Post-2015 EU accession of the Western Balkans: Is travelling more important than arriving?

Tea Hadžiristić

While the ongoing migrant crisis tests the bonds between member states, control over the enlargement process is also becoming increasingly nationalized – with national legislatures and governments of EU member states playing a stronger role than ever – at the cost of a unified EU policy towards the accession of the Western Balkans. The European Policy Centre’s recent issue paper, “EU member states and enlargement towards the Balkans,” examines this trend of member states gaining more control over the enlargement process, which they call the ‘nationalisation of enlargement’. The publication examines the obstacles this may pose to Western Balkan accession and outlines the dominant approach that will likely define the process. Precisely, they suggest that the Balkans will be subjected to a very strict application of the conditions of membership – ‘conditionality’— even by key member states who push for Balkan accession.

For policy actors in the Western Balkans, the ‘nationalisation of enlargement’ suggests a lack of clarity regarding the process itself and their potential role in it, and creates a far more challenging and complex environment when it comes to prioritizing policy agendas and planning advocacy activities towards decision-making centers in the EU. This applies to the whole spectrum of “policy entrepreneurs,”[i] from advocacy NGOs, think tanks, to governments. This shift in approach is particularly relevant to policy analysts and policy research organizations, as it simultaneously opens up a range of possibilities for more systematic engagement with the policy processes within EU accession, but also poses numerous challenges to their regular mode of operation. Indeed, a long process of accession defined by strict conditionality may provide an unprecedented opportunity for local actors involved in policy research, analysis, and advocacy to take a central role in EU enlargement towards the Western Balkans.

A nationalization of enlargement = a stalled process?

The European Policy Centre’s report makes clear that Western Balkans accession is still seen by the EU as crucial for providing ‘long-term stability and peace on the EU’s doorstops,’ and this includes incentives and tools for transforming the countries into functioning democracies with market economics.[ii] The overall message is that it is in the interest of the EU for its immediate periphery to be both stable and oriented towards membership. However, there are an increasing number of forces, from domestic to international, that play into decision-making on enlargement, which can potentially slow down the process.

With ‘nationalisation’, member states have introduced mechanisms that can obstruct or control the enlargement process, such as putting these issues to public vote, or moving them from the purview of foreign affairs ministries to parliamentary positions or heads of state. Domestic politics, such as worries over welfare tourism, security, and intra-EU migration also play an increasingly dominant role, as European populations grow more Euro-skeptic, according to the Eurobarometer, even while politicians may remain enthusiastic about enlargement. Pressures from domestic politics of member states can mean that they attempt to either relax conditionality for aspiring members or, conversely, block their membership. Attempts to strengthen domestic control over the enlargement process have been seen in Germany, Denmark, Sweden, UK, France, the Netherlands, and Austria. Within the EU itself, the EU Commission has lost traction over enlargement to the European Council and General Affairs Council, which involve a greater degree of input from member states.

Member states, then, have an increasing say over how strictly membership conditions (conditionality) are applied to aspiring member states in the Western Balkans. Individual states have different views on how strictly criteria should be applied, and while some argue for laxer rules, others prioritize high standards or specific criteria. For example, Germany has effectively made agreement with Kosovo central to the accession of Serbia to the EU, while some member states (such as Spain) have not even recognized Kosovo’s statehood. Originally, the concept of conditionality was designed to protect EU member states from possible disruptions by states unready to join,[iii] as laid out in the 1993 Copenhagen accession criteria. It implies holding potential members to certain strict standards in a wide range of subject areas, while also putting forth a clear set of European values to conform and aspire to. By stressing high standards of conditionality as well as cutting up negotiation into a series of small steps, the EU “multiplies the occasions when it can reward progress or sanction non-progress.”[iv] This means that accession states will continually move towards the goals of stability, democracy, and functioning economies, which provides the EU’s doorstep with a measure of stability even before they officially join.

