Left Out in the Cold: Whither EU Enlargement to Western Balkans?

Written by | Friday, September 10th, 2021

European Union leaders are planning to repeat old promises to Western Balkan states at an upcoming summit, but enlargement is going nowhere for now owing to national elections and immigration fears in EU, which augur badly for the region on the bloc’s southeaster flank. “The EU reaffirms its unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkans … which is in our mutual strategic interest and remains our shared strategic choice,” the EU is planning to say in Brdo, Slovenia, on 6 October, according to a draft declaration. This is despite the fact that Slovenia had pledged to give special attention to the debate about Western Balkan’s integration into the EU during the six months that it is holding the presidency of the EU Council. The EU-Western Balkans Summit that will be hosted by Ljubljana next month, attended by representatives of the six Balkan countries that hope to join the bloc, will feature discussions focusing on strengthening police cooperation, digital resilience, as well as the recovery of the region and its green transition.
Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania, alongside Cyprus and Ireland, represent the only EU member states outside of the border-free Schengen area. In early July, the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favor of Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania joining the Schengen area, according to Emerging Europe, a London-based news, intelligence and community platform focused on 23 countries of Central, Eastern, South-Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus. But despite the MEPs’ enthusiasm for the prospect of a Schengen enlargement, the Council — made up of the heads of state or government of the 27 EU member states — is not unanimous on the matter. “A couple of member states have consistently blocked the accession citing corruption and organized crime. I have not seen indications of an imminent consensus in the European Council,” says Frank Schimmelfennig, Professor of European politics at ETH Zürich. His colleague, Marie-Eve Bélanger, argues that the veto on a Schengen enlargement is based on political or otherwise biased grounds and objectives, “such as sharing a European identity, and belonging to the European community.” According to Bélanger, who specializes in researching European integration theories, there are clear parallels between Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania’s stagnant progress toward joining Schengen and their Western Balkan neighbors’ similarly exhausting path to EU membership.
“The current blockade in negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia is undermining the EU’s credibility and runs counter to the strategic interest the Union has in the stability of the Western Balkans,” German, Portuguese and Slovenian foreign affairs ministers argued in a joint opinion piece recently published by Balkan Insight. Germany’s Heiko Maas, Portugal’s Augusto Santos Silva and Slovenia’s Anze Logar point out that “the EU, as a union of diverse member states, each one with its own traditions and history, will not be able to succeed, if it does not uphold its common values. Take our three countries – Germany, Portugal and Slovenia, the current ‘Trio Presidency’ of the EU. We have diverse histories and experiences. But we believe in what Jean Monnet, a founding father of the EU once said, ‘Make men work together; show them that beyond their differences and geographical boundaries, there lies a common interest’. That common interest is a peaceful, strong and prosperous Europe, able to uphold its interests and values in a more and more competitive world. To achieve this, the Western Balkans must become a part of the European Union.”

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