This year’s French veto of North Macedonia’s and Albania’s accession negotiations has significantly changed the context for resolving bilateral problems in the Western Balkans. After the summit, France submitted its proposal for a new model for enlargement, one that retains the promise of full EU membership. Despite this, the enlargement process remains set to be significantly slower over the next few years.
In terms of border demarcation issues, across the Western Balkans it is unlikely that parties involved in such disputes will succeed in resolving, or even attempt to, resolve these issues without the clear incentive of EU accession. In any case, it is often true that such countries can largely live with some of the disputes that the EU would otherwise demand they sort out. Even some EU member states have undefined maritime borders with each other, such as Greece and Italy, and Romania and Bulgaria; although in earlier rounds of accession the EU was less stringent about resolving such matters. It is likely, for example, that Croatia and Montenegro could rub along with their border dispute for some time to come. Many countries would not even put unresolved border demarcation issues on the agenda in the short term, simply because they are not pressing when compared to other, competing issues.
Nevertheless, given they have made clear they wish to see such matters brought to a conclusion, the European Commission and European Council can, and should, still play a role. Each can help in the first step of ensuring that these disputes are put on the agenda. Member states can encourage this too. In the early 2000s, Western Balkan countries at loggerheads over particular issues set up bilateral committees to address them, but these have mostly lain inactive in the recent period. They should reactivate these committees. In some contexts, such as between Croatia and Montenegro, adopting a mutually acceptable decision would be mainly a technical exercise, only taking the parties to come together and work out the details.
In other contexts, the process would be more challenging because of bitter political disagreements, such as between Croatia and Serbia. Settling the borders of Bosnia with its neighbours would in principle also be a mere technical task, but it is complicated by internal disagreements within Bosnia’s institutions, which have proved unable to come to a unified position. Agreeing on the maritime border between Albania and Greece is also now currently more difficult in the face of the recent hardening of positions in both capitals. Though some of these problems do not require immediate, direct intervention, careful monitoring by EU member states will still be of value. Such monitoring can inform the EU’s and member states’ decisions about when and how to hold Western Balkan governments to account, especially if they move to stoke tensions with neighbours, or backtrack on previous commitments on bilateral issues.
However, without the power of EU integration conditionality, some relations could deteriorate as governments or opposition forces more readily exploit issues with neighbours to boost their own nationalist credentials. The relationships between Greece and North Macedonia and between Serbia and Kosovo are currently the most at risk of deteriorating. Among some of the problems most in need of attention are, for example, the EU’s failure to open membership negotiations with North Macedonia, which could hamper the successful implementation of the Prespa Agreement. Any postponement of EU accession talks is problematic because the implementation of the agreement is linked to the EU negotiation process.
It is also difficult to imagine the Belgrade-Pristina negotiations advancing without the promise of EU membership. It is clearly the most important incentive for Serbia. For Kosovo, visa liberalisation and increased funding from the EU could act as direct incentives, while the strongest motivation for Kosovo is to win full recognition as a sovereign state with a UN seat. The process has not been going well lately but, without the hope of joining the EU, Serbia is unlikely to be more cooperative than it is now. Meanwhile, the situation between Serbia and Montenegro is delicate, especially the problems surrounding the operation of the SOC in Montenegro. In this context, it is important that the EU and its member states take into account the challenges the Montenegrin government is facing. In case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the EU and its member states could also urge the country to establish functional relations with Kosovo. Bosnia should sign agreements with Kosovo similar to those Kosovo has concluded with Serbia, such as on the free movement of people and recognition of identity cards. The agreements with Serbia could provide the blueprint for this.
The solution to most bilateral issues relating to Albania and Greece is linked to the application of rule of law, such as property rights or minority rights. Disagreement over the maritime border between Albania and Greece remains among the most sensitive in the region, but settling this has been more of a priority for Greece than for Albania. But, without the process of EU negotiations to force the issue, Albania may well prove unmotivated to address this matter, or to make compromises on it. Albania may also be less motivated to address the problems of the Greek minority, which is a top priority for Greece. The EU could help breathe new life into the process by encouraging Albania to continue negotiations and finalise a deal with Greece.
All this being said, some problems could simply disappear as direct EU concerns if a country loses its membership perspective entirely and current member states also lose their power over non-member states. For instance, it would be much harder for Bulgaria to put pressure on North Macedonia over historical and cultural issues if the latter were to drift further from EU integration processes. Should this not happen, however, the EU and member states should call on the two sides to work out a consensus on both the name of the country and the name of its language to relieve tensions with Bulgaria. This should follow the example of the solution found in NATO, and the EU could encourage this by facilitating bilateral discussions and proposing this solution.
The EU generally shies away from micromanaging bilateral disputes in the Western Balkans, and in the resolution of individual problems the EU hardly involves itself directly at all. However, the conditionality of EU integration, which directs candidate countries to sort out their disagreements with neighbours, serves as the strongest incentive to address these controversies and bring lasting peace and stability to the Western Balkans. In this sense, the perspective of EU integration remains the most important security instrument the EU has in the region, the benefits of which could be lost by halting or slowing down the enlargement process. The EU may be on the brink of fundamentally reforming its enlargement policy. As it does so, the – numerous – opportunities that could be forgone in resolving disputes in the Western Balkans should figure high among its considerations.
‚The Power of Perspective: Why EU Membership Still Matters in the Western Balkans‘ – Policy Brief by Beáta Huszka – European Council on Foreign Relations / ECFR.