The past week opened a new chapter for the relations between the European Union and Western Balkans. The European Commission recommended launching accession negotiations with both Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Now, it is up to the European Council to adopt this recommendation in its next meeting in June. On the occasion that the Council adopts it, this will add the two countries together with Montenegro and Serbia in the same group of states that are pursuing accession talks to become members of the EU. Until now, only one country from the Balkan region, Croatia has been successful in achieving membership.
Both the Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn and High Representative of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini who presented jointly the annual Enlargement package and the country reports for the Western Balkan six states plus Turkey expressed their conviction that the each are moving forward and closer to EU membership. This decision comes two months after the Commission adopted its strategy for the Western Balkans, which lends a credible enlargement perspective for the region. The strategy clearly states that the countries will have the door open to join the EU when they have undertaken the necessary reforms through a merit-based process (regatta principle).
This renewed commitment of the EU in the region comes amid a time where Turkey and Russia’s meddling has increased, attempting to put the region under their spheres of influence. In late March, Erdogan attacked Kosovo’s PM Ramush Haradinaj after the later dismissed his secret service chief and his interior minister over an operation that led to the abduction and deportation by Turkish secret service of six Turkish teachers in Kosovo linked to the Gülen movement. Moscow on the other hand attempted to discourage Montenegro from joining NATO and in recent months, Lavrov has warned against the EU, claiming that is wrong to have the Western Balkan states chose between the West or Russia.
The carrot strategy employed this time by the Commission can bring additional benefits leading to reforms in the region. This is evident in the case of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the Commission has been recommending opening accession negotiations since 2009 yet nationalistic policies and rhetoric of Gruevski proved counterproductive to its neighbourly relations, with the European Council blocking the recommendations. With the new leadership under Zoran Zaev, Skopje has been catching up for the lost time and mending the relations with its neighbours. The dispute over the country’s name is one of the most contentious issue and negotiations are under way with Greece in hope of finding a compromise.
For Albania, this is the second time that the Commission has recommended opening accession talks, albeit in 2016 this was conditional upon enacting constitutional amendments that would lead to a judicial reform. This time the progress has been recognised and rewarded by the Commission with an unconditional recommendation. The country has a lot do in terms of reforms. Rule of law, human rights, fight against corruption and organised crime as well as developing a competitive economy are crucial areas that reforming will directly benefit the country. If the European Council proceeds with giving the green light to formally open accession negotiations, the impetus for reform will deepen and the real task of fulfilling the thirty five chapters of acquis communitaire will begin.
For both countries, this is the first step on a long road of reforming – a road that in the words of the President of European Council Mr. Donald Tusk “will resemble more of a hurdles race than a motorway”. Negotiations and fulfilling the criteria will take years judging by the length of time it took Croatia, or how long it is taking Montenegro and Serbia. But in the end the countries will join when they merit it and when all conditions and criteria have been fulfilled. If not for their political class, the latest news has been the type of news that the people of their countries have been looking forward to hear as they perceive their future as being within the EU family.
Finally, this reassertion of the EU in that the Western Balkans future lies within its larger family will bring the benefit of stability. It will also promote reforms that enable socioeconomic development and ensure the rule of law if rigorously undertaken, making the political class more accountable to both its people and the EU.