EU enlargement policy has indeed been pushed into the background by most EU member states since the accession of the Eastern block in the mid-2000s, and the accession of Croatia in 2013 received very little media attention and publicity.
But for countries such as Bosnia and Macedonia, the lack of progress towards EU membership carries a number of stability risks, which Merkel is likely aware of.
“It is useful to make enlargement a political issue rather than sweeping it under the carpet, hoping it will deal with itself, especially for some of these countries. The situation has gotten worse for some countries and there are huge risks associated with Bosnia or Macedonia,” Stratulat told EurActiv.
However, the Russian offensive in Ukraine might also be another reason that Germany and the EU are renewing their interest in the Balkans, where Moscow is also lurking.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the main reason but I think it’s in the mind of Germany and other member states. Relations between Russia and some of the Balkan countries precede the Ukrainian crisis and Russia is a strategic partner. I don’t think the EU is opposed to it, but of course, given the flexing of muscles Russia has been doing lately, these kind of relations are treated with more consideration than in the past,” Stratulat commented.
Serbia, the largest country in the region, and the most strategic partner of the EU, is also known to have very close ties to Moscow, which has put Belgrade in a tight spot on issues such as sanctions against Russia, and the construction of South Stream.
Although the European Commission has made it clear that the EU considers the South Stream agreements with Russia illegal, Serbia has nonetheless decided to go on with it despite European reluctance, and asked for “more patience and more comprehension”.