This new ‘strict but fair’ approach to accession includes a strategy called political frontloading: dealing with the most difficult chapters of accession first and closing them last. The focus is on Chapters 23 and 24, which encompass the judiciary, fundamental rights, justice, freedom, and security,[v] thereby addressing the governance problems that make many in the EU wary of accepting the Western Balkan states in the first place. This is part of the approach that many of the most influential EU members, such as Germany, take towards the Balkans – though prepared for their accession, they will in no way accept cutting corners. Frontloading is also seen as a way to lend legitimacy to the policy of enlargement itself by demonstrating to the EU populations that accession is taken seriously. The sense is that the accession of the Western Balkan states is inevitable, but will come once they have sufficiently demonstrated their readiness to join by fulfilling all chapters of the acquis, which is regarded as far off.

In general, we can categorize countries as those who are pro-enlargement and those who are wary of it, divided further into those for which Balkan accession is strategically important, and those for which it is mainly a symbolic move (figure 1). For those without a great particular interest in the region, such as France, Latvia, and Poland, support for enlargement remains symbolic but passive. Other countries, most importantly Germany, Britain, and Austria, have demonstrated initiative in solving problems in the Balkans, though all remain committed to a strict application of conditionality in the Balkan states. Britain, dealing with growing Euroscepticism and the rise of populist anti-EU parties, has had its support for enlargement itself dampened.

More recent EU members, such as Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Bulgaria, are all staunchly pro-enlargement, support Balkan accession, and wish to see it happen soon. Interestingly, Croatia, the EU’s newest member and a Balkan neighbour, has no clear policy on Balkan accession, though the many open bilateral disputes with its neighbours may give it several opportunities to block membership. In general, the accession of Serbia is seen as the most pressing of all, although it is predicated on further Serbia-Kosovo talks, pushed especially strongly by Germany.

Western Balkans policy actors are thus most likely to find potential allies and cheerleaders in states with many interests in the region as well as a relative enthusiasm for enlargement in general, but will also encounter many obstacles and potential opponents to the process. The complex dynamics of member states and their views on Balkan accession are illustrated in Fig. 1, with countries on the top right being the most likely advocates. Some, however, have more active policies than others do.

Specific issues that affect member states’ willingness to accept Balkan countries include minority rights, bilateral issues, investments and economic interests (especially energy policy), migration (from the Balkans, as well as to the EU in general), and security interests (especially as Russia is seen to be encroaching on the peninsula, as well as the threat of growing presence of the Islamic State in the region). For many member states, limiting freedom of movement from less developed areas of the Union is a crucial concern. Many wealthier members states express worry about migration from the Western Balkans (especially Germany, which recently announced it was deporting all Balkan asylum-seekers), which is coloured by general concerns over the massive migration flow into the European Union. The EPC report quotes UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron saying that essential to Western Balkan accession was finding “a way to slow down access to each other’s labour markets until we can be sure this will not cause vast migrations.”[vi]

The implications for policy actors in the Western Balkans: Challenges of nationalisation of enlargement

This shift towards the ‘nationalisation of enlargement’, coupled with the “strict but fair” conditionality approach, could have substantial implications for policy actors in the Western Balkan countries, especially those concerned with EU accession. Namely, the process of enlargement will most likely take significantly more time than was initially expected, as the nationalisation of enlargement will only put further brakes on it. While the EU is urged to maintain a clear picture of the benefits of EU membership as well as combine discipline with clear rewards and increased support and investment, local policy actors have a large role to play in the long road to accession.

In such a context, there are several things which can be extrapolated from the EPC’s publication, which policy actors should strategically prioritize when setting their policy goals and devising advocacy strategies. We recommend focusing on the following:

Bilateral issues: One of the recommendations that the EPC publication does have for Balkan states is solving outstanding bilateral issues with each other as well as with member states, in order to pave the way for smooth relationships in the future. This includes enhancing protection of minority rights, especially for populations who are well represented in member states, such as the Hungarian minority in Serbia. This will clear potential future obstacles to accession, having in mind that individual states can block the accession process over a bilateral dispute – as with Greece and Macedonia’s name dispute. Western Balkan states can also use nationalization to their advantage by cultivating friendships with various EU member states individually, in the hopes of gaining more allies and accession cheerleaders.[vii]

Good governance: The ‘difficult’ accession chapters that cover the judiciary, human rights, rule of law, anti-corruption, and so on, are some of the most challenging reforms to tackle in the Balkans. However, too often these reforms are addressed in a merely symbolic manner, or laws adopted without effective implementation. It is crucial for these reforms to take place in good faith and affect fundamental issues, as many EU member states have become increasingly engaged in rule of law reforms in the Balkans, paying close attention to any developments. The EU is unlikely to relax “this strong focus on democratic conditionality (…) in the future,”[viii] which means that empty reforms will merely waste time. As others have pointed out, rule of law is particular important for investor confidence and good economic governance, which ties into the following recommendation.[ix]

