In Russia’s backyard in the Balkans, the EU’s enlargement plans are back in focus

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People hold a Ukrainian flag and flags during a rally to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2023 in Belgrade, Serbia. As part of the Western Balkans bloc awaiting EU membership, Serbia is caught in a geostrategic conflict between its Western allies and Russia.

Vladimir Zivojinovic | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Davos, SWITZERLAND – As geopolitical tensions distract the European Union, attention has turned to the strategically important Western Balkans. But it is not clear whether the neighboring area is ready – and willing – to take the necessary steps to join the union.

The Western Balkans, made up of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia, represent a particular gap in the EU membership map in South-Eastern Europe.

Although each has applied for – and been granted – candidate or potential candidate status over the past two decades following the collapse of the Yugoslav socialist federation in 1992, progress on accession has has generally been slow.

“I see the European Union as more ready for the Balkans than the Balkans for the European Union,” Miroslav Lajčák, EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and the Western Balkans, told CNBC last month.

Admittance to the bloc is a rigorous and often lengthy process involving several stages of negotiations and reforms to ensure that a candidate state meets the EU’s legal, administrative and economic standards.

Lajčák said that countries in the Western Balkans had, in the past, been reluctant to engage in such reforms because they “did not believe in a real European future” – or that they could fulfill the requirements.

But all that changed when war broke out on Europe’s doorstep in February 2022.

Ukraine and Moldova and Georgia brought new energy and enthusiasm – something that was almost lost in the Balkans.

Miroslav Lajčák

EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and the Western Balkans

Within days of the Russian invasion, Ukraine, neighboring Moldova and, soon after, neighboring Georgia applied for EU candidate status. By the end of 2023, the EU launched accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova, and granted candidate status to Georgia, boosting the European project and signaling renewed hope for other members.

“Ukraine and Moldova and Georgia brought new energy and enthusiasm – something that was almost lost in the Balkans,” Lajčák said. “Now, it’s very clear that the European Union is bad.”

Although Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia are outside the Western Balkans, which are part of the former Eastern European bloc, Lajčák said progress should move the region forward in the accession negotiations. Negotiations are currently underway in all countries except Kosovo, which could become a candidate member, but Lajčák noted that that openness may not remain indefinitely.

“The train is here and the train will leave the station. If they don’t get on board, they will miss a great historic opportunity,” he said.

Environment of EU enlargement

The EU’s accelerated expansion comes as the bloc seeks to bolster its confidence in the face of Russia’s war in Ukraine and a breakdown in the US-led world order. Lajčák said that this has caused the atmosphere in Brussels to be “more political” than before.

“Before, it was always said that enlargement means expanding the area where European values ​​and rules apply. Now, it is seen more geopolitically,” said Lajčák.

“It makes us stronger, it makes us bigger, makes our market bigger. So it’s less idealistic and more pragmatic.”

It would be economically unsustainable [for European countries] to look elsewhere

Miroslav Lajčák

EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and the Western Balkans

The heightened political pressure has made foreign policy alignment more important than ever to the accession process, with EU unity already threatened by the instability of existing member Hungary . That could be a great place for some prospective members.

Serbia, for example – the largest country in the region – has been vocal in condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine, but has resisted imposing sanctions on the country. In fact, Belgrade has often clashed with its Western allies in matters of foreign policy, and it still maintains close ties with Russia and China.

At the same time, both Moscow and Beijing have tried to strengthen their economic and political influence in the Western Balkans in an attempt to destabilize the region in general.

However, Lajčák insisted that no country could compete with Brussels in terms of its investment and trade offer. “The best response to any third-party interference is the credible expansion process,” Lajčák said. “It would be economically insane [for European countries] look elsewhere.”

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