Leaders from EU member states and the six Western Balkan countries gathered in the Bulgarian capital on May 17th for the first high level Western Balkans Summit since the Thessaloniki in 2003. Several important issues concerning the EU integration path for the Balkan Six were on the agenda. The declaration that all participants singed at the end of the summit however failed to mention any reference to ’integration' or 'enlargement'. Instead of reaffirming the prospect of accession, the central message in Sofia was that much work is to be done in the region as well as in the EU – such as EU internal reforms – before the EU can take in new members.
The summit in Sofia was the brain child of Bulgarian Prime Minister Bojko Borissov. The PM hoped that his country’s presidency of the European Council could revitalize the accession process of the Balkan Six. This proved rather challenging due to EU internal divisions and relations between Western Balkan countries. The unilateral independence of Kosovo, for example, proved to be a problem for participation of Spain who does not recognize Kosovo. To compromise, EU member states referred to Western Balkan nations as “partners” and not as “states” in the final declaration.
More importantly the summit could not live up to the expectations by Western Balkan countries after European Commission President Juncker stated that Montenegro and Serbia could potentially join the EU in 2015. . After his comments French President Emmanuel Macron cooled down the expectations stating that “the EU should reform before expanding’’. The remarks by the French president echoed especially in Western European capitals and the draft declaration for the summit therefore didn’t focused on ’integration' or 'enlargement' but instead called for 'connectivity’ between the Balkan countries and the EU. In the declaration the EU reaffirmed its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans. The annex Sofia Priority Agenda reiterated cooperation between countries in fields of counter-terrorism, migration and climate change.
A divided Europe
The Western Balkan countries will most likely not be ready to join the Union in the coming years due to structural democratic, rule of law and fundamental rights challenges. Serbia and Montenegro are currently in the lengthy process of accession talks, Albania and Macedonia hope to open up talks this year, while Kosovo and Bosnia are lagging behind as potential candidate states.. In addition, further enlargement is slowed down with the rise of Eurosceptic parties, the Brexit and democratic backsliding in Poland and Hungary with increasing authoritarian government policies. Not to mention the continues problems with corruption and a weak judicial system in Romania and Bulgaria. As a result EU leaders have become cautious talking about enlargement.
While the EU is struggling with herself, the Sofia declaration has managed to set Western Balkans higher on the agenda by focusing on stability and achievable short term results such as infrastructure and economic development. Indeed, in order to set concrete political steps towards EU membership much more has to be done internally in the EU as well as in the Balkan countries.