Sofia Summit: EU ‘waiting room ticket’ for Western Balkans

Aleksandar Mitić, OPINION

Eighteen years ago, as AFP correspondent, I attended the first EU-Western Balkans Summit, held in Zagreb in 2000. Enthusiasm and talk of fast entry into the EU dominated after the era of conflict in the 1990s. Almost two decades later, however, we are still talking about “European perspectives”, while EU investment in the region and its infrastructure is rather low, political conditionality has been toughened and enlargement fatigue in Western European countries has grown dramatically.

The official position of the European Commission is that the proposal for the new EU budget 2021-2027 does not include funds for new EU members, but that it includes an increase for the candidate states in the form of the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA). Although the European Commission has mechanisms to make amendments to the budget in case a country becomes an EU member in the meantime, the political message is quite clear: new EU memberships in the following period are quite unlikely. It means that the EU expects candidate states to stay longer in the “waiting room” – which is a perfect status from the point of view of EU and its member countries: the funds they have to give for candidate states are much smaller than if these countries become EU member states, while at the same time, the candidate states are much more vulnerable to EU political conditionality. In other terms, for the EU, having countries for a long period of time in pre-accession rather than becoming members means using a “powerful stick” with a “cheap carrot”. This is particularly important for policy towards countries such as Serbia or Turkey, which path into the EU is made extremely difficult by political conditionality.

The European Commission presented in February its “Enlargement Strategy”, which should be the backbone of the Summit in Sofia. Yet, this document is extremely weak and bland. It is also a document of the European Commission only, since the EU member states have been divided over it and have not given their approval. The EU is extremely divided over enlargement in general. Germany, France, the Netherlands are all against giving promises for the 2025 membership. Those most welcoming are countries of Eastern Europe, which still have openness for new members due to their own recent membership. But, it is clear that with German and French opposition, 2025 looks like a mirage.

French President Emmanuel Macron recently said he was against further enlargement before further strengthening of the EU core and of the current structures. He thus “killed” the EU enlargement strategy, at least its 2025 prospects.

Furthermore, when we look at the European Commission document itself, it is, for example for Serbia, an extremely negative document. Yes, it gives the possibility of the 2025 date, but at what cost? The document is tougher on Serbia than previous EU positions as it asks Serbia for an urgent signing of the legally-binding agreement with Kosovo Albanian separatists which would allow for an “independent Kosovo” to become an UN member. It is also calling for fast harmonization of Serbia’s foreign policy with the EU, which means imposing sanctions on Russia, something that Belgrade has said it would never do.

Dr.Aleksandar Mitić, President of the Center for Strategic Alternatives, Belgrade

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