“We have to deliver and keep our promises”, the new President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen made clear in talking to Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic at the launch of his country’s first presidency of the Council of the European Union. Her reference is to the summit in Thessaloniki of 2003, when the EU committed to enlargement to the Balkan region. In the meanwhile, much has changed, even the name of the region. Since 2013, when Croatia entered the Union, the Balkans became “Western”. But the major change took place right before von der Leyen’s statement, at last October’s European Council, that failed to open negotiation talks for Albania and North Macedonia. Two countries that more than others have been committed to – and changed towards – the EU in the last twenty years, as shown in the new name adopted by Skopje.
The failure was the result of French President Emmanuel Macron’s veto to open the enlargement procedure to these two Balkan states. According to him, the enlargement process – and the EU in general – first needs to be reformed.
Macron’s non – “an historic mistake”, according to former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker – is the expression of a more state-centered European Union. The single member states are stronger than the togetherness the EU as a whole has achieved in the last twenty years.
Moreover, since the 2000s, EU neighbourood policy has become more and more geopolitical, in particular after the war in Georgia in 2008 and after the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014. And in the Balkans, simultaneously to the EU integration process, the countries of the region have been in the cross-fire of regional geopolitics, developing economic and political relations with other international actors. The uncertainty around EU prospectives for the region cannot but further stimulate this process. As a matter of fact, Russia has been presenting itself as a political alternative to Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, as the only two Balkan countries that are not members of NATO. Therefore, the region shall be a target of the EU geopolitical thrust, as this was promoted by von der Leyen in her inaugural address. But not according to Macron, who is concerned about this region because of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a "time-bomb that's ticking right next to Croatia", as he declared in an interview for The Economist, fearing the return of jihadists in this country.
However, a stop-and-go engagement of the EU could lead to a further political destabilization in the Balkans. The example of (North) Macedonia is paramount. The country applied for EU membership in 2004, on the backdrop of the big enlargement to Eastern Europe. And yet, 15 years have not been enough time to even open negotiation talks. In this time, the country suffered Greece’s veto on the use of its name, obliging Skopje to understand its own identity as the main obstacle for its foreign policy’s longstanding goals: entering the EU and NATO. In 2018, the now-outgoing Macedonian government succeeded in signing the Prespa Agreement with Greece: a historic success of bilateral diplomacy in a region where it had mainly failed in the last twenty years. The adoption of the new name opened NATO’s doors to Skopje, while the EU’s remained locked. Beside the loss of credibility with EU officials, what is the message sent to the other Western Balkan countries? How can such lack of compensation incentivate Belgrade and Pristina to go back to normalization of the relations that the same European Union has been mediating in the last seven years?
To answer these questions, others are to be asked. For instance, will the eventual, new reform of the enlargement process also concern Montenegro and Serbia – that the Commission defined “frontrunners” in the region’s EU integration as they have already opened several negotiating chapters? In other words, will the EU change the game rules even for those players who are closer to the finish line?
Some of these questions will hopefully be answered at the EU-Western Balkans Summit, to be held next May in Zagreb.
Croatia – which before entering the EU in 2013 used to be considered as Balkan as the other former Yugoslav republics – is actually living its most European time, for the first time holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. The opportunity is bivalent: making this role more than symbolic, and – consequently – contributing to the stabilization of the region to which Croatia used to belong.
Next year, the promises made in Thessaloniki will turn eighteen: the region is maturing, but betrayed hopes could lead to long-lasting destructive effects. For the Balkans, it’s time to get out of the friendzone.