The European Union Enlargement in the Western Balkans: A Never-Ending Story of High Hopes and High Disappointments

The European Union Enlargement in the Western Balkans: A Never-Ending Story of High Hopes and High Disappointments

Evita Dionysiou (Hellenic Police Academy and Metropolitan College, Greece)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-9055-3.ch003
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This chapter offers an analysis of the Western Balkans' thorny path towards joining the European Union (EU). The aim is to identify the key hurdles in the European enlargement in the Western Balkans as well as to suggest ways to deal with these hurdles. The chapter begins with a historical overview and proceeds to a discussion of the most persistent hurdles that still derail the EU enlargement process. After offering recommendations on how to overcome these roadblocks, the chapter provides an outlook. Looking ahead, there is still hope that the European dream of the Western Balkans will eventually turn into reality. The final outcome will be determined to a significant degree by the commitment of the candidate countries, the EU as a whole, but also the future position of the 27 member states. Although the new enlargement methodology can be seen as a step forward, individual member states can still hijack the enlargement process. This might prove to be the Achilles' heel of the entire EU enlargement project.
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Historical Background

The EU enlargement process in the Western Balkans dates back to 1999, when the EU introduced a strategic framework for its relations with the countries of the region (the Stabilisation and Association Process- SAP)4. The SAP was established with the purpose to support the gradual rapprochement of the Western Balkan countries with the EU (European Parliament, 2021) and was loaded with high expectations.

In 2003, at the Thessaloniki summit, the European Council reaffirmed its determination to fully support the European perspective of the countries of the region5. At this time, hopes were high; the enlargement process was perceived as a geostrategic investment in peace, stability and security and an opportunity for the EU to strengthen its role and remain the most visible player in the Western Balkans6. In this context, the Western Balkans’ European dream received active support from EU member states.

However, in the following years, the EU enlargement in the Western Balkans unfolded at a slow pace. A critical point was the completion of the 2004 enlargement, which brought into the Union ten former communist countries (together with Cyprus and Malta). This was the largest enlargement in the history of the EU- quite often referred to as ‘big bang’ (e.g. Berger & Moutos, 2004). The 2004 enlargement was followed by the accessions of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 and the silent accession of Croatia in 2013. This brought the total number of member states to twenty-eight.

The EU, with the ‘big bang’ enlargement, had achieved, in a very short period of time, a number of important goals7. However, following this extreme expansion of the Union, public opinion started shifting against enlargement. This shift was widely attributed to the so-called enlargement fatigue on the EU side (Devrim & Schulz, 2009; Hay & Smith, 2005; Reka, 2010; Szolucha, 2010; Zängle, 2004)8 and the parallel accession fatigue on the side of the Western Balkan countries (O’Brennan, 2014). However, the shifting public opinion was also viewed as a result of the shortcomings of Bulgarian and Romanian accessions (Walldén, 2017). Another contributing factor was the fact that the remaining countries on the EU’s enlargement agenda (i.e. the Western Balkans and Turkey) were evidently more ‘difficult’ than the previous ones and less popular in the EU (Ibid)9.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Intergovernmental (Cooperation): It is characterised by state-centrism, allowing states to cooperate in specific fields without giving up their sovereignty.

Widening vs. Deepening Debate: It concerns the relationship between two interacting logics of integration (widening and deepening of the EU).

Stabilisation and Association Process: A framework for relations between the countries of the Western Balkans and the EU.

Copenhagen Criteria: A set of conditions established by the European Council that must be fulfilled by applicant countries as a prerequisite for becoming members of the European Union.

Regatta Approach: An approach to enlargement, whereby each aspirant country proceeds in accordance with its individual efforts and pace.

EU Acquis: It includes the treaties as primary legislation, the regulations, directives, decisions, recommendations and opinions as secondary legislation, as well as other sources of law, such as the decisions of the European Court of Justice, general principles of law, international agreements involving the EU, and other acts.

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