This year is supposed to finally see progress on the Western Balkan countries’ long and tortuous journey towards European Union membership, with at least three successive EU presidencies – Bulgaria, Austria and Romania – keen to make enlargement one of their main priorities.
But a long shadow was cast on Serbia’s plans after the murder on 16 January of a Serb leader in Kosovo effectively halted Belgrade’s EU-sponsored dialogue with Pristina, seen as key to normalising relations and smoothing their EU prospects.
Calling on Serbian citizens to support their government’s plan of reforms and European integration, Bulgarian Ambassador to Belgrade, Radko Vlaykov described 2018 as a unique opportunity for the Western Balkans to be back in the spotlight and make progress towards EU membership.
“I am sure that when the politicians and citizens accept the EU as a common goal, membership will come quicker. Be united and strong,” said Vlaykov. He added that his government had invested a lot of effort in convincing the EU of the need to refocus on the Western Balkans and would continue to do so.
The head of the EU Delegation to Serbia, Sem Fabrizi, also described 2018 as a unique opportunity for “irreversible steps”, with Bulgaria acting as “a true bridge”.
Fabrizi said he expected to see progress at the upcoming summit of EU and Balkan leaders in Sofia on 17 May.
The EU first held out its hand to the region at the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, adopting a declaration that offered the Western Balkans a prospect of joining. The pace of accession would strictly depend on each country’s progress in implementing legal, political and economic reforms, the EU stated.
However, the only country from the region that has joined the EU so far is Croatia, which became a member in 2013.
In February, the EU will unveil an enlargement strategy that is expected to mark 2025 as the year when Serbia and Montenegro could become members of the bloc. It is also expected to give the four other countries – Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – a roadmap towards membership with clear tasks to fulfil.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker personally backed Bulgaria’s plan to put Western Balkans back on the table in Sofia last week.
Serbia’s Minister of European Integration Jadranka Joksimović voiced hope that the enlargement document will reflect “the positive tone and spirit of the message” delivered earlier by Juncker that Serbia and Montenegro will be the regional frontrunners in EU integration, but that the other candidates in the region will also be given a chance.
The Commission’s enlargement report, expected to be published in April, will be the first assessment of the progress of Serbia and the other countries towards EU membership since November 2016.
In what would be another milestone for the region, the reports on FYR Macedonia and Albania are expected to recommend that the EU open membership negotiations with them, leaving only Bosnia and Kosovo outside the accession process. Macedonia’s main obstacle is its long-running name dispute with Greece, which it must resolve.
The EU-Western Balkans summit in Sofia will be followed by a conference in London, as part of the Berlin Process – another initiative aimed at helping the Western Balkans, promoted by Germany, which takes over the EU presidency in the second half of 2021.
The shadow of the Kosovo murder
The presentation of Bulgaria’s presidency priorities in Belgrade on 16 January was overshadowed by the news of the assassination of Kosovo Serb leader Oliver Ivanović, which prompted the Serbian delegation to return from Brussels, where it was due to relaunch the Belgrade-Priština technical dialogue after a 13-month hiatus.
Reaching a comprehensive agreement with Kosovo is one of the prerequisites for Serbian EU membership. Kosovo’s independence, declared in 2008, has been recognised by more than 100 countries, including 23 EU member states, but not Serbia.
It is not known when the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština will resume, pending a full inquiry into the murder by the police in Kosovo.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić will visit Kosovo over the weekend of 20-21 January with the aim of “calming tensions and heartening the citizens.” Ethnic Serbs in Kosovo are a minority but have a degree of autonomy in its northern region.
Aside from the crucial chapters on the rule of law and relations with Kosovo, Serbia has plenty of other boxes to tick en route to the EU. Since the start of accession talks in 2014, Serbia has opened 12 chapters and closed two, means that it still has to open 23 more chapters and, more importantly, close all 35.
Montenegro, Serbia’s tiny southern neighbour, started accession talks in 2012 and has opened 30 chapters so far, expecting to open the remaining five this year.