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How to get away with a breakthrough in the European Union



Are the Western Balkans' aspirations for the European Union accession being impeded by discussions about Kyiv's potential membership? We delve into the complexities of the EU enlargement process to find a way for the Western Balkans to revitalize accession prospects.


We are almost there, the European leaders are meeting in mid-December, and they will deliberate on the possibility of opening formal negotiations for Kyiv’s membership. According to the State of the Union speech, held by the European Commission’s (EC) President Von der Leyen on September 13th, the European Union is ready to welcome several other countries and reach the number of 35 members. 

We remind our readers that the European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations refers back to the legal basis found in the Treaty on the European Union (articles 2 and 49) and it requires the applicant State to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria, as well as the so-called acquis communautaire. Moreover, the stages towards accession include the monitoring and the screening with the presentation of benchmark requirements by the EC, once every chapter corresponding to a policy field has met the European standards they can be closed together with the negotiation, and an accession treaty would be drafted.

Next week, the national authorities are expected to vote in the European Council, with the unanimity rule, for opening the process, however there would seem to be more than one dissatisfied party at the negotiating table. Viktor Orbàn has expressed himself in a letter against the decision to block 13 billion € European funds over concerns on the Hungarian state of the rule of law. And there are still the EU's old acquaintances in the Balkans to be considered, who have been standing by for entry for the past 20 years and perceive a double standard in the European quick approach to Ukraine.

Chasing EU Membership

Although the majority of Member States supports a merit-based methodology for enlargement, concern is growing in the Western Balkans that Ukraine’s prevalence in the public debate could eclipse their cause. Apprehensions about the European interest in the East were also confirmed by the EC’s proposal to start accession for Moldova, and the achievement of candidate status by Georgia.

Nevertheless the reasons for the delay are to find in the various obstacles remaining before the Western Balkans themselves (e.g. Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia). Despite the initial optimism and commitment, the WB’s aspirations for EU membership have faced significant challenges throughout the years and these have led to a sense of failure in the pursuit of integration. Foremost among them, the unresolved regional disputes marked by historical matters, but also the economic struggles resulting from the simultaneous liberalization, deregulation, and privatization coupled with the state-building attempts. The situation has been further exacerbated by high corruption and clientelism, insufficient monetary reforms and spread unemployment, posing a considerable obstacle to meet the EU’s economic compliance.

As a matter of fact, one of the pre-conditions to accession is the “absorption capacity”, meaning that Member States should evaluate the strength of economic stability, the ability to compete in the European single market, and generally the capacity to adopt the EU standards. This criterion is fundamental to ensure a smooth transition to the membership, and it compels efforts from both sides.

The lack of tangible results and the slow progress have fueled local skepticism about the effectiveness of the accession in respect of its power to act as a driver for democratic reforms and to motivate candidate countries in their path to overcome the existing impediments. Moreover, the recent distrust in the enlargement’s fairness signals once more the need to reshape the narrative, from the disillusionment to the positive impact of the Ukrainian model on the region. Another strategy for revitalizing the prospects for future accession could be to seize a more collaborative and determined attitude within the Western Balkan nations.

Advancing Integration via Collaborative Regional Energy Initiatives

The Western Balkans, as many other countries in Europe, have a long tradition of partnership with Russia. The outbreak of war in Ukraine represented a challenge for energy supply, but at the same time provided the region with the possibility to regain prominence to the EU’s eyes. Indeed, the collaboration in the energy sector could become the driving force behind the integration and the Western Balkans would regret not following this impulse to approach the EU. 

According to the Eu External Energy Strategy, the EU commits itself to overcome the vulnerability due to fossil energy from Russia and to strive for clean, efficient, and affordable energy. In order to permanently disengage from Russian dependence, there is thus a pressing need for developing a new infrastructural network to support the green transition in the short term. And the Western Balkans are a key area for gas transportation. For example, the Trans-Atlantic Pipeline (TAP) is an existing pipeline going from Azerbaijan to Greece and through Albania to Italy.

Moreover, the energy connections serve the promotion of intra-regional cooperation as a second goal, which is another weak point standing in front of accession. For this scope the EU is insisting on the establishment of new dialogue canals and historical reconciliation, such as the project for the Ionian Adriatic Pipeline (IAP), a pipeline that would connect the Croatian gas transmitting system to the TAP, while including Montenegro and Albania too. The same scope applies to the electricity grids. Here the EU has been working on the Trans-Balkan Power Corridor, for linking the energy markets from Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, to Croatia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and Italy.

All of which improves reliability and stability at the advantage of citizens, together with the inclusion of renewable sources. Following the first attempts to establish a common structure and ensure uninterrupted supplies, back in 2005 with the “Energy Community”, this same international organization has included neighboring countries in the European energy market. And since 2019, the adhering states have started adopting the EU energy legislation in compliance with the Third Energy Package, harmonizing their policies and standards in the prospect of accession. However, the most remarkable feature is certainly the security target, which provides inevitable knock-on benefits for the region, through the aforementioned cross-border connections, and necessity to shape a mutual vision for addressing common challenges.


The Western Balkans per se do not make large use of gas, so that the existing/future pipelines crossing these countries are more essential to the EU than to themselves. Therefore, Balkan élites shouldn’t invest all the money in the construction of new import or conversion infrastructures, but instead in a breakthrough in the European Union. How? Firstly, using European funds to develop stocking systems and green technologies in order to replace their old lignite power plants. Because abandoning coal and oil is at the core of the fifth cluster for integration, namely Climate, Energy, and Mobility. Secondly, it is necessary to strive for what the region has naturally to offer, e.g. hydropower and solar power, and to make the legislation for adopting such practices easier and more transparent. The case of the Pecka Visitor Centre in Bosnia, where local activists installed solar panels but couldn’t connect them to the power grid, is more common than one would think. Finally, media in the region play a significant role in shaping an informed narrative, and overall media freedom has improved in 2023 according to the Reporters without borders Index. However, disinformation still persists, and the EU credibility has been deeply shaken once again. It is necessary to find new tools to fight the state capture system, consisting in the subordination of the institutions to private interests and which leads to a biased decision-making. Certainly we can say that the entry of the Western Balkans is not competing with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, the question remains to be seen when negotiations will open for all these countries.

Further sources to be consulted

  • Enervis (2022) Powering the Future of the Western Balkans with Renewables. Study on behalf of Agora Energiewende.

  • Arolda Elbasani & Senada Šelo Šabić (2018) Rule of law, corruption and democratic accountability in the course of EU enlargement, Journal of European Public Policy, 25:9, 1317-1335, DOI: 10.1080/13501763.2017.1315162

  • Solveig Richter & Natasha Wunsch (2020) Money, power, glory: the linkages between EU conditionality and state capture in the Western Balkans, Journal of European Public Policy, 27:1, 41-62, DOI: 10.1080/13501763.2019.1578815

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