Ferry from Saranda, Albania, to the Greek island of Corfu. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

  EU enlargement in the Western Balkans

  22 Debates

The EU Commission has recommended opening EU accession talks with Bosnia and Herzegovina. The country applied to join the EU in 2016 and gained candidate status in December 2022. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that Bosnia and Herzegovina had made impressive steps forward since then. The member states will decide on 21 and 22 March whether to accept the recommendation.

EU Council President Charles Michel has caused a stir at a conference in Slovenia by saying that the EU must set itself the goal of taking in new members by 2030. This would require rapid reforms in the candidate countries, but also in the EU and its decision-making processes, he stressed. Commentators are at odds about how realistic - or desirable - this goal is.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has hinted that his country may be ready to yield in the conflict with Kosovo, whose independence Belgrade has yet to recognise. Vučić declared that he was willing to take the path of compromise after Western negotiators threatened sanctions if the recently presented Franco-German normalisation plan was not accepted. Commentators discuss what the future might hold.

EU member Croatia joined both the Eurozone and the Schengen Area on 1 January 2023. At a joint press conference in Zagreb, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke of a "day for history books". The reactions of the press range from applause to criticism.

Kosovo officially applied for EU membership last week. The main obstacle on its path to joining the bloc is the fact that five EU countries do not recognise it as an independent state. Neighbouring Serbia continues to assert territorial claims and recently threatened to deploy troops to Kosovo. What is the next step for the country?

The decision taken by the EU home affairs ministers on 8 December to allow Croatia but not Romania and Bulgaria into the Schengen Area continues to fuel debate. Austria and the Netherlands had raised concerns about the migration policy of the rejected countries and thus blocked the necessary unanimity.

At the EU-Western Balkans summit in Tirana, EU leaders have affirmed their determination to accelerate the EU accession process for the Western Balkan states. A precondition for integration is "credible reforms" in Albania, Serbia, Northern Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo, as well as their support for sanctions against Russia. According to the summit's final declaration, the Balkan states will also receive one billion euros to tackle the energy crisis. What further steps are needed?

The path is clear for North Macedonia and Albania to begin EU accession negotiations. Enlargement Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi confirmed on Tuesday that negotiations would begin after the North Macedonian parliament approved an EU proposal for a compromise to end the country's dispute with Bulgaria. Commentators see a new dynamic at work in the process.

While EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was in Kyiv for talks with Volodymyr Zelensky about Ukraine's urgent application to join the EU because of the war, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz travelled to various Western Balkan countries which have long sought EU membership. The media see a growing competition for Brussels' approval.

Representatives of the European Union and the Western Balkan states met on Wednesday in Slovenia to discuss EU enlargement, among other issues. But since the member states have not been able to agree on a concrete accession date for Serbia, Albania or northern Macedonia, a sense of disappointment prevails in the candidate countries. There are good reasons for the delay, commentators point out.

Angela Merkel has made her final visit to the Western Balkans in the role of German chancellor. In Tirana she spoke with the heads of government of Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, North Macedonia and Kosovo. Commentators credit Merkel with a sincere interest in the Western Balkans, but criticise her for the fact that neither Germany nor the EU have offered the region any real prospects in recent years.

The tenth Brdo-Brijuni summit on the Western Balkans, also known as the Brdo-Brijuni Process, took place in Slovenia on Monday. Slovenia and Croatia launched the initiative for the event in 2013 in order to promote the European integration of the region through regional cooperation. But after the meeting Slovenian media conclude with resignation that the EU has little interest in the issue.

The EU foreign ministers met on Monday to discuss developments in the Western Balkan states. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell called for the resumption of talks on the normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. Visa-free travel to the EU for Kosovars and the lifting of Bulgaria's veto on accession talks with North Macedonia were also top priorities, he said.

The Social Democratic Union led by Zoran Zaev has narrowly won the parliamentary elections held in North Macedonia on 15 July. It obtained just under 36 percent of the vote; its main rival, the national conservative VRMO, secured 34.5 percent. Zaev had resigned as prime minister in January after the European Council once again postponed accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania.

"All Balkan states have a clear prospect of joining the European Union", German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised at the first Western Balkans Conference three years ago. This year's edition of the summit with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia ended on Wednesday. But commentators see these countries further away than ever from joining the EU.

The EU wants to press ahead with accession for the Western Balkan states. Serbia and Montenegro could join as early as 2025. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo have also been given clear accession prospects. At the same time Commission President Juncker has stressed that none of the countries in question are close to fulfilling the accession criteria. Commentators outline the tasks that lie ahead on the path to membership.

At the EU-Western Balkans summit in Sofia the EU has called for more consistent efforts from (potential) accession candidates Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Macedonia. In exchange it promised infrastructural measures and additional funding. Commentators discuss the six countries' accession prospects and Russia's role in the region.

The Council of the European Union has postponed its decision on opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania to October following a meeting of EU ministers in Luxembourg. The EU mustn't go too far with its delaying tactics and the potential accession candidates shouldn't lose heart, commentators advise.

The discussion about the EU's decision to once again block accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania continues. In addition to France, the Netherlands and Denmark had also opposed the commencement of talks. Some commentators find Macron's reluctance understandable.

In a video conference on Tuesday, the Europe ministers of the EU states agreed to start accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. Just last October their bid for membership was halted owing among other things to opposition from France. After a reform of the admission procedure, however, Paris has now given the green light. Commentators are far from unanimous in their joy at the news.

At a video summit on Wednesday EU leaders reiterated their "full support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans". They also promised their colleagues from the six non-EU countries in the region that these would receive 3.3 billion in emergency aid. Once again, however, no time window for their potential accession to the EU was named. Commentators take stock.