EU enlargement is becoming a geopolitical tool for securing borders and consolidating the continental bloc. This will likely also impact the Balkans, judging by the EU’s increased diplomatic presence in the region over recent months
The EU’s decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, and potential candidate status to Georgia, is part of an all-encompassing realignment of the Union’s foreign and security policies: the EU (alongside NATO) is strengthening its eastern flank against Russia.
This decision has very important implications for the logic behind the EU accession process. Not only has proximity to Russia expediated negotiations with these three former Soviet republics, but it has also shifted priorities away from the strict Copenhagen criteria and convoluted negotiation procedures. Conversely, Albania and North Macedonia waited more than 20 years to start negotiating, while Bosnia-Herzegovina only gained candidate status after Ukraine and Moldova.
Accession requirements – ranging from the adopting of essential values, implementing of reforms, securing of human rights and the rule of law, to the resolving of regional issues – seem to have been circumvented in the case of Ukraine and Moldova. At the same time, those criteria proved crucial in slowing the accession negotiation process for Balkan countries for decades. It is worth noting that Moldova is much less attuned to EU criteria than Bosnia-Herzegovina, North Macedonia or Albania. When it comes to unresolved territorial issues, all three of these post-Soviet countries have secessionist regions and contested borders (Georgia even has two of them!).
The best thing the EU can offer is EU membership itself; all other alternatives, such as gradual entry or second-tier accession, are hardly compensation for recognising Kosovo’s independence
So, the most important implication of the three new prospective EU member states for the Balkans is the fact that security and geopolitical logic – a realpolitik of sorts – seems to have prevailed over the previously dominant narrative that was bureaucratised through the Copenhagen criteria. And EU enlargement is thus back in focus as a geopolitical tool for securing borders and consolidating the continental bloc. This is likely to be the case with the Balkans as well, judging by the EU’s increased diplomatic presence in the region over recent months.
Geopolitics seems to have become the rule of the game when it comes to Serbia’s accession, rather than merely the opening of new chapters or clusters. And this geopolitics centres around the issue of Kosovo, which is slowly becoming the main obstacle on Serbia’s path to Europe. The dispute with Kosovo will actually overshadow all other processes when it comes to future negotiations.
But this isn’t the only reason EU popularity is on the wane in Serbia. What appears to be bothering the Serbian population the most, perhaps even the staunchly pro-EU part of that population, is the distinct lack of a clear perspective. The best thing the EU can offer is EU membership itself; all other alternatives, such as gradual entry or second-tier accession, are hardly compensation for recognising Kosovo’s independence. That being said, this fully-fledged membership in the European Union seems quite elusive – there is no clear indication that Serbia would be admitted sooner even if it fully accepted all conditions. Behind the EU’s diminishing appeal are the excruciating, decade-long negotiations without clear benefits, and not merely anti-EU attitudes.