The Endless Process: The Western Balkans and the European Union

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Western Balkan geography is important in terms of economy, security, energy, and transportation routes due to its location. It has a multi-faceted strategic importance, especially since it is close to the European Union (EU) countries and serves as a corridor. In this context, it is important for energy security that the Western Balkans are located at the transition point in providing energy flow to Europe. Its location ensures that the states of the region are considered indispensable actors, especially in the transport of Russian natural gas to Europe and the implementation of alternative energy routes.

On the other hand, the fact that it is complementary to commercial transportation routes makes the region stand out as a different competitive area. In this context, it is seen that different actors compete in the Western Balkan geography. However, the region brings with it many challenges. The fact that the Western Balkan geography has different ethnic and religious segments together causes various tensions. One of the most important factors in the disintegration of Yugoslavia was the conflicts arising from the ethnic and religious diversity in question. Although some of the conflicts have been resolved, it cannot be said that the region has fully stabilized at this point.

As stated above, the region offers many opportunities for the EU. Because the security of Europe is closely related to the stability of the region. Because it is possible for any problem experienced in neighboring countries that are so close to reaching the union countries by creating a domino effect.

In this context, within the framework of its enlargement policy, the EU follows an agenda for the countries of the region to become EU members. The policy implemented by the Union through Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo is very important. Among these countries, Slovenia, in 2004; Croatia became an EU member in 2013. The fact that the two countries broke away from Yugoslavia relatively easily and then recovered faster has been decisive in the conclusion of the memberships.

It is known that Montenegro, which has made the most effort in terms of joining the EU and is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), has turned to the harmonization process with the EU after declaring its independence in 2006. Especially, being away from ethnic conflicts and having a more homogeneous structure compared to other Western Balkan countries gave Montenegro an advantage on the way to the EU. At this point, it should be reminded that the Podgorica administration stated that it took Zagreb as an example in many issues. Of course, this has played a critical role in relations with the EU.[1]

Montenegro applied for EU membership in 2008 and obtained candidate country status in 2010. Although negotiations are currently ongoing, political instability in the country, increasing corruption, and the tensions between Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church in the recent period have hampered the accession process.

One of the countries closest to candidacy is Serbia. Especially the bloody conflicts of the 1990s, the mismanagement of the country, corruption, and the increase in criminal organizations, and all these factors caused Serbia to experience various problems in its relations with the EU. However, after the change in the Serbian government in 2007, EU membership was set as a goal. Within this framework, positive steps were taken within the country, and finally, candidate status was obtained in 2012. However, in the current situation, Serbia-EU relations count as where they are. Because the tension with Kosovo and the close relations of the Belgrade administration with Moscow and Beijing make their relations with the union difficult. Although Serbia’s policy of balance caused Belgrade to have the impression of a country oriented towards the EU, its attitude in the Russia-Ukraine War drew the reaction of the EU. The increasing tension in relations with Kosovo has made the issue even more complicated.

In the latest statements made by the EU officials, it is seen that the recognition of Kosovo’s independence is stipulated to Serbia. Belgrade denies this.[2] On the other hand, a decrease is observed in the desire of the Serbian people to join the EU. It is stated that the Ukraine War is effective in this.[3]

Looking at the EU’s relations with Albania, it is seen that the country obtained candidacy status in 2014 and it was decided to start the accession negotiations in 2020. However, it is understood that Albania has fallen behind in the harmonization process due to political instability, problems in democratic functioning, and corruption.

An extremely troublesome process can be mentioned in the EU adventure of North Macedonia. Although it obtained candidate country status relatively early in 2005, conflicts with neighboring countries Greece and Bulgaria undermine the country’s membership process.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, on the other hand, the complex political system implemented in the country and the political instability brought about by this system constitute the biggest obstacle in the harmonization process. In particular, the bottlenecks experienced in the decision-making process hinder the reforms to be carried out depending on the harmonization process.

