For years Russia has been lurking in the shadows. It preys on unresolved conflicts
in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and even North Macedonia. Vladimir Putin
maintains a strong relationship with Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia’s president, while the
actions of Bulgaria’s President Rumen Radev are conducive to Russia’s interests in
Continuing with business as usual would be a strategic mistake. It would mean
sleepwalking to disaster.
EU leaders need to seize the watershed moment and think big. In the Western
Balkans that means taking swift and decisive action to relaunch the enlargement
process. It needs to do this not just for the sake of the six non-EU Balkan states
(Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and
Serbia) but in order to boost the security of Europe as a whole.
The EU integration of the Western Balkans needs to be understood as a win-win
for all and this paper seeks to explain why it is crucial to restore lost momentum in
the enlargement process.
To many it is clear why EU membership would be good for the Western Balkan Six
(WB6) but unclear why it would be good for the EU and its member states. The
answers are simple:
First, the process of membership can resolve once and for all chronic, instability-
causing issues that the Kremlin can and does encourage for its own purposes and
which, if not solved, will create new problems for the EU in a region that it entirely
Secondly, the process can be leveraged to find solutions as the EU seeks to
reform itself and make itself fit for purpose post-Ukraine, post-Brexit, post-Covid
and so on.
The EU also needs to restore political will with regard to the Western Balkans,
Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia as a self-defence mechanism. By making concrete
steps to show these countries that they are as much part of the common
European home as Portugal and Poland it can help avert anti-EU
counter-narratives, disillusionment and future frustrations.
Our proposals should serve as a basis for further discussion. This paper builds
on ideas made by a number of think tanks to reinvigorate the enlargement
The accession process is bust...
The credibility of the current EU enlargement process in the Western Balkans is at
an historic low.
Its theoretical merit-based process no longer rewards reformers. Serious EU
action against the backsliding of democracy in the Balkans is lacking because of
Instead, the accession process is often kept hostage by the vetoes of individual
member states which are utterly unrelated to the economic and democratic
conditions that supposedly govern the process. This in turn means it is becoming
almost impossible to reach a consensus among the EU-27. The blocking of North
Macedonia starting accession talks by Bulgaria is a case in point.
Precisely in the name of those democratic conditions, urged by French President
Emmanuel Macron, the EU modified its accession methodology to make the process
more credible, more dynamic and predictable. Three years later however, President
Macron’s vision for the Western Balkans operationalized in the new methodology, is
yet to be put in motion and the EU’s power of attraction is in freefall.
The EU and its member states need to focus on a visionary and pragmatic cost–
benefit analysis as a rational basis for the revitalisation of the enlargement process.
For years European Commission reports monitoring the progress of reforms in the
Western Balkan have made clear that Albania and North Macedonia are ready to
open accession negotiations. Continuous delays risk creating competing visions
for the future. The EU’s competitors in the region provide alternative sources of
financing and with them come alternative geopolitical visions.
The EU’s lost credibility in the Western Balkans has ramifications for Ukraine,
Georgia and Moldova. The credibility of the EU’s commitment to the European
aspirations of these new applicants will depend entirely on the ability of the
enlargement process to deliver tangible results for those who have already been
working towards it for years.
Indeed, the Western Balkan countries were promised a “European perspective” as
far back as 2000.iii “Do your reforms and you will join” was the deal.
So, Ukrainians, Georgians and Moldovans face disappointment and disillusion
with the EU unless it quickly breathes life back into the process for the Western
It is in the EU’s self-interest to revitalise the enlargement process because the
Western Balkans are a crucial element of Europe’s security.
Thanks to geography, the stability, security and democratic resilience of the
Western Balkans are inextricably linked to the EU’s own stability, security and
Faced with an ongoing war of territorial conquest in Ukraine and hence an all-out
assault against the European security order, it is in the EU’s strategic interest to
anchor all like-minded countries by having them adhere to its vision of a rules-
The EU can do this only by jump-starting the stalled accession process of like-
minded Western Balkan countries. If the EU cannot secure the countries that it
entirely surrounds it will never achieve either strategic autonomy or manage to
play a global role.
