EU-Western Balkans: the summit in Sofia and the latest developments


In 1999, when NATO intervened militarily in the Balkans for the second time, during the Kosovo war, few would expect that Western powers would gain momentum in the region later in time. Yet, Bulgaria and Romania joined NATO in 2004, while their candidate status for the EU membership significantly improved until they became full members in 2007. At that time, the EU’s appeal was at its highest peak in the Balkans. Countries that traditionally harbored anti-western sentiments at large extent, were envisioning the road to Brussels as the only way to prosperity and democracy. Similarly, during the collapse of Yugoslavia, the EU accession represented a great incentive for the ex-socialist republics seeking thorough independence from Belgrade. In the first 15 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, the EU seemed to have a upper hand both ideologically and substantially in the region.

EU-Western Balkans Summit: 17 May 2018

In May 17, 2018 the EU-Western Balkans summit took place in Sofia, Bulgaria. It brought together heads of states from EU members as well as leaders from the six Western Balkans countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Kosovo. The participants signed the Sofia Declaration along with a priority agenda. This annex to the declaration outlined new measures for enhanced cooperation within the region. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, pointed out that there is no future for the Western Balkans other than the EU. However, a series of events are now questioning the real efficacy of the meeting and the prestige of the EU. Boyko Borissov, the President of Bulgaria, the country that was in charge of the presidency of the EU at that time, expressed his outrage. About one month after the summit, in fact, Borissov stressed that preparatory work was not taken into account while Bulgaria’s issues on migration had been severely neglected during the talks as the countries that had monopolized the attention were Spain, Italy, and Greece.

EU-Western Balkans: settling name disputes

Moreover, in June 2018 the leaders of Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) signed the Prespa Agreement to end the name dispute and a fresh wind of optimism pervaded in the region. One of the most persistent issues in the Balkans after the dissolution of Yugoslavia never seemed to be closer to a solution than that sunny Sunday of June, 12th. During the referendum campaign in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, some prominent European leaders and higher EU Officials visited the country and hosted FYROM’s prime minister Zoran Zaev in order to increase the credibility of the EU and raise the importance of a positive outcome at the referendum. At the same time voices over a land swap between Kosovo and Serbia gained ground. Some US agents backed the plan while Angela Merkel made it clear that Germany was definitely against the idea of “border corrections”. The EU though stated that if an agreement was made between the two parts – not violating the international law -, then there would have been no objection from its side. As a result, Brussels had to deal with new challenges on its south eastern borders while the sense of cooperation between its members as well as a long-run plan for the region were not as clear as in other times.

EU-Western Balkans: Is integration losing momentum?

Eventually, a direct accession to NATO and an open road for a future, still vague, accession to the EU didn’t prove to be a strong calling for the voters in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the majority of which did not turn out at the polls rejecting de facto the Prespa Agreement. The leaders of Kosovo and Serbia, Thaci and Vucic respectively, canceled a face to face meeting in Brussels brokered by the EU. A normalization of the relations between the two parts through the EU, which will unblock the path to Brussels for Belgrade and to the UN for Pristina, does not seem as a possible scenario at this moment. In Bosnia, a country where anti-EU dynamics are traditionally strong and tend to increase, the elections of October 7th resulted in the victory of the Bosnian Serb nationalist leader Milorad Dodik and of Šefik Džaferović, the candidate of the largest Muslim Bosniak party. They won the Serb and Bosniak seats in Bosnia’s triumvirate presidency. Moderate Croat Željko Komšić won the Croat seat. Besides, international actors and analysts are criticizing the counting process since Bosnia is still awaiting the final results of the general elections. Analysts believe that Dodik, a pro-Russian leader who has repeatedly advocated secession of the Serb Republic and integration with Serbia, will work to weaken the presidency.

The European Union has seen better days. Euroscepticism travers the continent and the Balkan Peninsula with its traditional peculiarities can not but be a crucial field. A reason for EU’s lost prestige in the area might also be the lack of a certain date on which the candidate members should access the EU. Instead, as it was the case of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, only vague promises were given so far, while some historical members such as France and the Netherlands have made it clear that no new members are needed at least for the moment. Given the crisis the Eurozone faces we should not wonder also if the Balkans are not in the priority list of the EU. The EU’s actual condition reveals that only when the EU is strong internally can be attractive for outsiders, as it was attested in 1999 and the early nineties. Until the EU doesn’t gain back its strength, an alternative to Brussels will always appear more attractive and feasible for those who have been assured by high EU officials about, instead, the opposite.

Aris Bilinis

M.A. in International Relations and Diplomatic Affairs, University of Bologna