The largest ever expansion of the European Union took place in 2004. Ten countries (seven of them from the former Eastern Bloc) joined the EU. Further enlargement would follow, with Bulgaria and Romania joining in 2007, and Croatia in 2013. However, no new Member States have joined the club since then, despite much talk of adding the Western Balkan states as members.
Why haven’t the Western Balkan countries joined the EU? It’s certainly not through choice, as 82.5% of the population in the region favours their country joining the EU. The European Union also has the stated aim of “promoting peace, stability and economic development in the Western Balkans and opening up the prospect of EU integration.”
Currently, the EU recognises Albania, Northern Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia as candidates for membership, but old conflicts in the region are slowing down the accession processes. Since the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, ethnic conflicts have been simmering, which many observers perceive as a potential threat to peace in Europe. Some worry that EU accession of the Western Balkan countries could lead to the EU “importing” these conflicts. Others hope that the prospect of EU membership, as well as the conditions of EU accession, will encourage the conflicting parties to resolve the conflicts.
What are the alternatives to EU membership? Many countries in the Western Balkans suffer “persistent economic weakness” and are struggling with high unemployment, while corruption is widespread among the political elites and sometimes even in judicial systems. In addition, bilateral disputes with EU Member States have also caused the accession processes to stall, including the protracted name dispute between Greece and Northern Macedonia. Yet some argue that the Western Balkan countries should join the EU as soon as possible despite all the problems, not least out of fear of Russia’s increasing influence in the region.
Want to learn more about the Western Balkans’ journey to EU membership? Check out our infographic below (click for a bigger version):
What do our readers think? Our reader Borislav from Bulgaria says that the Western Balkan countries should join the EU as soon as possible because membership is about saving lives and preventing wars. Is he right? Could EU membership reinforce the peace process in the Western Balkans?
To get a response to his question, we put Borislav’s comment to Fjoralba Caka, former Deputy Minister of Justice of Albania, who was responsible for European integration and anti-corruption policy. She is currently a lecturer in EU law and the internal market at the University of Tirana and a European Young Leader. What would she say to Borislav?
For another perspective, we also put Borislav’s question to Ana Pisonero Hernandez, the EU Commission’s spokesperson on Neighbourhood and Enlargement, International Cooperation and Development. What does she think?
Next up, we had a comment from Gent arguing that the accession of the Western Balkan countries is still a long way off, with corruption in particular a big problem. What else needs to happen for the EU to accept the Western Balkan countries?
How would Fjoralba Caka, former Deputy Minister of Justice of Albania, respond?
How would Ana Pisonero Hernandez, the EU Commission’s spokesperson on Neighbourhood and Enlargement, react?
Next, Ivan sent us a comment arguing that with Brexit, one of the biggest net contributors has now left the EU. He is not sure whether the EU is really in a position at the moment to take in what he calls the “financial basket cases” of the Western Balkan countries. Is he just being rude? What would EU membership of the Western Balkans mean for the EU?
Here’s what Fjoralba Caka had to say:
Here’s how Ana Pisonero Hernandez responded:
Finally, we had a comment from Alma warning that the EU should not wait too long to integrate the Western Balkans. Otherwise, she thinks Russia will try to exert greater influence throughout the region. Is she right?
What would Fjoralba Caka say?
What is Ana Pisonero Hernandez’s take on Russian influence in the Western Balkans?
Should the Western Balkan countries join the EU? Could EU membership reinforce peace in the region? What would accession mean for the EU? Will Russia try to influence the region if EU accession stalls for too long? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!