The European Union’s post office is broken: Delivery currently not available in the Western Balkans
2019 was a year to forget for the Western Balkan countries. As we enter 2020, old problems prevail. The region suffers from many socio-economic and political problems. It has witnessed some relative progress overall, but this progress was not rewarded by the European Union, leaving the region in a hopeless situation.
Delayed delivery: North Macedonia and Albania
In 2017, Zoran Zaev replaced the highly controversial and authoritarian prime minister of North Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski, who faced extensive corruption allegations and fled the country to seek asylum in Hungary. The change in leadership was seen as a new chapter for the country’s democracy. The goal was to open negotiation talks with the European Union. Driven by this ambition, the country took a huge step forward when Zaev’s government was able to forge a deal with Greece that resolved its name dispute and resulted in the new name of North Macedonia.
North Macedonia was blocked from European Union membership for 15 years by Greece over the 27-year name dispute that dates back to antiquity. Changing the name of the country was an extremely difficult task to achieve because it was a widely unpopular choice among citizens. Despite overcoming this great challenge, the European Union failed to open negotiation talks for the country, a decision that prompted Prime Minister Zaev to resign from his position. Early elections will be held in April.
Albania also failed to open European Union accession negotiations. Albania has been a candidate country since 2004. Unlike their neighbors from North Macedonia, Albania has been going through difficult political crises, including corruption scandals, violent protests, election boycotts and mass migration. The “wiretap scandal,” which is still under investigation, implicated leading politicians from the ruling party, including former ministers Saimir Tahiri and Damian Gjinkuri, in corruption and drug smuggling scandals. Among the implicated was also Prime Minister Edi Rama.
In an attempt to combat corruption, Albania went through a highly controversial “vetting process,” its biggest judicial reform since the fall of communism. This process proved to be unsuccessful since a large of number of judges could not justify their assets. According to BIRN Albania, “80 per cent of the appeal courts’ judges could not prove their assets in at least one year,” creating an unprecedented situation and seriously questioning the effectiveness of the country’s courts.
Despite obstacles in Albania and North Macedonia, the European Commission recommended the opening of negotiations for both countries but this was vetoed by French President Emmanuel Macron in an act of neo-Gaullist intransigence. Macron reasoned his decision by stating that the European Union must first and foremost reform itself before proceeding with new enlargement.
Standard delivery: Montenegro and Serbia
Montenegro’s future with the European Union looks comparatively brighter because it does not have major economic and ethnic division problems. However, the new Law on Religion is an example of how a small spark can cause ethnic discord. The new law obliges Montenegro’s religious communities to prove that the property they hold now was in their possession before the country lost its independence in 1918 and was absorbed into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.
Serbia, on the other hand, has successfully managed to keep a good balance of relations between the European Union, Russia and China. Serbia is expanding its relations with China in various fields despite its European perspective and political vision. Serbia is receiving millions in loans from China and has invited the Chinese police to patrol its cities.
Among all Western Balkan countries, Serbia has the most destructive relationship with the European Union. Serbia chose not impose sanctions against Russia and receives regular military armaments from Russia. It signed the Eurasian Economic Forum last year, despite the European Union’s warnings not to do so.
These transgressions have not stopped the European Union from penning a new chapter with Serbia. Since the start of negotiations with Serbia, the European Union has opened 17 out of 35 chapters. Only two, however, have been completed.
Canceled delivery: Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina
Among all Western Balkan countries, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are the furthest behind in the integration process. Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are only recognized as potential European Union candidates and have yet to open the accession negotiations
Bosnia and Herzegovina was not granted candidate status this year and that is largely because it is plagued by political crises and has a complicated system of government, represented by two political entities that often clash over Bosnia’s politics. The entity of “Republika Srpska” is seeking greater autonomy, Croat parties are angling for a third entity, and several Bosniak parties are hoping for a more centrally governed country.
Kosovo is also a potential European Union candidate country; however, unlike Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo’s road towards integration seems elusive because it is not recognized by five European Union member states (Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia, Spain and Romania).
The only expectation that Kosovo had from the European Union was visa liberalisation, which means free movement in the Schengen Area. The visa liberalisation process for Kosovo began in early 2012 when the European Commission handed over the visa roadmap to Kosovo officials. Since then, there were four yearly reports on Kosovo’s progress until the roadmap was completed in 2016. The European Parliament Committee, Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) all recommended visa liberalisation for Kosovo.
Kosovo has fulfilled all required conditions, including the two outstanding requirements: ratification of the border demarcation agreement with Montenegro and strengthening its track record in the fight against organised crime and corruption. Despite this, we have officially entered the new decade and Kosovar citizens are still isolated, making Kosovo the only Balkan country without the ability to move freely in Europe.
Redelivery: European Union
Europe has new leaders in place with Ursula von der Leyen as the head of the European Commission. With new political leadership in place, things are expected to get back in motion. The European Union has the potential to change course and demonstrate its commitment to the region by encouraging countries to put aside their differences and resolve their disputes.
On the launch of Croatia’s presidency, Ursula von der Leyen stated that “We have to deliver and keep our promises,” indicating a contrasted stance from that of President Macron. Thus, there is some hope that the new leadership will bear in mind that the enlargement strategy will benefit the European Union as much as it will benefit the Western Balkan countries.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped down from her party position and has stated that she will not run for chancellor again. However, she will probably try to be the voice of Europe one last time and pick up the pieces of President Macron’s disruption.
Visar Xhambazi is a policy researcher at Democracy for Development (D4D) Institute based in Kosovo. He holds a master’s degree in International Studies from Old Dominion University in Virginia, specializing in US foreign policy and international relations.