Economic governance: In 2014, former EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy Štefan Füle emphasized the importance of economic governance[x] in enlargement policy, suggesting a set of complex and deep reforms were crucial. Indeed, the complexity of the reforms needed in the Balkan states is testament to the need for economic accession criteria to be applied strictly and properly. The EU’s 2015 Economic Reform Programmes for Western Balkan states involve reforms of the labour market, upgraded labour force skills, improved physical capital and transport networks, the cutting of red tape and reducing the amount of administrative hurdles for doing business (often measured in the ‘Ease of Doing Business’ index), trade integration and attracting foreign direct investment. The idea is that the more rigorous the process now, the greater the chance that the Balkan states will eventually join the EU having achieved significant reforms and made progress in crucial areas. Given the different contextual factors (e.g. differences in labour market institutions and their impact on labour market performance), policy actors should play an important part in this process by formulating context-specific options and recommendations for addressing various types of economic reform.  

Internal accountability: For non-state actors in the region, such as NGOs, civic groups, think tanks and other segments of civil society, the prospect of a long accession process must be embraced as an opportunity to have an effective internal accountability mechanism in Balkan states. EU conditionality can provide a normative framework and clear goals for local governments, as well as a method of holding governments responsible for failures to meet these standards. In the future, civil society actors in the Western Balkans may have a broad range of European (and international) actors to lodge complaints with, and can count on European allies who have interests in the Balkans as well as fairly active foreign policies towards them.

Authoritarian tendencies:

As Florian Bieber noted in the LSE European politics blog[xi], the threat of quasi-authoritarian trends in Serbia or Macedonia raises concerns about the potential for regional leaders to become pro-European in their foreign policy, while consolidating anti-democratic or even nationalist trends in their domestic policy. Non-state actors in the region must carefully consider this threat, as the protracted enlargement process will only add incentives to such negative tendencies among local political leaders. Until now, the EU has tended to take pro-government stances and accepted the merely declaratory pro-reform stances of regional leaders. However, operationalizing the external pressure from EU member states vis-à-vis strict conditionality to hold local leaders accountable could be a highly effective strategy for civil society actors. The fragmentation of control over the enlargement process gives policy actors a range of EU actors to lobby in case of non-democratic trends at home. As long as national governments prioritize EU membership as a goal, domestic non-state actors will have a strong tool of internal accountability at their disposal.


A drawn-out accession process can give local actors an effective way to push for domestic reforms in line with EU normative standards. It opens much space for policy analysis and research centres and advocacy organizations, such as think tanks and CSOs, to focus substantially on the above prioritized areas and issues. However, such an effort will require significant change in approach to their policy engagement. I suggest the following:

  • First, a shift is required from a short-term, project-driven focus towards a strategic, long-term policy agenda. This has implications on the approach to funding, and overall programmatic orientation of such organizations. The shift in terms of programming will have to be directed towards specialization and thematic clustering, and away from vaguely defined project-driven, short-term goals.
  • Second, efforts must be invested in establishing strategic partnerships with a number of potential allies across EU – both governments and non-governmental actors – that can help push such an agenda forward. These may include state- and EU-level sister parties, state-subsidised political foundations (as in Germany), umbrella human rights organizations, such as ILGA Europe (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association), social movements, or even lobby groups in EU member states. This has a crucial implication for their overall advocacy approach, and will require increased resources (human, financial, and technical) to be able to reach such a diverse and large set of actors.
  • Third, given the complexity of priority issues and depth of problems and conditions faced by Western Balkan countries, both governmental and non-governmental actors in the region must strategically focus on developing the expertise and capacity to engage competently with such challenging issues. Staff development, specialization, and cooperation with other organizations are central strategies in that respect. This is perhaps the most significant aspect for the future role of policy research and advocacy organizations that need to develop thematic expertise and policy-relevant capacities in order to position themselves as centres that provide much needed knowledge for such challenging policy processes and complex policy issues.
  • Finally, policy and non-state actors can serve as crucial links between the local population, their governments, and the broader process of EU accession. Engaging civil society in policies of reform and harmonization with EU laws and norms is crucial to avoid the alienation of local populations in regards to the EU. Rather than relying on local populations to support EU accession as an end in itself (current polls show enthusiasm for joining the EU in Serbia is less than 50%, for example[xii]), policy actors may translate accession into a set of achievable and positive changes that citizens can support in and of themselves.

