EU enlargement in 2021: Moribund or revenant?

Enlargement lookahead 2021. [Shutterstock/Lucky Team Studio]

This article is part of our special report What to expect in EU policy in 2021?.

In the Western Balkans, where all EU hopefuls (bar Turkey) are located, the year ahead will be dominated by Europe’s quest for a vaccine and efforts to restart the economy in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

No significant breakthrough is expected in terms of the EU’s enlargement agenda this year. But the EU’s ability to assuage the region’s feelings of vaccine abandonment will be crucial for keeping the bloc’s credibility in the Western Balkans.

From Belgrade to Tirana, vaccinations and economic revival will be key to political progress. Unless both succeed, continued flight of skilled labour to the West is likely to open up space for governments with authoritarian appetites to manoeuvre and hold on to power. Depleted from the most economically active part of their populations, Western Balkan countries would be easy prey to populists.

The European Commission recently agreed to add €70 million for the Western Balkans on top of the €500 million it has already contributed to COVAX, a global vaccine procurement agency.

Judging by public attitudes, however, this effort risks being insufficient.

Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – home to some 20 million people – are struggling to get access to COVID-19 vaccines and are set to lag far behind the EU’s vaccination efforts.

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Energy security and geopolitics

On the economic front, energy security will continue to reflect international power play.

In BiH, public authorities edged closer to winning in court against the EU-backed Energy Community in a case concerning a loan guarantee needed to borrow €614 million from China to construct a coal-fired power plant, bne Intellinews reported.

On 1 January, the first American gas reached Croatia’s LNG Terminal on the island of Krk.

Simultaneously, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić launched the Serbian section of the Balkan Stream pipeline that will carry Russian gas near the city of Novi Sad, north of Belgrade.

It is unclear how the latter chimes with the Washington agreement on economic relations between Serbia and Kosovo that includes a clause on energy diversification with a view to decreasing reliance on Russia.

Serbia opens Russian-Turkish gas project portion

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić on Friday (1 January) opened a portion of a Russian gas project running through his country and hailed it as key for the security of its energy supply.

US election fallout

Expect much ado, arguably about little, with the change in US administration. Bosniaks in BiH are hoping that president-elect Joe Biden will tip the political balance in their favour, as do the Kosovar Albanians. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who was cheering for Trump, is likely to be less enthusiastic.

After a three-year hiatus, the EU-led Belgrade-Pristina dialogue was restarted in 2020 and made some progress on economic cooperation. But the sticky issues of financial claims and status of minorities are obstructing a comprehensive legally-binding agreement to normalise relations.

In Montenegro, observers will watch closely as the new government takes over from its predecessor who ruled the country for the last 30 years. However, the political change of wind may be short lived as the economic consequences of the pandemic increases the country’s risk of default, fuelled by fears that tourists may not return to support the ailing finances of Podgorica.

The economic woes of the multiethnic country, in turn, could open up the door for further instability and influence of Serbia.

Elections ahead

2021 also promises to be a worthy sequel to the 2020 electoral nail-biters.

Kosovo heads into 2021 facing new general elections after two governments fell consecutively last year as a result of a no-confidence vote and a court decision that left the country without an executive before the holidays. It remains to be seen whether a more stable government not led by former war heroes is in the offing.

In Albania, the European Commission praised the country’s efforts last year to pass electoral reforms, which were seen as a pre-condition for starting EU accession talks. But the EU was less than enthusiastic to hear about the constitutional changes pushed through by the ruling Socialists, which the opposition said were politically motivated. Things will hopefully clear up after the parliamentary elections on April 25, and maybe before, if the opposition decides not to participate. Either way, the EU is set to watch closely.

North Macedonia, on the other hand, remains on a fast path to joining the EU, despite delays caused by Bulgaria’s veto. The Portuguese EU presidency is unlikely to be as motivated as Germany in its efforts to untie the Gordian knot of common history between Skopje and Sofia.

The Bulgarian veto also affects Albania, because EU countries treat Skopje and Tirana as a package. That plays in the hands of Western EU countries like France, whose public opinion have grown sceptical about EU enlargement.

In Bosnia, expect to see the migration problem and associated rights abuses, especially on the Croatian-Bosnian border, to continue as a pattern of an incompetent administration.

International attention fading

Overall, interest in the Western Balkans is fading on the international stage and is nowhere near the previous level of attention the region used to attract in the aftermath of the secession wars of the 1990s.

Similarly, the region’s international clout is likely overestimated by its own inhabitants. To quote Dr Thomas Brey, former chief of Germany’s press agency DPA in Belgrade: “I got the impression that foreign interest in the Balkan region has decreased dramatically. Today, the Balkans is a region for historians, scientists and journalists who specialise [in it].”

“I think that the countries of Southeast Europe, and above all the journalists there, but of course also politicians, have a big problem because they misjudge themselves – they have a very centrist view of the world. Even intellectuals, well-educated people think that the whole world revolves around Serbia or Croatia,” he added.

More than ever, the Western Balkan’s future development and EU accession process appears to be into its own hands. If it fails to seize the opportunity, the EU’s already moribund enlargement process is likely to fall a little more into oblivion.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon and Georgi Gotev]

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