The Western Balkans is the missing puzzle in Europe’s jigsaw for creating an
integrated and coherent geopolitical space.
The coming energy, food and trade crises cannot be solved by the EU in isolation
from its regional partners. Boosting interconnectedness in every way, from
building pipelines to improving transport infrastructure has become vital, not just
for the aspiring countries, but for the EU.
The importance of Adriatic ports is being underscored by the blockade of Odessa
and other ports in the Black Sea, as we all scramble to identify alternative export
routes through the Black Sea, the Baltic and the Adriatic. The potential for LNG
imports via the same entry points is equally significant in view of imminent
diversification away from Russia.
As EU member states weigh these options, they cannot afford to yield control of
strategic infrastructure to China, Russia or the Gulf states, nor should they allow
Turkey a free hand in large infrastructure projects in the Western Balkans.
Simply put, any vision and planning for the EU’s strategic autonomy and European
sovereignty will be seriously undermined if that crucial for European security
space of the Western Balkans remains up for geopolitical grabs. It is essential for
the EU to keep geopolitical competitors or adversaries out of the region that is, to
quote president Macron, “in the heart of Europe”.
But EU-Western Balkan integration can act as a catalyst for the Union’s own
internal reforms too.
The popular-in-the-past idea that the EU’s widening prevented deepening and
reform is obsolete. Successive crises have pushed the agenda of EU deepening
far beyond what was imaginable only a few years ago.
Examples include the economic union following the 2008 global financial crisis,
diversifying types of CSDP missions deployed following the explosion of conflicts
and instability in its southern neighbourhood, and the strengthening of migration
and security policy tools and institutions following the 2015 migration crisis. Back
in the 1990s and 2000s, the EU always made serious steps in deepening and
reform in parallel with enlargement.
Thus, enlargement is no longer the challenge to EU reform that it was once
portrayed as. Instead revitalising the enlargement process will present member
states with an unprecedented opportunity for far-reaching reforms within the EU.
France, Germany and other pro-reform EU member states are right to want to turn
the perceived “threat from enlargement” into an “opportunity for reform”. They
can use the issue of membership perspectives to counter illiberal and anti-reform
forces within the EU.
The leaders of EU member states are certainly conscious of the link between the
war in Ukraine and the imperative to geopolitically secure the Western Balkans.
But the reform and institutional upgrading of the Union will not happen despite
enlargement, but also because of it.
A realistic accession scenario for the WB6 offers unparalleled opportunities for
pro-reform member states to curb intra-EU resistance to major institutional
and policy shake-up. The proposal to grant new member states qualified
majority voting rights but no veto powers upon accession in anticipation of and
conditioned upon streamlining the whole decision-making of the Union is a point
in question.iv The dichotomy between the pro-enlargement and pro-EU reform
camps is false and should be rejected.
Planning for energy sovereignty requires regional stability and reliable
partnerships based on common rules and values between the EU and its
neighbours. The same goes for alternative trade routes and comprehensive
arrangements for dealing with irregular migration and environmental threats, all
aggravated these days by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. When it comes to Russia,
let us not lose sight of one thing: The stakes for Russia are not to destabilise the
EU’s neighbourhood, but to thwart the interests of the EU and ultimately its own
The long-held idea that the EU should not “import problems” into the Union via
enlargement should also be seen as obsolete.
Illiberal client states in the Western Balkans will undermine European security even
if left outside the EU. Simply put, good neighbours make good neighbourhoods. If
left outside the EU, Western Balkan countries influenced by illiberal ideas and by
friends of the EU’s opponents, both within the EU and outside it, will make Europe
a less safe and less progressive place.
Democracy and European values are a threat to illiberals and autocrats.
