South Eastern Europe or otherwise known as 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, and as a piece of land that is neither Europe nor is it outside Europe. As such, in recognition of the historical and political volatility of the Western Balkans, the European Union (EU) has introduced additional conditionality for the Western Balkan candidate countries prior to accession to the supranational body. This has undoubtedly made the accession to the EU increasingly demanding for the countries of the Western Balkans. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that other than the Copenhagen Criteria and the terms of the Maastricht Treaty, the additional conditionality laid down for the Western Balkans differs according to the specific country in context. It also has to be noted that a prime reason for the inclusion of enhanced conditionality is due to the contested borders of South Eastern Europe which still exists up to the present moment and the Copenhagen Criteria required for EU accession does not deal with the status of national borders. 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 (SAA) remains the common framework for the EU relations with the Western Balkans up to its accession.
Through this, it is evident that the EU acknowledges the regional turmoil that the Western Balkans have been historically susceptible to but also stresses the need for the countries such as Serbia to put in the effort to resolve these issues prior to joining the EU not only for the purpose of resolving disputes but also for the desire for good bilateral and inter-regional stability. There is a criticism that the SAA is a “one-size fits all” policy where it is assumed that each region of the Western Balkans can be strengthened and Europeanized in the same framework. However, it is important to look at the individual features of the SAA signed for each country which clearly defines the differing aspects that the countries should work on and thereby refuting the above claim that the SAA is a “one-size fits all” policy.
In contrast to South Eastern Europe, the Black Sea Area is bounded by South Eastern Europe and Western Asia and refers to countries such as Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine who border the Black Sea. Of the existing EU member states, two belong to the Black Sea Area; namely Bulgaria and Romania. Similar to the SAA that the EU extends to nations of South Eastern Europe, the EU also conducts the EU Neighbourhood Policy in the Black Sea Area. However, the difference between the SAA and the EU Neighbourhood Policy is that the SAA helps prepare candidate countries for eventual membership while the EU Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) helps the EU achieve the closest possible political association and the greatest possible degree of economic integration with its Southern and Eastern immediate neighbours connected by land or sea.
As such, the ENP is a key part of the European Union’s foreign policy and is the only regional approach the EU has towards the Black Sea Area, at present. However, while this may be the case, the EU maintains special relations with Ukraine and Russia whereas Turkey is a long-running EU candidate country. Moreover, the Black Sea Area has been under much opposition by existing EU member states who feel that the EU cannot expand indefinitely and there is not a necessity to include the countries of the Black Sea Area in a wider EU. Nonetheless, existing EU member states propose that the EU should maintain close political and economic relations with the Black Sea Area and undertake special relations like current ones with Ukraine and Russia. This brings a dilemma to the future of the Black Sea Area and its relation with the EU where there arises the question of what the Black Sea Area is – a boundary for the EU or a bridge that links the current EU with a proposed wider EU.
Hence, EU enlargement towards South Eastern Europe and the Black Sea Area seems to be much of a debatable topic at present. Comparing the countries from both regions, it does appear that countries from South Eastern Europe have greater enlargement prospects than countries from the Black Sea Area due to various concerns regarding the latter. Concerns primarily include the aspect of extended borders and the problems that tag along which include the illegal smuggling of arms.
In the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit of the EU Council, there was a promise of membership to the Western Balkan nations as long as they had fulfilled the Copenhagen criteria and the enhanced conditionality expected of them to a satisfactory and sufficient level. While it has been 13 years after this Thessaloniki promise and only Croatia being the only Balkan nation to accede the EU since, it is a mark of commitment by the EU nonetheless. This view can be seen as further substantiated with the commencement of accession negotiations with Serbia as of 2015 in hopes that the EU will indeed make good of its 2003 promise in Thessaloniki. On the other hand, it also seems that the EU at this point in time has not made an actual commitment towards enlargement prospects in the Black Sea Area despite having an EU Neighbourhood Policy to maintain economic and political ties with the region.
Moreover, with regards to the Black Sea Area, the EU also maintains special relations with Ukraine and Russia. However, this has fueled EU member states to push for similar prospects for enlargement towards the Black Sea Area since there is much discontent among member states mainly with regards to Turkey’s possible accession to the EU. Turkey’s hampered accession attempts in turn also channel a negative impact on possible enlargement prospects pursued by the EU for a wider Europe.
As such, there arises the dilemma for the enlargement of EU in general and with special focus on South Eastern Europe and Black Sea Area as to the extent of enlargement of the EU. As of now, nations of South Eastern Europe appear to have better chances of acceding to the EU while the outlook for nations of the Black Sea Area seem bleak with regards to EU accession. This then possibly could reflect the future of the Black Sea Area where it becomes a boundary for EU accession while maintaining the status of being a bridge connecting the region to the rest of Europe by means of economic and political ties made possible by the EU Neighbourhood Policy and existing political and economic ties.