By adopting these considerations, local policy actors can position themselves as central figures in the accession process and transform it into a period of positive change and civic engagement, thereby potentially mitigating the consequences of the nationalisation of enlargement – a lengthy accession process and increasing potential obstacles by member states. Faced with the new reality outlined by the European Policy Centre of a European Union loath to accept unready states into its fold, regional actors have an enormous opportunity to take the lead in the ‘journey’ of accession, help shape the process, and give a voice to local populations. The journey may lead to positive reforms for both the EU and Western Balkan states, even if the destination (EU membership, or the Union itself) may change substantially by the end of its course.



“European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations: Chapters of the acquis.” European Commission.

Analitika Center for Social Research. “Labour Market Reforms in BiH: Flexibility without Security?” Policy memo, August 2015.

Final Declaration by the Chair of the Vienna Western Balkans Summit.  Austrian Federal Ministry of European and International Affairs, August 2015.

Balfour, Rosa, and Stratulat, Corina, eds. “EU member states and enlargement towards the Balkans.” EPC ISSUE PAPER No.79, July 2015.

Bieber, Florian. “The refugee crisis underlines the absurdity of Western Balkans states being outside of the EU.” EUROPP European Policy and Politics Blog, London School of Economics, September 5th, 2015.

Danielsson, Christian. “A new approach to economic governance and growth in the Western Balkans.” New Initiatives Centre, 3 April 2014.

Füle, Štefan. “Reforms and competitiveness in the Western Balkans.” Western Balkans 6th Ministerial conference, Belgrade. Parliamentaire Monitor, 23 October 2014.

Kośka, Martyna. “Western Balkans: The Balance of 15 Years of Chasing Europe.” Financial Observer, 17 September 2015.

Murgasova, Zuzana, et al. “Regional Economic Issues Special Report: The Western Balkans 15 Years of Economic Transition.” International Monetary Fund, March 2015.

Najam, Adil. “The Four C's of Government Third Sector-Government Relations.” Nonprofit Management and Leadership 10:4 (2000).

Randjelovic, Stevan. “Is the EU losing Serbia?” EurActiv, 29 September 2015.

Tanasoiu, Cosmina. "Europeanization Post-Accession: Rule Adoption and National Political Elites in Romania and Bulgaria." Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 12:1 (2012): 173-93.

[i] Adil Najam, “The Four C's of Government Third Sector-Government Relations,” Nonprofit Management and Leadership, Volume 10, Issue 4, 2000.

[ii] Rosa Balfour, and Corina Stratulat, eds., “EU member states and enlargement towards the Balkans,” EPC ISSUE PAPER No.79, July 2015, p. xiii.

[iii]Ibid, p. 13

[iv] Cosmina Tanasoiu, "Europeanization Post-Accession: Rule Adoption and National Political Elites in Romania and Bulgaria," Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 12.1 (2012), p. 188.

[v] “European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations: Chapters of the acquis,” European Commission.

[vi] Rosa Balfour, and Corina Stratulat, eds., “EU member states and enlargement towards the Balkans,” EPC ISSUE PAPER No.79, July 2015, p. 53.

[vii] Ibid, p. 235.

[viii] Ibid, p. 227.

[ix] Christian Danielsson, “A new approach to economic governance and growth in the Western Balkans,” New Initiatives Centre, April 3rd, 2014.

[x] Štefan Füle, “Reforms and competitiveness in the Western Balkans,” Western Balkans 6th Ministerial conference, Belgrade, 23 October 2014, Parliamentaire Monitor.

[xi] Florian Beber,. “The refugee crisis underlines the absurdity of Western Balkans states being outside of the EU,” EUROPP European Policy and Politics Blog, London School of Economics, September 5th, 2015.

[xii] Stevan Randjelovic,“Is the EU losing Serbia?” EurActiv, 29 September 2015.