The disappointment that has taken hold of the Balkans over the recent decisions of European Union leaders regarding enlargement is understandable. More precisely, due to the absence of any decision that would bring any Balkan state at least one step closer to membership in the Union. Nobody got anything, which happens very rarely. EU leaders take into account that even when they don’t share the “carrot” with the Balkans, they try to give at least some of them good news. At the summit in Brussels, there was no good news for anyone, not even the usual pat on the shoulder, which was also skipped.
However, it is not understandable why the anger and disappointment spilled over the EU, with the argument that the candidacies of Ukraine and Moldova were approved as “political decisions”, and that these decisions would not even exist if Ukraine wasn’t under Russian aggression, and Moldova under its direct threat.
Every decision of the EU concerning enlargement, since its establishment, is exclusively political. Ukraine and Moldova are no exception, just as no other Eastern European country was in the big wave of expansion in 2004, and especially in the smaller wave of 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria joined. Moreover, enlargement is a sovereign “scope” of member states’ decision-making, the Brussels administration only assists, proposes and assesses the ability of a candidate for membership to take a step forward. In that respect, it’s like an assistant at the faculty who prepares students for the exam, and whether a student will pass it or not is decided only by the professor.
In the Balkans, therefore, they have reason to be disappointed, but not to be depressed because, for God’s sake, something catastrophic has happened. They have been “neglected” so many times so far (expression and recognition of the former EU Minister for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini) that there should be no surprises. The only pragmatic thing would be to state that the EU currently has incomparably more important political priorities than the Western Balkans.
They are so high on the list, that for their execution they even went beyond the strategic framework of the EU, within whose borders Ukraine and Moldova have not been so far. The Western Balkans, along with Turkey, is the last area on the continent for which the EU had plans and undertaken to integrate it into its ranks. Ukraine and Moldova were part of the so-called “Eastern Partnership”, for which the prospect of full membership was not offered, but a certain degree of economic and political cooperation. Like with the nearest neighbours.
In that sense, the message of European leaders is very clear and any attempt to challenge it, let alone to influence it, is in vain. Cool heads are hard to find in the Balkans, but if there are any, they will reasonably conclude that the Ukrainian and Moldovan cases are finally putting a stop to the “cheating” we’ve known for years – meeting membership criteria, negotiating chapters (clusters), or a long accession process. Obviously, nothing has to be long or complicated in order to skip the important stages when joining the EU.
When proposing Ukraine as a candidate country, Ursula von der Leyen said that Ukraine “has already implemented about 70 percent of EU rules”!? Mathematically translated into already known chapters, that would mean that Kiev has mastered 25 out of a total of 35 negotiating chapters. Three more than Serbia, for example, which opened “only” 22 chapters in ten years of negotiations. Does this “balance of power” seem realistic to you, not to ask if it’s fair?
For the Western Balkan countries, the only correct reading of the latest decisions from Brussels should be – You have to fulfil some conditions, but not many of them at all, especially not all of them. After the decisions on Ukraine and Moldova, there is no motivation that will return the Western Balkans to fulfilling the conditions from the negotiating chapters. This way of bringing in new members has long been overcome and it has already survived a major change after the adoption of the system of negotiating clusters, devised by Emmanuel Macron. But even for this simpler and more efficient solution, there is no longer much justification.
Quite simply, the political condition is the beginning and the end of the path to membership in the Union. Serbia got a start a long time ago, it has crossed a good part of the way, but it will have to wait for a political decision to pass the finish line. To simplify it to the end. If Belgrade signed an agreement with Pristina today, Serbia would become an EU member tomorrow. If North Macedonia “irons out” identity issues with Bulgaria today, it would join the EU in a month. If Kosovo signed an agreement with Belgrade today, its visas would be revoked before the evening, and it would join the EU in a year.
It seems that in anticipation of such decisions by European leaders, some “cool heads” appeared in the Balkans, who not only assessed well that the trip to Brussels would be “in vain”, but also showed a ready answer. For the first time in the context of European integration, we have seen a joint performance of several Balkan allies, those who have gathered around the Open Balkan initiative. Three of its leaders – Vučić, Rama and Kovačevski, first had joint consultations on whether there was any point in traveling to Brussels or not. A day later, in Brussels, after the unfavourable news, they held a joint press conference, speaking with one voice.
This “manoeuvre ” deserves much more attention than it was given in the Balkans, and especially in Europe. For the first time, the three “open ones” demonstrated a desire to step out of the rigid economic framework in which they have so far advocated their idea of a Balkan trade community. They showed that the three countries want to work together when it comes to European integration, moreover, to act towards the EU as a bloc, and not as before individually, which was understandable given the large difference in the path to membership in the Union. They have shown that they are in solidarity with each other, and especially that in the future they will cooperate when it comes to the EU-future of their countries.
This was a pragmatic response to the pragmatic setting of the EU, and as much as it may seem to some as politicizing the idea of the Open Balkan, this was the mature behaviour of three countries, which did not fall into depression due to another in a series of neglects. Quite the opposite – a political response was made to the political decision (unfavourable), at least in the form of joint preparations and a joint press conference. European leaders did not succeed as much during the summit in Brussels; even their routine press conference was cancelled. And who knows, the presidents and prime ministers of the EU will gather again in December, the Western Balkans will again be one of the important points of their talks, it is possible that there will be better decisions then. What is certain is that at least one part of the Balkans, the “open one”, will not wait with folded arms.