EU Western Balkan Strategy Sparks Controversy Among Balkan States

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Earlier this week, the European Commission launched its long-awaited Western Balkan strategy on EU enlargement. Its purpose is to speed up progress on the tasks the six countries need to achieve before joining the EU.

On 7 February, the conference “The Western Balkan strategy – clearing the path towards EU accession”, held in Belgrade, addressed once more the performance of the countries of the region, stressing again the fact that the Western Balkans have a European perspective, but underneath it created the idea that Serbia and Montenegro are supposed to join the EU bloc earlier than other countries. Such a thing stirred controversial opinions among other Balkan leaders, who maintain the document does not reflect an equal accession perspective for the six countries.

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According to the European Commission, the strategy applies to all six Western Balkan countries, which should accelerate reforms and build good neighbourly relations. Progress will continue to be based on individual achievements of each country. No country that is ready to join will have to wait for the others to progress. The European Commissioner Johannes Hahn states no one should stick to concrete dates. The strategy is only a message to West Balkan countries that the EU perspective is achievable. He addressed Balkan leaders to speak “European” and try to overcome problems by using a normal tone. The strategy clarifies the final goals: rule of law, economic development, connection, reconciliation, good neighbourly relations, on whose 57 concrete proposed measures must be implemented by all states to go ahead.

The EU officials continue to stress that the enlargement progress is considered in favour of both sides, to ensure security, stability and peace on the continent. Also, the growing influence of Russia and China in the Western Balkans may make it more difficult for the EU to spread its power in the region.

However, the fact that Serbia and Montenegro are seen as favored leaders in the integration process, and that there has been given an indicative time frame for them, that is by 2023 the entire process has to be completed and in 2025 they will be part of EU, have caused dissatisfaction for the rest of the West Balkans-Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and especially Kosovo, which is far behind the others. Long-term disputes between Serbia and Kosovo make it difficult to progress not only for Kosovo, but also for Serbia. Serbia is seen as a favorite and the dispute is not considered to hinder Serbia’s progress towards EU accession.

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The Belgrade conference stressed that the EU is ready to mediate between countries that have a difficult past relationship, like Serbia and Kosovo. Both countries must adopt a legally binding agreement on the normalization of their relationship before accession. The strategy gives a European perspective to Kosovo as well, according to EU officials, as the EU will not accept any new members without resolving prior bilateral issues.

The diplomatic push is expected to come in May at the Sofia Summit, where EU leaders will meet their West Balkan counterparts. Until then, the WB countries know they have to behave themselves.

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