Written by the Angelica Puntel (Working Group on Security and Defence)
FACT: On March 25th, the Council of the European Union agreed to open accession negotiations with the Republic of Albania and the Republic of North Macedonia. More recently, on May 6th, the European Union (EU), in consultation with Balkan leaders, agreed on the Zagreb declaration, reaffirming “unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans”. Such progress built on a two-year process that led North Macedonia to become on March 27th the 30th member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).
A long-awaited process between internal hurdles and external influences
As with other EU countries before, NATO membership is one of the first informal steps towards EU membership, a step indicating that the country has at least resolved all internal territorial disputes and conflicts. In fact, the Prespa agreement with Greece in 2018 cleared the path for North Macedonia, which today constitutes the 30th NATO member. The security umbrella offered by NATO effectively guarantees members will stay aligned with Western powers and offers the EU a solid base on which to build stronger political relations with the Balkans and create a more stable security environment in the region.
The EU first proposed membership status for Balkan countries in 2003. Since then, structural and internal issues within the EU, as well as international issues like the financial crisis in 2008, and doubts over the candidate countries’ progress on the specified requirements have hindered the process.
After France vetoed opening enlargement talks with North Macedonia and Albania at the EU summit last October, and common doubts about the effectiveness of the enlargement process (e.g. the continuous negotiations with Turkey), the European Commission adopted a new methodology in February. “Enhancing the accession process – A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans” aims to enhance and streamline the accession process for the Balkan countries. It condenses the current 35 negotiating categories into six thematic groups, underlines the rule of law as the centre of all thematic groups, hints at the reversibility of the process whenever progress is lacking, and strengthens member states’ political steering in what is, ultimately, a political process.
With the enlargement process progressing slowly, external actors have increasingly exerted influence in the region through hybrid warfare, conditional economic investments and debt diplomacy[8,9] and cultural propaganda. Such engagement from external actors is a foreign policy tool that contributes to the destabilization of the region’s security and hinders the integrity of regional democratic institutions. As Freedom House recently reported in its Nations in Transit 2020 report, external actors take advantage of “institutional weaknesses” to embed themselves in countries’ political and economic structures. The impact of such malign influence further discredits and weakens governance and the rule of law and creates the ideal environment for the persistence of non-democratic political forces.
A European “open door policy”
Recent actions taken by European institutions aim to reinstate the credibility of the enlargement process and the EU’s will to keep an open door. If such a process were to be further hindered, the EU will likely face three main risks:
- population’s fatigue in interacting with the West on such a time-consuming project, which is already developing in some countries, such as Serbia;
- strengthening of nationalist influences exploiting political and societal uncertainty and fuelling instability;
- external powers, such as Russia, China, Turkey, and the Gulf States increasing political and economic influence in the region.
As President-elect of the EU Commission Ursula von der Leyen stated that “our door remains open”, thus presenting an ‘open door policy’ à la NATO as part of a ‘geopolitical commission’ that is called to act in a world where “too many powers only speak the language of confrontation and unilateralism.” Within this context, the enlargement project needs to be considered not only as an economic, democratic and societal opportunity for candidate countries and the EU, but as a geopolitical and security investment as well.
If the ongoing process is supported by proactive and committed EU and Balkan countries within a realistic timeframe, the EU will provide regional powers with the tools to fend off any malign external political and economic influence that endangers their domestic security and democracy, thus enhancing the unity and security of the overall region and the EU. As Von der Leyen underlined, “we [the EU] can be the shapers of a better global order”.
 Council of the European Union (2020), Council conclusions on enlargement and stabilisation and association process – Albania and Republic of North Macedonia, available at https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2020/03/25/council-conclusions-on-enlargement-and-stabilisation-and-association-process/
 European Council (2020), Zagreb Declaration 6 May, 2020, available at https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2020/05/06/zagreb-declaration-6-may-2020/
 NATO (2020), North Macedonia joins NATO as 30th Ally, available at https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_174589.htm
Currently, of the Balkans countries, Serbia and Montenegro are candidate countries, while Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s are potential candidate countries.
 The European Council declared that Turkey sufficiently met criteria for opening accession negotiations with the EU in 2004; effective talks began in October 2005. As of May 2019, Turkey is still a candidate country.
 European Western Balkans (2020), New enlargement methodology officially endorsed by the Member States, available at https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2020/03/27/new-enlargement-methodology-officially-endorsed-by-the-member-states/
 Stronski Paul and Himes Annie (2019), Russia’s game in the Balkans, available at https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/02/06/russia-s-game-in-balkans-pub-78235
 Junicic Karla and Michalopoulos Sarantis (2019), Chinese Balkans investments disrupt EU objectives, Commission warns, available at https://www.euractiv.com/section/china/news/chinese-balkans-investments-disrupt-eu-objectives-commission-warns/
 Bartlett Will, Ker-Lindsay James, Alexander Kristian and Prelec Tena (2015), UAE policies towards the Western Balkans: investment motives and impact, available at https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mec/2015/11/27/uae-policies-towards-the-western-balkans-investment-motives-and-impacts/
 Palickova Agata (2019), Turkey, Russia and China covet Western Balkans as EU puts enlargement on hold, available at https://www.euractiv.com/section/enlargement/news/turkey-russia-and-china-covet-western-balkans-as-eu-puts-enlargement-on-hold/
 Freedom house (2020), Nations in Transit 2020 – Dropping the Democratic Facade, available at https://freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2020/dropping-democratic-facade
 European Commission (2019), Speech by President-elect von der Leyen in the European Parliament Plenary on the occasion of the presentation of her College of Commissioners and their Programme, available at https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/SPEECH_19_6408