The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When will the European Union accept new members? The answer still eludes Balkan leaders.

European Union leaders gather Wednesday in Kranj, Slovenia. (Petr David Josek/AP)

BRUSSELS — European Union diplomats spent weeks haggling over the proposed wording of a joint declaration ahead of a leaders' summit on Wednesday, debating the inclusion of a sentence that would define the bloc's future in a critical region.

Slovenia, the meeting’s host nation, wanted the statement to include a commitment that the E.U. admit six western Balkan nations as members by no later than 2030, according to a copy of the draft document.

That language was scrubbed from the final version, however, as other member states balked at a timeline they considered unrealistic.

Diplomatic dust-ups over diction are commonplace in a 27-nation club that seeks consensus on its communiques, but the back-and-forth in this case illustrates the bloc’s unwillingness to guarantee a time frame for accession and underscores the Balkan states’ long, complicated road toward E.U. membership.

The question of E.U. enlargement is fraught, and admitting new countries requires approval from all the bloc’s leaders. While the E.U. has been promising membership for the “western Balkans six” — Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia — since 2003, talks have recently frozen.

“It’s stalled, messy and, to sum it all up, pretty chaotic,” said Majda Ruge, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The E.U. last expanded in 2013, when it accepted Croatia, a neighbor to the six current hopefuls. Since then, a cascade of crises — over the economy, migration, Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic — has pushed enlargement down the bloc’s to-do list. But the prospect of bringing in new countries raises fundamental questions about the identity of the union, its strategic goals and how it sees itself on the world stage.

Proponents of expansion argue that if the E.U. continues to delay admission for the Balkans, the influence of Russia and China in the region will only grow, posing a strategic threat to the bloc. Others say the accession process is the most effective tool to ensure that those countries respect and promote democratic values.

Skeptics of enlargement, meanwhile, are wary of admitting countries with shoddy track records on ensuring the rule of law, pointing to ongoing internal conflicts between the E.U. and Poland and Hungary. French President Emmanuel Macron blocked enlargement talks in 2019, saying new members would make an already unwieldy decision-making process even more difficult.

At this week’s summit, held in the Brdo Castle, a grand Slovenian estate, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen sought to reassure the Balkan countries that they would one day gain entry into the E.U.

“We want them in the European Union, we are one European family,” she told reporters on Wednesday. “We share the same history, we share the same values, and I’m deeply convinced we share the same destiny, too.”

Macron also struck a softer tone, saying the E.U. needed to make a “political commitment” to enlargement in the region while streamlining the bloc’s governance “at the same time.”

But leaders of the Balkan states have grown increasingly frustrated with the protracted accession talks.

“It has been a great injustice, a lack of fairness toward citizens of our country,” Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, said of the delay.

Kosovo’s case is especially complicated, as five E.U. members still have not recognized the country since it declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

“We are hopeful that this summit will make the E.U. stay faithful to its essence, and that is enlargement,” Kurti said.

Last month, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, whose government has been accused of autocracy and corruption, said the drawn-out process has eroded support for seeking membership.

“We were very enthusiastic about the accession process — today we are not,” Vucic said. “We don’t care anymore.”

Yet Vucic and other premiers have continued their push. They have an ally in Slovenia, which holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. The Brdo summit was not officially an enlargement meeting, with issues such as defense and economic recovery on the agenda, but Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa tried to make it a priority.

At an informal dinner for E.U. leaders on Tuesday, Jansa pressed his fellow heads of state to commit to accession for the six Balkan countries by 2030, but the conversation was short, with few other chiefs engaging.

The six countries are at different stages in the accession process. Serbia and Montenegro are furthest along and have been negotiating with the E.U. for years, while Albania and North Macedonia are waiting to begin formal talks and Bosnia and Kosovo are still considered potential candidates.

The latest sticking point is a bilateral dispute over language and identity between E.U. member state Bulgaria and North Macedonia, which has made some of the most visible progress on the bloc’s reform demands. The disagreement led Bulgaria to veto the official start of accession negotiations for North Macedonia and Albania, which the E.U. is handling as a pair.

But even if the E.U. gave an unqualified greenlight for expansion talks in the region, major domestic obstacles to the Balkan states’ accession remained, particularly in Serbia and Bosnia, which are developing ever-closer ties to Russia and China, Ruge said.

“Their model of governance, which is highly corrupt and authoritarian, is leaning much more toward China and the Russians than toward the E.U.,” she said.

E.U. leaders have failed to hold the Balkan governments accountable for their backsliding on transparency and good government practices, Ruge added, and they have not effectively used the accession talks as leverage to push for changes. Instead, she said, they have caved to pressure from Hungary and tolerated the erosion of democratic norms in Serbia.

“The E.U. put itself in this position by creating conditions in which such systems of governments can thrive,” Ruge said.

Analysts have warned that the lack of a coherent E.U. strategy in the Balkans could jeopardize the fragile stability in a region with a recent history of violent conflict. A dispute over license plates last month led to increased tensions on the Serbia-Kosovo border, and international mediators had to step in.

Former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, who has spent part of his career working for peace in the region, warned in a recent op-ed that the Balkan wars began with small conflicts that quickly escalated. He called on European leaders to propose “realistic interim steps that could improve conditions in the region,” including offering membership in the E.U. customs union and single market.

The final version of the Brdo summit statement, co-signed by all bloc members, included a pledge of “unequivocal support for the European perspective” of the Balkans and a “commitment to the enlargement process.” Absent from the 2,300-word declaration: any mention of when, exactly, accession might happen.

Quentin Ariès contributed to this report.

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