Historic EU Summit reveals frustrations in the Western Balkans 

24 June 2022

On Thursday, the leaders of the 27 member states gathered in Brussels for the European Council summit where the most high-profile topic undoubtedly was the potential candidate status to the large, war-torn Ukraine and its small neighbor Moldova. As expected, history was indeed made at the summit when EU leaders granted Ukraine and Moldova candidate status in the late evening of Thursday, leaving Western Balkan leaders in an intense fury and disappointment. The rapid decisions on Ukraine and Moldova have consequently increased the focus on the lack of development for others in the waiting room. This is going to be a tricky one for the EU.

As European Council President Charles Michel put it so eloquently in his invitation letter, “we must re-energise the enlargement process.” However, the debate about how to deal with the Western Balkans could turn out to be more explosive. By Wednesday afternoon, it was not even clear whether the Heads of Government from North Macedonia, Serbia and Albania would even travel to Brussels, according to a Twitter post by the Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama. 

While support for Ukraine’s EU course is spreading, countries in the Western Balkans are struggling to free themselves from the hostage-taking they feel trapped in. Before the regular EU summit, as early as Thursday morning, the Heads of State and Government of the EU held a special meeting with the leaders of six countries in the Western Balkans. Currently, several of them are frustrated that their rapprochement with the EU is not making faster progress. 

Montenegro and Serbia are in the process of accession negotiations, while northern Macedonia and Albania have long been candidates without being able to move forward. After northern Macedonia had to change its name to lift a long-standing Greek blockade, it has recently been Bulgaria that has said no instead. In the run-up to the summit, the French EU presidency has brokered an agreement that northern Macedonians will issue guarantees to respect the Bulgarian language and territory. The hope is that it can reassure Bulgaria enough to start negotiations with both northern Macedonia and Albania.

Another tense question is when Bosnia and Herzegovina can become a candidate country. Currently, Bosnia and Kosovo have the status of “potential candidates”. Member States such as Slovenia, Hungary and Austria find it unfair to grant Ukraine and Moldova candidate status if the Bosnians do not get it as well. A possible compromise could be to ask the European Commission for a new assessment of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s stability, development and readiness to open negotiations.

Nevertheless, when looking at the broader enlargement picture, the mere granting of Ukraine candidate status is considered a historic signal and a recognition of the Ukrainians’ struggle against the Russian invasion.Ukraine is “the only country where people got shot because they wrapped themselves in a European flag,” said Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday in the European Parliament.