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After almost two decades of intense European integration efforts, democratic performance throughout the region has not yet acquired the expected positive dynamic. The Zagreb Summit from May 2020, the first such event organised only online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, celebrated exactly twenty years after the Zagreb Summit in 2000, which first expressed the ‘European perspective’ of the countries of the Western Balkans. After all those coordinated hopes involved in the process, unfortunately neither the adoption of democratic reforms, nor the EU’s rigorous democratic conditionality have managed to overcome informal power structures, state capture and patronage in Balkan domestic politics, but have, instead, rather consolidated them. Let us briefly review the main events from 2020, the year that will in history books remain associated with the global reset brought by the coronavirus pandemic, that are relevant for both the EU and the Western Balkans.
On February 6, 2020 the newly appointed Commissioner for Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi presented the Commission’s enlargement strategy tellingly titled ‘Enhancing the accession process — A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans’. This new enlargement methodology puts a stronger emphasis on the fundamental principles of the EU accession process — the rule of law, democratic governance and fundamental rights and freedoms. The strategy contained the new methodology that the Commission was expected to swiftly apply to Albania and North Macedonia and, if they requested so, also to Serbia and Montenegro. There is still a need for better clarifications on the EC side on how exactly will this methodology be adapted to the cases of the more advanced negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro after they have expressed willingness to adopt it.
On March 25, 2020 the Council officially decided to open negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. The first intergovernmental conferences were thus expected to be convened as soon as possible after the adoption of the negotiating frameworks by the Council. Starting with the fundamentals’ cluster, the Commission continued to monitor the progress and continued compliance of both countries in all areas of the conditions identified by the Council in June 2018.
On May 6, 2020 Croatia’s presidency hosted the first ever online EU-Western Balkans Zagreb Summit. Because of the ongoing pandemic, the Zagreb Summit took place by video-conference. Evidently, the focus was on a joint response to the crisis and on the common commitment to support the political, economic and social transformation of the region. Marking two decades since the 2000 Zagreb conference, the EU and Western Balkan leaders adopted, in the end, the Zagreb Declaration, confirming the region’s ‘European perspective’, albeit without mentioning at all enlargement as a process. Going beyond the coronavirus crisis, the Declaration underlined the region’s strategic importance for the Union. There are evident similarities between the Zagreb Declaration and the Sofia Declaration adopted in 2018 during the Bulgarian Presidency. At the political level, both declarations confirmed the European perspective of the Western Balkans, while neither of them mentioned enlargement. Most of the aspects mentioned in the Sofia declaration – economics, connectivity, counter-terrorism, foreign and security policy, migration, countering disinformation and hybrid threats — were confirmed in the Zagreb Declaration.
On July 1st, 2020 Germany’s presidency of the Council of the European Union began and lasted until December 31st 2020. These were an extremely important six months not just because of the second wave of the pandemic, but also because of events that influenced the enlargement process. A period when the Union was facing key challenges in finding proper ways to respond to the health and economic crisis and at the same time attempting to preserve its unity. These aspects became the main priorities of the German presidency as seen in its main motto: ‘Make Europe strong again. Together.’
On September 4, 2020 a US-brokered deal was reached between Kosovo and Serbia. This was made possible after Trump appointed close ally Richard Grenell, the former U.S. ambassador to Germany, as his new special envoy for Serbia-Kosovo negotiations in 2019. The deal was portrayed by all three governments as a momentous diplomatic achievement, and it was more focused on economic cooperation and not resolution of the territorial dispute. Reached after two days of talks, the document also included plans for Israel and Kosovo to establish diplomatic relations and for Serbia to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. Experts argued that this was a heavy foreign policy loss for the EU because while the EU sees itself as the primary mediator in the Balkans, the reality on the ground points to mounting U.S. influence over the governments of Serbia and Kosovo.
