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So far, so good

Daniel Serwer

February 6, 2018



The European Commission today announced its new strategy for the Western Balkans: “A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement.”

That’s good news. The non-EU members of the Western Balkans are floundering. Autocratic impulses, Russian trouble-making, and Chinese cash are loosening the region’s attachment to liberal democratic values and commitment to joining the European Union, which has become far more difficult after a long recession, the migrant crisis, Greece’s financial debacle, and rising rule of law requirements. Anything that increases the credibility of the enlargement perspective should be welcomed, both in the region and in Washington.

Does the EU announcement portend real improvements or substantial acceleration in the enlargement process? The proof will be in the pudding, but the answer for the moment has to be yes. Brussels now says it will be able to admit its first new members by 2025, which means they would have to qualify fully by 2023 in order to allow two years for ratification in national parliaments.

Montenegro and Serbia are leading the regatta at the moment, based on the number of chapters of the acquis communautaire already under negotiation. Kosovo is in the rear, not yet having achieved candidacy status. But the announcement makes it clear each country will in principle qualify on its own without any pre-ordained order. It also underlines the importance of settling issues with neighbors, which means Serbia will have to come to terms with Kosovo sooner rather than later in order to take advantage of its leading position in the regatta.

The European Commission announcement includes an indication of priority areas for 2018-20:

rule of law, security and migration, socio-economic development, transport and energy connectivity, digital agenda, reconciliation and good neighbourly relations.


This too is good, as it tells gives the Western Balkan countries a pretty clear idea of what they need to work on. There are really no surprises here: rule of law has been at the top of Brussels’ concerns since what is now regarded as the premature admission of Bulgaria and Romania, the migrant crisis has preoccupied many EU members for several years, connecting the Balkans to the rest of the EU with transport and energy infrastructure is a real and pressing need, and the “digital agenda” presumably includes cyberdefense as well as improving internet performance in the region.

Reconciliation and good neighborly relations are still big challenges in the Western Balkans, the former inside Bosnia and Herzegovina and the latter between Kosovo and Serbia. The Spanish are said to have drawn a red line at Kosovo’s entry into the EU as a sovereign state, apparently due to Madrid’s own concerns about Catalonian independence. That is terrible, since Belgrade has already accepted in principle that it and Pristina will qualify separately for EU membership, which is available only to sovereign states. Madrid’s position will encourage Belgrade’s intransigence.

But I am also told that Spain has indicated it will accept whatever solution Pristina and Belgrade come up with. I hope to see them do that sooner rather than later. If Belgrade waits until just before EU accession, it can be forced to accept whatever the most Pristina-friendly government in the EU decides. If Pristina waits, it runs the risk of seeing Belgrade accede to the EU without a satisfactory resolution of the issue.

That’s all for now. The EU does not seem to have posted yet the full strategy paper. I look forward to reading it and commenting in more detail in the future. But so far, so good.

PS: This is the full enlargement strategy paper, in what appears to be a near-final draft. Has anyone seen the final yet?



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