By Jacob Wang (PO ’21)
In its 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, the European Union (EU) declared that “the future of the Balkans is within the European Union,” suggesting that Western Balkan nations would one day be incorporated into the EU. Fifteen years later, the European Commission’s restated the EU’s commitment to the West Balkan nations on February 6, 2018. However, Despite the EU’s continued rhetoric describing an larger European Union, besides Slovenia and Croatia’s accession to EU membership in 2004 and 2013, little progress has been made in the Balkan Peninsula for the past 15 years. This leaves Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo outside of the European Union, despite their wish to be integrated. Though the EU has an official process and set of conditions for admitting aspirants, there is little clarity regarding how to interpret these conditions, ultimately leaving the decisions to be profoundly influenced by geopolitical and economic situations.
Established by the Copenhagen European Council in 2003, the criteria for being admitted to the EU are threefold: a stable, peaceful democracy with the rule of law; a reliable market economy and the ability to integrate into the competitive EU market; and the capacity to perform the full duty as an EU member. The criteria for EU membership are far from specific, displayed by the absence of a clear definition regarding what “stable” and “functioning” entail. However, it is exactly this imprecision that enabled the EU to largely base admitting countries on their current political and economic climate.
European scholars have noticed that while the conditions for the EU accession process for the EU-10, which was when ten member states were admitted simultaneously to the EU in 2004 , were the same as for West Balkan Nations. However, the admission process for West Balkan nations has been significantly protracted comparatively.
The EU has delayed its admission to West Balkan nations because of the contentious border disputes in the Western Balkan peninsula, that have occurred since the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Although the Copenhagen Criteria did not specify the stability of national borders, the EU has paid increasing attention to border issues since the accession of Cyprus in 2004. Cyprus, a country in Eastern Mediterranean, is partitioned into two administrative regions, with the North governed by Turkish-Cypriots and the South by Greek-Cypriots.
Hoping that accession to the EU would lead to Cyprus’ unification, the Greek-Cypriots went through the application and admission process by EU without the agreement of Turkish-Cypriots. However, Cyprus remains a divided state, which burdens the EU, as they must deal with issues stemming from Cyprus’ unresolved border issue. Addressing the issue of the EU enlargement in West Balkan nations in a news conference on February 14, 2018, the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker explicitly stated that “there are many border disputes in Western Balkans and they must be resolved before we can go a step further.”
Besides concerns about territorial disputes, the EU’s deliberately prolonged response to the West Balkan nations is generally characterized as “enlargement fatigue,” as the EU politicians and citizens worry about the EU’s absorption capacity. Specifically, the EU worries that expanding the EU could compromise the institution’s economic strength and border security. The EU’s reluctance to absorb new member states intensified as the EU is itself coped with both global and european-centered economic crises. With over €297 billion ($ 364 billion) in economic support to Greece since 2015, the EU is unmotivated to take on further economic burdens. Additionally, in the latest Eurobarometer polls, 53% of the EU voters showed were against further the EU enlargement, with a perceived high level of fear of immigration from those Balkan countries.
Though the Copenhagen Agreement specifies a set process and conditions to which a European country may apply for the EU membership, the conditions lack clarity which enables the EU to interpret those conditions largely base on the current political and economic needs. Given the unresolved border disputes in West Balkan nations and the stagnant economy in parts of the EU, the prospect of Western Balkan countries joining the EU remains gloomy.