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News 06 Feb 18

EU to Showcase New Enlargement Strategy for Balkans

The European Commission is to present a new enlargement strategy for six Balkan countries - widely seen as an attempt to motivate them to continue following the EU's agenda.

Maja Zivanovic

The European Commission. Photo: Wikimedia/Amio Cajander.

The European Commission will present its new strategy for enlargement in the Western Balkans on Tuesday in a bid to give the process a fresh push.

The EC document, entitled ‘Credible Perspective of Enlargement to the Western Balkans’, will be presented at a plenary session of the European parliament in Strasbourg.

It aims to bring the so-called ‘Western Balkans six’ - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia -closer to membership.

The strategy, which BIRN saw ahead of its publishing, says that the Western Balkan countries will join the European Union, but "not in the condition they are in today."

"In order for the countries to meet all membership conditions and strengthen their democracies, comprehensive and convincing reforms are still required in crucial areas, notably on the rule of law, competitiveness, and regional cooperation and reconciliation," it noted.

The document underlined that the rule of law "must be strengthened significantly" and that critical parts of the region's economies are uncompetitive, "with too much undue political interference and an undeveloped private sector."

It also stated that there are still important bilateral disputes between countries, and pointed out that "joining the EU is a choice".

“The European Union remains dedicated to enlargement in the Western Balkans,” the Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn, said in Tirana in November when he announced that the new strategy would be made public in February.

According to a report by the European Western Balkans website on January 22, the strategy will include general guidelines for a faster process of integration for all six countries, as well as more specific evaluation dates for Montenegro and Serbia.

The Financial Times also reported on Friday that it is expected that the European Commission on Tuesday will call on the ‘Western Balkans six’ to resolve outstanding bilateral disputes and tackle corruption – a bid to address problems that have dogged other new members in the past decade.

Even before publication, the strategy has already caused controversy, as Spain has insisted that Kosovo should be excluded from the plans. 

"Kosovo is not part of the enlargement process and has its own differentiated framework," the Spanish foreign ministry said in an informal paper sent to the EU Commission, the EUObserver website reported on January 30.

Spain does not recognise Kosovo as an independent state, fearing that this might encourage separatism within its own borders. Its intervention came amid the crisis sparked by the Catalonian independence movement.

Marko Kmezic, a senior researcher at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria, called Spain’s intervention “bad news for the region”.

Kmezic said that it might also have bad consequence for the ongoing normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, as well as decreasing the EU’s credibility and leverage to steer the process.

However he suggested that the four other EU member states who have not recognised Kosovo’s independence - Greece, Slovakia, Cyprus and Romania – are not be likely to back Spain.

“I do not believe that they will follow Spain’s example as it is aimed more for internal politics, reflecting upon separatist tendencies in some of Spain’s provinces, most notably in Catalonia,” he argued. 

Kmezic also said that although the primary goal of the new strategy is to boost the credibility of the integration process, it might have other, potentially undesired knock-on effects.

“Remembering Montenegro’s NATO bid and an alleged Russian-led coup d’état trying to undermine Montenegro’s [NATO] membership efforts, we might even assume that Russian influence will increase as the Western Balkans becomes closer to reaching EU membership. But this really remains in the domain of speculation,” Kmezic said. 

He added that what is important “is the alignment with EU foreign policies, including on Russia”.

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