EU Balkan Enlargement Is Hardly Too Slow. It May Be Too Fast

The countries of the Western Balkans still have a lot of work to do before they are ready to join the EU.

Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner for enlargement negotiations, gives a speech in the Montenegrin parliament in Podgorica, February 9
Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner for enlargement negotiations, gives a speech in the Montenegrin parliament in Podgorica, February 9 (European Commission)

Central and Eastern European countries want to speed up the EU accession of Western Balkans.

Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borisov warned this week, “If there’s no enlargement now, there’ll be no other time for enlargement… Otherwise what China, Russia, Turkey are planning for the region, they will start today.”

Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó agreed, calling the 2025 target date set by the European Commission for the accession of Montenegro and Serbia “very late”.

In fact, it is extremely ambitious, as an analysis by former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt for the European Council on Foreign Relations makes clear.

Four years

Membership by 2025 means that negotiations must be concluded by 2023 in order to leave enough time for all the parliaments to ratify the deals.

That means Balkan states have only four years to rectify what the European Commission has described as substantial deficiencies in their economies and societies. Bildt notes, “This would be a record achievement.”

He believes it can be done. I’m not so sure.

Serious problems

Look at some of the problems identified by the commission:

  • “Clear elements of state capture, including links with organized crime and corruption at all levels of government and administration.”
  • “A strong entanglement of public and private interests,” feeding “a sentiment of impunity and inequality.”
  • “Extensive political interference in and control of the media.”
  • “None of the Western Balkans can currently be considered a functioning market economy nor to have the capacity to cope with the competitive pressure and market forces in the union.”

In addition, there is Macedonia’s name dispute with Greece, there are outstanding border issues between Bosnia and Croatia and there is Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Resolving all of this by 2023 seems close to impossible.