Behind the EU’s Cautious Courtship of the Balkans: QuickTake

(Bloomberg) -- In the map of members of the European Union lies a conspicuous and large hole where five former parts of Yugoslavia plus Albania lie. The leaders of those countries are keen to join the union. Concerned about the region’s stability and the growing influence of Russia, EU officials want that too, but not right away and not as the countries are.

1. Who wants into the EU?

After Slovenia joined in 2004 and Croatia in 2013, there are six countries in southeast Europe that are encircled by the EU and not part of it: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, the Republic of Macedonia and Albania. Collectively, they are referred to as the Western Balkans. In a strategy document released in early February, EU officials named 2025 as the earliest date these aspirants might taste the benefits of being in the world’s largest single market. The report specified that they must first bolster the rule of law, resolve border and other disputes and retool their economies to compete in the bloc.

Behind the EU’s Cautious Courtship of the Balkans: QuickTake

2. Why expand the EU?

EU states see enlargement as a way to improve stability and rule of law at the epicenter of the continent’s bloodiest conflict since World War II and a source of continued volatility. If EU members can boost prosperity among the region’s 18 million people, they’ll be able to worry less about future unrest while also opening up new markets. In addition, expanding the union is a way to counter the influence of an increasingly expansionist Russia under President Vladimir Putin and efforts by China and Turkey to increase their sway in the region through investment and soft-power initiatives.

3. Can the six all join as soon as 2025?

In an initial draft of its Western Balkans Strategy, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, singled out only Montenegro and Serbia as potentially ready for membership "in a 2025 perspective." It said accession talks could begin with Albania and the Republic of Macedonia by that time, while Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo could potentially become candidates. The commission backtracked the next day. It said entry in the middle of next decade was possible for them all if they did the work. It likened the process to "a caravan" rather than "a regatta," although the reality is that some countries are farther along than others.

4. What’s the biggest hurdle?

Probably the rule of law. Montenegro is a case in point. It started talks to join the EU in 2012 and is the furthest on the road to membership. But like its neighbors, it’s been told by the European Commission to crack down on graft, organized crime and political influence in the courts and media. “The track record both on successful investigations and convictions, in particular in high-level corruption cases, and on prevention of corruption remains limited," the commission said in its latest report on Montenegro from 2016.

5. How do regional disputes factor in?

Lingering disagreements over frontiers -- as well as animosity from the wars of the 1990s -- are another stumbling block. The most visible is Serbia’s refusal to recognize the sovereignty of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. While Serbia is the second most-advanced candidate, the commission has conditioned membership on it normalizing ties with its neighbor. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has pledged to propose a solution in or around April. Serbia has the lowest public support for EU membership within the Western Balkans.

Behind the EU’s Cautious Courtship of the Balkans: QuickTake

6. What are the economic considerations?

The commission concluded that none of the Western Balkans had a "functioning market economy" or the ability to cope with the "competitive pressure and market forces" in the EU. Albania, for example, has been granted candidate status, which is a precursor to starting official talks. Brussels is demanding the country reduce public debt that’s more than 70 percent of annual economic output, cut its budget deficit, increase market competitiveness, and improve its infrastructure in a country that has only 1.4 kilometers (0.9 miles) of road for every 1,000 inhabitants, just 1/7 of the EU average.

7. Are there other obstacles?

Yes. The Republic of Macedonia has hit a roadblock with neighboring Greece. While the republic was the first country in the region to become a candidate, its EU and NATO entry bids have been blocked by Greece which says "Macedonia" should refer only to its northern region, which was the stronghold in ancient times of Greece’s greatest hero, Alexander the Great. The two countries are in talks to find a solution, which the Republic of Macedonia needs to officially start accession negotiations.

8. Why are Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo farthest behind?

Bosnia-Herzegovina is dogged by suspicions of corruption and organized crime links in its government. That doesn’t make it unique. But it’s also source of instability, given that its two main components, the mostly ethnic-Serb Republika Srpska and the Bosnian-Croat Federation, accuse each other of pursuing opposing goals. The commission has said it can become a candidate "with sustained effort and engagement." Kosovo faces even more hurdles, as five of the EU’s 28 members don’t officially recognize it. It has also suffered from tension between its ruling and opposition parties, which have engaged in frequent scuffles in parliament marked by the release of tear gas grenades .

9. What’s Russia’s position?

Russia has resisted the expansion of the EU into what it calls its "near abroad" and has stepped up efforts to increase its influence in the region. Montenegro accused the Kremlin of a 2016 coup attempt before the country joined NATO. Moscow denies the charge. Russia also supports Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo in international forums, as well as selling it tanks and warplanes and offering investment. In response, Serbia has refused to join EU nations in their sanctions against Putin’s government.

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