Nature abhors a vacuum; if progressive and liberal Europeans create one then
governance, geopolitics, security and defence are all spaces that will be occupied
by illiberal Europeans and the EU’s enemies and competitors. This struggle is one
that has for years has already been well under way in the Western Balkans.
By reinvigorating democratic reform, by facilitating foreign and security policy
alignment, by making real once more the idea that Western Balkan countries are
welcome as new member states, the EU will suck the oxygen from competing and
malign illiberal influences.
The time to act is now.
Six to fix: Six fixes for the
Western Balkan Six
Granting Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia an accession perspective will send shock
waves through the existing enlargement process. But simply using an already
failing template for them would only result in stagnation and frustration in both
regions. In order to deliver positive outcomes, the process must become more
flexible, dynamic and rewarding. Adjusting the existing methodology to the new
challenges should be based on the following principles:
1. A relentless focus on the fundamentals – rule of law, democratic standards,
and economic reforms - in order to promote progress in governance and
prevent backsliding. This principle is present in the new methodology just
as it was in the previous one under which Serbia and Montenegro started
the negotiations. However, practice has shown that the Commission and
member states often turn a blind eye with regard to implementation. The
recent record of some member states in these areas also renders the focus on
fundamentals even more difficult, as the perception is that countries such as
Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and others are worse than the candidates. Inclusion
in the EU monitoring mechanisms such as the Rule of Law report, EU justice
scoreboard, the European Semester and others in order to counter the
perception that enlargement risks diluting democratic standards in the EU. This
will allow the candidate countries the opportunity to not only compete between
themselves but to compare themselves with the best performers in the EU
while detecting their reforms shortcoming and pitfalls.
2. The gradual phasing-in of candidate countries in various sectors of EU
integration would build institutional capacity and promote cooperation and
trust between candidates and member states. The Commission, in coordination
with member states and accession countries, should work towards bold
proposals for phasing-in EU policies which would be of mutual interest to all,
for example the Fit for 55 package on the energy and green transitions. While
this already exists in the new methodology and draft negotiation frameworks
for North Macedonia and Albania, a clearer defining of gradual phasing-in
will provide timely incentives to reform. An example of this could be the
Participation in the EU internal market as a priority interim objective for all
interested accession countries. Regardless of their status, once countries
align with economic policies regulating the internal market cluster and the
economic criteria and associated chapters within the fundamental cluster, as
well as comply with the necessary economic standards, the reward should be
to participate in the internal market as full members. This could be one of the
phasing-in policies for those that have not started accession negotiations yet.
3. Increase socialisation (including financial) in European institutions:
Fulfilment of precise criteria and standards in specific sectors should be
rewarded with targeted financial support from the funds now reserved for
EU member states. Likewise, this can be enhanced with candidate country
participation in the capacity of observers with a right to contribute to
discussions, however, without voting rights to meetings of the Council and its
bodies in specific policy areas. Greater alignment within a chapter or a cluster
would translate into greater funds and a seat at the table. Foreign policy
alignment is very important in the current circumstances; however, it has
its costs. Moving beyond the values arguments, these actions of alignment
produce a burden that should be shared in solidarity. Having a seat at the
table would also help the socialisation of officials from the region into the EU’s
4. Earlier access to structural funds to reduce the gap in financial support
between candidates and member states and promote socio-economic
convergence. The Western Balkans is the one of the most socio-economically
underdeveloped parts of Europe. An earlier and gradual increase of financial
support would lead to earlier socio-economic development benefits. This in
turn would reduce the region’s reliance on Chinese sources of finance that are
in effect indebting the countries. In addition, improved implementation of rules
and procedures regulating EU structural funds would strengthen the region’s
absorption capacities well in advance of their accession.
