EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

  • Since the Brexit referendum, The EU has launched numerous new initiatives in order to regain momentum and show decisiveness.
  • Amongst other moves, on February 2018, the Commission published the Western Balkans Enlargement Package, which tried to break the so-called ‘enlargement fatigue’.
  • In order to reflect its commitment towards a ‘greater than 27’ EU, this document gave a date (2025) for the possible accession of Serbia and Montenegro and outlined achievable goals for the countries in order to meet this timeframe.

These goals were concluded by six flagship initiatives in areas including the rule of law, security and migration, socio-economic development, transport and energy connectivity, digital agenda, reconciliation and good relations. The document was criticised for possibly triggering divisions in the region, as it differentiates between the countries by highlighting their respective levels – and discrepancies – of their developments. This goes against what the EU should actually do in a region characterised by disputes, which may be exacerbated in the case of individual accession to the Union. As a response to this concern, the Commission has stated that ‘special arrangements and irrevocable commitments’ will be established so that new member states will not block the other candidates once they are in. The latter is not so comforting, taking into account current internal problems of the EU regarding member states’ respect -or lack thereof- of the values and norms set in the treaties.

Furthermore, reports for each individual country were released, which showed their progress in the reforms and enlargement process.

All the countries in the Western Balkans have made sustainable progress regarding reforms towards the key priorities set for them. Taking the example of Albania, there has been steady progress in all priorities.

The 2018 Report for Albania showed substantial developments in reforms of the public administration. The efficiency and transparency of public services (and of recruitment processes) has increased notably. The justice system has progressed as well, with the vetting process reaching results that ultimately serve the justice reforms. Developments on the latter have consequently had an effect in other areas, such as the fight against corruption. Corruption is repeatedly used by the EU as a weakness of Albania despite the progress reflected in the 2018 report. The report shows that anti-corruption bodies were established, and the number of convictions increased. Nevertheless, these convictions happened in junior and middle-ranking officials rather than the higher-ranking ones, which shows how deeply rooted the issue is and how much more work is still needed. On a more positive note, Albania has become a successful actor in international police cooperation, which contributes to its reforms against organised crime.

The country pays a lot of attention to international cooperation, which consequently shows in their role in regional efforts. Since Albania is part of the Council of Europe and has ratified the European Convention of Human Rights in 1996, the human rights legal framework is in line with European standards, which helps its case regarding the human rights reform. So far, Albania has progressed considerably towards the reforms and has shown persistent willingness to continue with the changes still needed.

A characteristic of Albania and other WB countries, is the eagerness of the youth to be part of the EU at the earliest date possible and the lack of euro-scepticism. This comes naturally, being raised in a double-transitional era towards capitalism and the liberal democracies that the West portrayed. In order to maintain this eagerness, the EU needs to reassure the population in Albania (and other WB countries), that their accession in the EU is feasible in the near future. The sparse progress of enlargement has shown that the EU doesn’t share the same sentiment in welcoming these countries in. Initially, 2018 seemed as it would bring the reassurance that the WB countries needed.

In May 2018, the Western Balkans Summit took place in Sofia where the EU heads of states (minus a reluctant Spain because of the Kosovo issue), and the six Western Balkans countries gathered.

The outcome of this summit was the Sofia declaration which highlighted concrete action for connectivity and security cooperation in the region. What followed was the London Summit, which aimed to focus on the Berlin Process. In fact, this Summit was overshadowed by Britain’s foreign minister Johnson’s resignation amidst Brexit negotiation strategy disputes within the UK. The enlargement package, the Sofia Summit, the London Summit as well as Tusk’s visit to the region held great significance regarding enlargement, however, they did not bring any tangible results regarding the enlargement process.

Rather, these events just affirmed that the enlargement is back on the agenda and raised further concerns within academic circles regarding the efficiency of the process and the EU’s commitment to it. The issue had been on the back-burner of the EU’s affairs for far too long, and the momentum brought by the aforementioned events should’ve been used to reach concrete action. This however, did not happen as the recommendation for Albania to open negotiations was met with opposition from France, the Netherlands and Denmark. Thus, the June 2018 Council conclusions postponed the accession talks for June 2019, if certain conditions are met regarding the reforms. The decision failed to show the needed recognition from the EU on the progress done so far and can be attributed to internal disagreements. Indeed, as with many other EU issues, one of the main challenges on the EU side are the diverging opinions within the EU member states regarding the issue. More unity regarding the issue could bring some new EU approaches to the challenges that the Western Balkans countries face and pick up the pace of the enlargement process, which is vital for the EU as well as the Western Balkans countries.

Laura Skana

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