The Balkans are seen in the European political arena as a region full of instability and transition, far away from a real proud face of the continent, but as ‘a piece of land that is neither Europe nor is it outside Europe’. This being said, amongst the member states of the European Union, enlargement is still perceived as the best way to overcome the legacy of ethnic, social, political, and religious conflict in the Balkans, and to anchor long-term stability and peace in the Union.
As such, in recognition of the historical and political volatility of the Balkans, the European Union has introduced additional conditionality for the Balkan candidate countries prior to accession. The enhanced conditionality as stated in the Stabilisation and Association Agreement introduced by the European Union uniquely for the Balkans varies from country to country. This has undoubtedly made the accession to the European Union increasingly demanding for the countries of the Balkans. The Council of the European Union had clearly stated in its general affairs council meeting on 17 December 2013 that “regional cooperation and good neighbourly relations are essential elements of the stabilisation and association process” and reaffirms that the Stabilisation and Association Agreement remains the common framework for the European Union relations with the Balkans up to its accession. Through this, it is evident that the European Union acknowledges the regional turmoil that the Balkans have been historically susceptible to but also stresses the need for the countries to put in the effort to resolve these issues prior to joining the European Union not only for the purpose of resolving disputes but also for the desire for good bilateral and interregional stability. One lesson of the 2004 enlargement was the disappointment surrounding the accession of Cyprus as a divided island. Although the Copenhagen criteria do not deal with the status of national borders, it has made the European Union more conscious of the potential problems of the accession of new members with unresolved frontier disputes, especially in the Balkans were some borders are still disputed.
Additionally, there is a criticism that the Stabilisation and Association Agreement is a “one-size fits all” policy where it is assumed that each region of the Balkans can be strengthened and Europeanized in the same framework. However, it is important to look at the individual features of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement signed for each country which clearly defines the differing aspects that the countries should work on and thereby refuting the above claim that the Stabilisation and Association Agreement is a “one-size fits all” policy. Hence, by fulfilling to a sufficient and satisfactory level, the Stabilisation and Association Agreement in addition to the Copenhagen criteria, the Balkans then have a better chance at acceding to the European Union. Despite Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission, ruling out any possible form of expansion of the European Union during his tenure, Serbia’s commencement of accession negotiation talks as of December 2015 does show that enlargement of the European Union is not entirely off the cards but perhaps only being postponed till a more favorable time for both the candidate country concerned and the entire European Union.
While skeptics may view this statement by Juncker as a negative one towards enlargement prospects of the European Union, this can also be seen as one that allows the Balkans to “buy time” and make necessary changes in order to better be a candidate worth consideration by the European Commission for enlargement. After all, the European Commission seeks to have a satisfactory enlargement instead of one with perfect members. This is seen in 2006 where the European Union’s ‘renewed consensus’ introduced strict conditionality at all stages of the accession negotiations and in 2012, it adopted a ‘new approach’, under which the chapters of the negotiations concerning fundamental rights and justice, freedom and security were treated as a priority. Thus, it is not surprising that the countries of the Balkans feel that they are subjected to stricter rules than preceding applicants. The new approach is the result of the European Union’s failure in the past to effectively handle the conditionality of membership. There is also a viewpoint shared by scholars and the European Union alike where the Balkans are held to high standards as part of an approach that is seen as a win-win situation where enhanced conditionality can help to turn applicant countries of the region into worthy member states, but can also ensure to a large extent that enlargement does not backfire internally in the same way that the 2007 expansion to Bulgaria and Romania did. In addition to this, during the 2014 Greek Presidency in the Council of the European Union, it was further reaffirmed that the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit remains as the political agenda that the European Union pursues towards the Balkans which can be seen as a positive sign that the European Union will, in time to come, indeed make good of its promises in the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit which indicated for the region’s future to be within the supranational body.
However, this expectation must also be viewed with caution since at present, there are on-going Brexit negotiations with the European Union which ultimately affects all member states and also potential entrants’ accession negotiation processes. Perhaps, a set of more and stricter conditionality may be further imposed on candidate countries or the accession process may be further extended to either deal with Brexit negotiations or to prevent a similar breakaway case from member states in future. Either way, while candidate countries may fulfil the multiple criteria to accede to the European Union, it now also appears that if the European Union itself is not in a healthy and ready state to accept new entrants, the accession process of aspirant countries will inevitably be delayed. Hence, the Copenhagen criteria and the enhanced conditionality listed in the Stabilisation and Association Agreement are just part of the matters that the Balkans have to cope with in its accession process to the European Union.