European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen admitted on Wednesday that the long wait for Balkan countries to join the EU was causing “impatience” and “frustration”. European Council President Charles Michel conceded that many of the 27 member states weren’t in agreement about the bloc’s capacity to take on new members. Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia all have “candidate status”, although some nations are more advanced in the process than others. Bosnia is still a potential candidate, while Kosovo is not even recognised as a state by some EU members.
EU enlargement continues to cause tension within the bloc – while some countries are not keen on new members, others fear Balkan nations could fall within the influence of Russia or China if they are not granted membership.
Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s Chancellor, said this week: “If the European Union does not offer this region a real perspective, we have to be aware that other superpowers – China, Russia or Turkey – will play a bigger role there.
“The region belongs to Europe geographically, and it needs a European perspective.”
Mira Milošević, a Senior Research Fellow with the Elcano Royal Institute of Spain, told a Euractiv conference in July that the EU may not be as attractive a prospect as it had been previously.
She said: “Kosovo or Albania, for example, see in the United States this saviour. Serbia and (parts of) Bosnia and Herzegovina see saviours much more in Russia or even China.”
She added that the EU is failing to see that “they are not as attractive as they were 35 years ago. The EU has lost credibility and with the coronavirus they lost credibility much more.”
Nemanja Todorovic Stiplija, founder of the Centre for European Contemporary Politics in Belgrade, warned that some Balkan countries’ approach to democracy and anti-corruption may not be compatible with the EU.
He used the example of Ivo Sanader, the Croatian leader during the country’s accession talks.
Mr Sanader resigned in 2009 and was then jailed and sentenced for corruption on multiple charges.
Mr Todorovic Stiplija said: “A few years later, we saw that he was one of the most corrupt politicians in the Balkans. When he did all the reforms in Croatia, he realised he would be the first one to be arrested by the anti-corruption police he established.
“After that, no Western Balkans politician will end the reforms in the field of anti-corruption, organised crime or something connected with the judicial system.”
He also warned that the influence of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the Balkans is huge, especially in the media sphere.
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Mr Todorovic Stiplija said this is because the region “likes the Orban system and Serbia is the leader in copying this model”, which means governing without the rule of law and without free media.
The EU has already endured heated encounters with governments in Hungary and Poland, who vetoed the bloc’s coronavirus recovery package last year.
Leaders tried to set rules which meant countries that don’t respect the rule of law would not access funding, angering Poland and Hungary.
After days of intense negotiations, a compromise was eventually reached, meaning the £1.6trillion of stimulus funding could be distributed to the EU27.
But this has strained relations between Poland, Hungary and the rest of the EU.
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Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte suggested earlier this year that there is no place for Hungary in the bloc after Mr Orban introduced a regressive anti-LGBT law.
He said Hungary “has no business being in the European Union any more”.
As for the Balkan nations, Albania and North Macedonia have already had run-ins with European leaders.
In October 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron blocked the countries’ attempts to join the EU.
President Macron said the accession process itself had to be reformed and the EU “should do more to help those countries develop, not just make pledges”.
But this angered North Macedonian leader Zoran Zeav who claimed “we are the victims of the EU’s historical mistake”.