Bosnia and Herzegovina was accepted as an official candidate by the European Union (EU) leaders on 15 December 2022. Bosnia and Herzegovina, which applied for candidacy in 2016, was approved six years later. North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Albania have become candidate countries in 2005, 2010, 2012 and 2014, respectively. Kosovo, on the other hand, applied for candidacy to the EU on 15 December 2022, stating that it will not be accepted yet. Also North Macedonia and Albania, 2022; Serbia started membership negotiations with the EU in 2014 and Montenegro in 2012.
When the dates are examined, it is understood that the EU membership processes of the Western Balkan states, which are geographically integrated with the European continent, have turned into a long-term adventure. In this situation, the failure of the region to provide basic conditions such as democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression, fight against corruption and economic development, as well as the fact that the ethnic and border problems in the region turned into a deadlock.
On the other hand, some member states such as France and the Netherlands, which put forward many reasons such as immigration, organized crime, and smuggling, do not want the EU to expand further; some states also use veto rights due to specific issues. For example, the candidacy of North Macedonia was vetoed by Greece for a while due to the name crisis; Although it met all the conditions to start the accession negotiations, Bulgaria used its veto power for North Macedonia on the grounds that it did not fulfil the conditions of the good neighbourly and cooperation agreement.
The situation in question has led to an increase in distrust towards the EU in the eyes of the Western Balkan countries and the EU membership process to take on a stagnant and/or slow-progressing concept. However, in recent months, the EU’s interest in the region has increased; It is noteworthy that the Berlin Process is being tried to be revived.
The threat to European security and Western values due to the Russia-Ukraine War was the driving force in the said movement. “We live in new geopolitical conditions, and in these new conditions, we need to stand together more than ever to defend our shared values and an international rules-based order,” said Joseph Borell, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy while “The stability and prosperity of the region are inseparable from the stability and prosperity of Europe as a whole,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The expression shows that the feeling of “Europeanness” and “We” in the region is desired to be kept alive in today’s geopolitical ruptures. Because, with the Russia-Ukraine War, the Moscow administration wanted to deepen its relations with the Slavic communities in the Western Balkans and accordingly, the potential of the region to become a competitive field has increased.
Russia’s active involvement in the region and its use of conflict-prone ethnic groups in favour of its own interests is considered a situation that should be prevented in terms of EU security. As a matter of fact, while the EU supported the Kyiv administration financially and militarily against the Russian threat in the Ukraine War, it implemented sanctions targeting the Moscow administration; Bosnia and Herzegovina Serbs and Serbia have not accepted EU sanctions. Russia also does not recognize the independence of Kosovo and especially supports the Serbian nationalists who have increased their protests in the north of Kosovo as of August 2022. While mutual support strengthens anti-Europeanism in Serbia, while developing relations with Russia.
Another actor in the region that conflicts with the interests of the EU is China, which is defined as an economic and systemic competitor. Within the scope of the Belt-Road Project, China is increasing its influence in the Western Balkans day by day. Unlike the EU, China is expanding its investments in the region by not interfering in domestic politics and ignoring some aspects such as state aid, corruption or labor laws. The fact that China does not see the issues, which are described as the weaknesses of the countries in the region, as an obstacle in the EU membership process, leads to the development of a relationship network in the region that the EU does not want.
In this context, the EU has started to act with a policy understanding that the closer it gets to the Western Balkan countries, the more it will protect the region from Russia and China. Of course, the fact that the EU Term President Czechia attaches importance to the development of relations with the region, and the German Government’s advocacy that the EU should expand towards the Western Balkans has been an important factor affecting the Western Balkans policy of the Union.
The EU-Western Balkans Summit, which will contribute to the improvement of relations because of rapprochement, was held twice in 2022. The EU’s close interest in the Western Balkans increases the motivation of the countries in the region in terms of accelerating the negotiation process and strengthening the sense of belonging to Europe. So, will the increasing rapprochement between the EU and the Western Balkans fulfil the dreams of the Western Balkan countries to join the EU?
It is obvious that the current situation will increase the areas of cooperation between the two sides. However, considering the existence of policies that candidates must implement to become a full member of the EU; it is not yet expected that the countries of the region will face a process that will result in EU membership. Similarly, it is noteworthy that more emphasis was placed on mutual commitment in the final declaration of the EU-Western Balkans Summit held in Tirana, the capital of Albania, on 6 December 2022.
When the reasons why the membership will not be realized soon are examined, the problems experienced by the states of the region in terms of democratization draw attention, although they differ. In the 2021 Democracy Index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the democracies of North Macedonia and Montenegro deteriorate and are flawed democracies; Serbia, Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina are stated to be in the hybrid democracies category.
The EU, which is currently in trouble with Hungary and Poland for violating values such as the rule of law, freedom of expression, violation of fundamental human rights and corruption, it would not want to expand its borders towards a third country that will harm its interests.
Moreover, the existence of ethnic-based conflicts in the region since the dissolution of Yugoslavia is an obstacle to EU membership. The EU cannot act as a unit for the management and resolution of conflicts, nor can the countries of the region make concessions in the normalization of relations for EU membership today. Fulfilling the economic criteria, which is a step to be overcome in the realization of EU membership, is getting harder for the Western Balkans day by day due to the war in Ukraine and the resulting rising energy and food prices and rising inflation.
Under the conditions, the EU will need to keep alive the sense that the region belongs to Europe, based on the assumption that the EU membership of the Western Balkans cannot be realized in the short term and the importance of the region for European security continues to increase. Perhaps that is why the EU is developing its relations with the Western Balkans within the framework of the European Political Community, the project of French President Emmanuel Macron.
As a result, with the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the Western Balkan countries adopted policies with a European perspective and wanted to become a de-facto EU member. The Union, on the other hand, sees the Western Balkans as part of Europe. However, the expansion of the EU borders into the region depends on the fulfilment of the current criteria of the Western Balkans and the resolution of political problems between some member states and the states of the region. Although the Russia-Ukraine War has increased interest in the region, it can be predicted that the EU membership adventure in the Western Balkans will not result in a positive outcome in the short term. The prolongation of the process may lead the Western Balkan countries, which want to attract the attention of the EU, to be more tolerant of the presence of Russia and China in the region.
 “EU Leaders Grant Bosnia EU Candidate Status”, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/eu-leaders-grant-bosnia-eu-candidate-status-2022-12-15/, (Date of Accession: 17.12.2022).
 “Kosovo Formally Applies to Join EU”, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/kosovo-submits-eu-membership-application-2022-12-15/, (Date of Accession: 17.12.2022).
 “HRVP Borrell: A Positive Dynamic for the EU Enlargement Process”, European Union External Action, https://www.eeas.europa.eu/eeas/hrvp-borrell-positive-dynamic-eu-enlargement-process_en, (Date of Accession: 17.12.2022).
“China’s Strategic Interests in the Western Balkans, European Parliament, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/thinktank/en/document/EPRS_BRI(2022)733558, (Date of Accession: 17.12.2022).
 “Democracy Index 2021: Less Than Half the World Lives in A Democracy”, The Economist Intelligence Unity, https://www.eiu.com/n/democracy-index-2021-less-than-half-the-world-lives-in-a-democracy/, (Date of Accession: 17.12.2022).
“Rule of Law in Poland and Hungary Has Worsened”, European Parliament, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20200109IPR69907/rule-of-law-in-poland-and-hungary-has-worsened, (Date of Accession: 17.12.2022).