On the other hand, the fact that the country still hosts an ethnically divided atmosphere makes the sustainable stability desired by the EU impossible. Although Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for candidate country status in 2016, it is still considered a potential candidate country. However, recently, it has come to the fore to grant the status of candidate country to Bosnia and Herzegovina by the EU. This is a positive development; however, how this will happen in the shadow of political crises is a matter of serious debate.

When we look at the relations of the EU with Kosovo, the fact that the country is the last state to declare its independence in the region and the problems experienced in this regard cause significant difficulties. Many countries are reluctant to officially recognize Kosovo. Moreover, Kosovo is far from stable politically and in terms of security. For this reason, it is stated that it should make a long-term agreement with Serbia in its relations with the EU.

Considering the above developments, the union approaches the region within the framework of reforms and development; however, it can be said that this policy has been gradually abandoned. One of the most important examples of this is the Berlin Process, which started in 2014 and could not be brought to an end. The process in question was taken as a step towards the expansion of the EU to the Western Balkans region with the initiatives of Germany. At the conference held in Berlin, many decisions were taken in the fields of energy security, unemployment, and trade for the Western Balkan countries. In particular, decisions were taken to accelerate the integration of the region with the EU; but most of them were not fulfilled. Behind this lies the reluctance of the EU and the choice of the countries in the region to take a path contrary to the requirements of the harmonization process.

As can be understood, the disagreements between the countries of the region, the decrease in the number of democratic leaders throughout the region, and the developments arising from ethnic and religious disagreements can be counted among the factors affecting the harmonization process.[4] However, it is possible to say that the EU has made a positive change in its policy in the Western Balkans, based on its increased visibility in the Kosovo-Serbia tension.

It is known that the Union has evaluated the membership processes within the framework of Copenhagen Criteria in the past. However, it can be said that this has changed in the recent period and the EU mainly considers security and economic dimensions in its approach to the region. It can be evaluated that the Russia-Ukraine War was effective in experiencing such a transformation. The EU because of the war; faced an energy crisis, security vulnerabilities, and commercial disruptions. Being aware of the potential of the region, the union is going to change its attitude.

As a result, the EU is expected to develop a new strategy by reviewing its relations with the region in the last period. The reaction of the Western Balkan countries to the protracted processes and the perception of the EU as a security threat are effective in this. Because the credibility and reputation of the union, which is faced with global and regional crises, are damaged due to protracted processes. Many factors, such as energy security and threats from Russia, cause the EU to reconsider its approach to the region. In this context, it can be predicted that the EU will approach the region more inclusively in the future and many processes that have been going on for many years will be completed positively. The statements made together also point to this.

[1]  Gamze Armişen-Volkan Tatar, “Batı Balkan Devletleri ve Avrupa Birliği Genişlemesine Etkisi, Kırklareli Üniversitesi İktisadi ve İdari Bilimler Fakültesi Dergisi, 11(1), 2022, p. 221.

[2] “Vulin: Nećemo priznati Kosovo, napustiti RS, uvesti sankcije Rusiji”, N1 Info,, (Date of Accession: 20.10.2022).

[3] “Srbija i entuzijazam za EU – gde smo danas, a kako je bilo na početku puta”, N1 Info,, (Date of Accession: 20.10.2022).

[4] Dimitar Bechev, “What Has Stopped EU Enlargement in the Western Balkans?”, Carnegie Europe,,disrupt%20or%20threaten%20the%20EU, (Date of Accession: 20.10.2022).

Mustafa Çuhadar, İstanbul Üniversitesi Edebiyat Fakültesi İngiliz Dili ve Edebiyatı Bölümü mezunudur. Lisans döneminde disiplinlerarası çalışmalarına ağırlık veren Çuhadar'ın başlıca çalışma alanları, Balkanlar ve İstihbarat çalışmalarıdır. 2021 yılında Ankara Üniversitesi Türk İnkılap Tarihi Enstitüsü’nde yüksek lisans eğitimine başlayan Çuhadar, halihazırda Bosna Hersek’teki siyasi partileri inceleyen yüksek lisans tezini hazırlamaktadır. Çuhadar, iyi derecede İngilizce, Boşnakça, Hırvatça ve Sırpça ve temel seviyede Almanca bilmektedir.