5. Elevate foreign and security conditionality to an equal footing with the current
focus on the fundamentals. This would also mean applying the equilibrium
principle to the external relations cluster. In the new geopolitical environment,
the fundamentals and external relations should be the two pillars that determine
progress and/or backsliding in the accession process or eventual closer
association. Advanced and comprehensive CFSP coordination should include
three inter-linked components that together converge to an elevated status
in the conditionality and accession process: 1) A foreign and security policy
component focusing on alignment with the EU on key foreign policy decisions.
2) Soft security and advanced cooperation in specific policy areas, such as
border security, energy, cybersecurity and, 3) a defence cooperation component
focusing on implementing roadmaps for alignment and gradual inclusion of
candidate states into EU defence cooperation platforms and institutions, such as
the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).
6. Streamlining the decision-making process on enlargement in order to
reduce the number of vetoes. Without qualified majority voting introduced in
the EU enlargement process, thus in the application of the new methodology,
enlargement would be endlessly blocked by a single disappointed or
extortionary driven member state. Unanimity in the accession process gives
an easy excuse to member states to halt enlargement because of bilateral
disputes or their own domestic politics, especially when it comes from member
states with disputed track records on democracy and the rule of law. The need
to protect and, at the same time streamline the decision-making process
against the abusive use of veto powers is imperative. Introducing qualified
majority voting in the Council — 55 percent of member states representing
at least 65 percent of the EU population — for all intermediary stages of
EU accession negotiations to validate the progress of a candidate country
would make the process fairer and more effective. A decision on admitting a
candidate country into the EU would still require unanimity.
Let’s all go to Paris!
President Macron’s proposal for organising a Conference on the Western
Balkans under the French presidency constitutes a golden opportunity for the
EU to reinforce its strategic cooperation with the Western Balkans. This would
consequently further enhance EU strategic autonomy.
The idea of creating a European political community responds to the wartime need
to unify the continent strategically. The Conference should unequivocally affirm
that this strategic circle would be fully complementary with EU enlargement.
Members of the European political community can pursue their goals, which in the
case of the WB means full membership of the EU.
To help foster a policy and public debate on the Western Balkans EU accession
process, establish a Western Balkans hub within a Paris-based institution and
create a fellowship program facilitating an exchange between Western Balkan
CSOs and think tanks and French organisations.
The technicalities of the process are not decisive in determining the fate of the
Western Balkan countries’ accession to the EU. Process cannot be more important
than results. It is the political will of EU member states to push these countries
forward towards accession that is key.
Therefore, this paper provides arguments for restoring it in the wake of Russia’s
invasion of Ukraine. It also outlines key principles on which the process would
deliver results. The existing EU accession toolbox allows these principles to be
incorporated with only moderate tweaking of the current rules and procedures.
Incorporating these principles in the process does not require treaty change.
In politics, timing is everything. The moment is now and the circumstances are
ripe. The EU was built on the ruins of a continent devastated by the Second
World War. More than two decades on since the Yugoslav civil wars, the EU
needs a renewed and energetic push for integration that would re-energise
the enlargement process with countries of the Western Balkans. This would
consequently further enhance the EU’s strategic autonomy.
 i The same goes for EU foreign policy statement and positions on China.
Serbia’s overall alignment with CFSP is below 50%, by far the worst in the
 ii European Stability Initiative, “Hamster in the Wheel. Credibility and EU Balkan
Policy”, January 2020. LINK
 Michael Emerson et al., “A template for Staged
Accession to the EU”, Centre for European Policy Studies and European
Policy Centre Belgrade, October 2021. LINK
Cvijic and Adnan Cerimagic, “Rebuilding Our House Of Cards: With More
Glue”, Institute for Democracy and Institute for Human Sciences (Europe’s
Fellows programme), November 2020. LINK
iii The first time the Balkans’ European perspective was promised was
at the Zagreb Summit of 2000: LINK
 This proposal was first made by Srdjan Cvijic and Adnan Cerimagic
in “Rebuilding Our House Of Cards: With More Glue” (see endnote
ii) and with Zoran Nechev LINK