On October 6, 2020 the new enlargement package was launched, being the first such document since the new methodology on EU accession was introduced in February of that year. With the same occasion, the new progress reports covering 2019-2020 were published and this meant that the European integration had once again risen to the top of the region’s agenda. Together with it, the Commission adopted also an Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, which sets out to provide up to €9 billion of EU funding for investment in sustainable connectivity, clean energy, environment, digitalization, human capital and competitiveness. As a response to the foreseen economic crisis that will hit the region in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a follow-up to the new enlargement methodology, this new financial stimulus of the EC aimed to foster regional integration and convergence of the Western Balkans with the European Union and to spur the long-term economic recovery of the region, and more solid support for a green and digital transition. The annual report’s political assessment of the situation in the Western Balkans is not the worst it could get, but it is still grim — marked by multiple remaining problems that have already existed for the last decade in the region, especially in terms of judicial systems, corruption, organised crime, public administration, and media freedom.

There is a new dimension of the Macedonian question – the one of the country’s EU accession (source: Pixabay, CC0)

On November 17, 2020 Bulgaria did not approve the start of negotiations for the EU accession of North Macedonia. As the European perspective of North Macedonia has been repeatedly questioned in recent years, Bulgaria’s veto on North Macedonia’s bid to start negotiations to join the bloc also prevented Albania from starting accession talks. Bulgaria’s veto affects the EU’s credibility in the eyes of the political elites and ordinary citizens of the candidate countries. There are already voices comparing the Bulgarian-Macedonian dispute with the one between Serbia and Kosovo that we mentioned before, although of course the proportions of this comparison must be maintained. If the stalemate persists in 2021, and Bulgaria maintains its veto at the next EU Council meetings, we can say that the preconditions are being created for a new large- scale diplomatic dispute, which will once again slow down the European course of North Macedonia, already affected by the vetoes imposed in the past by Greece and France for various reasons.
November 2020 also brought a different push on the EU’s enlargement policy due to the US presidential elections. Joe Biden’s victory came with high expectations for the Western Balkans, too. We expect, first of all, a paradigm shift in the American administration. The new president is expected to try to reposition the United States in the region — more sharply, thus weakening the growing influence of actors such as China or Russia. One method would be to support the European integration of states already in the process of negotiation (Serbia, Montenegro) or those at the beginning of this process (Albania, North Macedonia). This process would be facilitated by the good relationship that the newly-elected president has with the leaders of European institutions, but also by his vision of the region (let’s not forget that he visited Bosnia during the war, even in 1994, as a representative of the American Congress). Joe Biden is also expected to support initiatives aimed at contributing to the region’s economic development, such as the “mini-Schengen” project launched in 2019.
On December 18, 2020 the Czech Republic and Slovakia released a joint statement on their disagreement with the EU Council conclusions on enlargement put forward by the German presidency. The last days of troubled 2020 brought other game changing events for Balkan regional dynamics. The two countries argue for not allowing disputes over history and language to become criteria for the start of EU membership talks. While they amended the draft on EU Enlargement Conclusions, intended to appease Bulgarian demands toward EU hopeful North Macedonia, Prague and Bratislava suggested that EU candidate members could in future be judged also on whether they had falsified or wrongly interpreted their history. This was a clear sign of a clash between the  positions of Bulgaria and the two Visegrad countries.
As we can observe in this short review, the new approach on enlargement launched in the pre-pandemic period of February 2020 was targeted to reinvigorate the accession process by making it more predictable, more credible, more dynamic and subject to stronger political steering. The revised strategy assumed that the candidate country assessment needs to be based on objective criteria and more rigorous positive and negative conditionality, and reversibility. EU enlargement remained high on the German Presidency agenda at the end of 2020 and there were many hopes for visible progress to be achieved in the accession process of North Macedonia and Albania but in the end this proved unrealistic. Looking back we can see that the events that marked the end of 2020 were proof of the absence of renewed consensus on EU enlargement. Moreover, the level of commitment to enlargement in the Balkans seemed to be eroding due to the EU’s internal problems. This is also coupled with the disinformation campaign connected to the COVID-19 pandemic and the result is increased vulnerability in front of malignant external interference. The great danger posed by all those recent events is that they are further fuelling populist narratives of autocratic leaders in the Western Balkans.
Photo: Western Balkns are the backyard of the EU (source: Comece.eu)
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