Countries in the Balkans are still decades away from joining the EU despite promises made 16 years ago. As the EU faces international tensions, is expansion still viable?

Sixteen years after the European Union committed itself to the European future of its southeastern edge, only two former Yugoslav republics — Slovenia and Croatia — managed to join the bloc. 

The accession process remains very slow, and the remaining aspirant countries in the Balkans are decades away from membership, and that's an optimistic prospect. As only a minority of citizens in the EU support further enlargement, membership seems uncertain for many countries in the Balkans.

At the Thessaloniki summit 16 years ago, the European Council declared: “The future of the Balkans is within the European Union.” This political commitment was a clear promise, which provided a strong incentive for those societies. However, that promise is still unfulfilled, if not broken.

Instead of accelerating enlargement, the EU’s strategy appears to have slowed the process down further. The isolation of Kosovo, even after fulfilling all outstanding requirements and waiting for visa liberalisation to happen, is not what a promising strategy looks like, considering that actual membership is decades away and visa-free travel is the only incentive for further reform at the moment. 

There is a similar stalling with North Macedonia, after the EU failed to set a date for starting accession talks in June, which may jeopardise the government in Skopje which has staked its entire credibility on resolving the name dispute by adding the qualifier ‘North’ to its name and moving forward towards NATO and the EU.

Creeping Euroscepticism

Opinion polls show growing scepticism among citizens in the EU towards further enlargement of the Union. More people oppose enlargement than support it. 

This reflects the EU’s internal political debate which is stained by citizens’ perceptions of high levels of immigration, especially after the 2015 migration crisis, in which hundreds of thousands entered the EU via the route in southeast Europe.

At the Sofia summit last year, French President Emmanuel Macron stated that there will be no enlargement before the Union itself is reformed.

He continued to reiterate this at a summit with regional leaders last month, emphasising that enlargement has “weakened Europe”. Setting out a position like this may have been triggered by concerns about the rise of nativist populism EU-wide, contradicting his speech at the Sorbonne held two years ago. 

The idea of ending enlargement has become politically attractive even in Germany, long the most outspoken champion of southeast Europe.

The Balkan region consists of only about 18.5 million people in the remaining six countries, which in terms of population is less than Ukraine, and it clearly does not pose a threat to the EU’s absorption capacity. 

The gains of enlargement would be significant. With the inclusion of a multi-cultural region, the EU would show its commitment to the principle of diversity and remaining open for all Europeans irrespective of their cultural or religious background. Most importantly, the EU would show that it is capable of being a powerful global actor.

As the enlargement process is put on the back burner, the status quo will increasingly resemble stagnation for the region. Individual countries in the EU blocking the region’s progress will eventually lead to citizens in southeast Europe losing confidence and interest in membership. 

As a result, the EU risks losing its most potent foreign policy instrument in the southeast—the normative pull of membership. Support for joining the EU in opinion polls may decline over the years, throwing the region’s accession into question. As a result, the process will lose its momentum and credibility.

Abandoning the goal of joining the Union in all but name will have considerable consequences for the region. Any political instability cannot be contained by the international community, unlike in the 1990s. The stakes are incredibly high. Other geopolitical players such as Russia will be only too happy to fill the vacuum.

To reverse the course, and to momentarily stabilise the situation, the EU must formally start accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, and finally grant citizens of Kosovo visa liberalisation. 

Although it may not play well with an increasing nativist electorate, blocking accession talks and simply saying ‘nein’ or ‘non’ to visa-free travel is unlikely to move any votes away from the grip of right-wing populism.

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