If the last six years hold what the future will look like, then Albania and Kosovo are the first Western Balkans countries set to join the EU.
Earlier this month, European Commission published the latest enlargement package. The day the package was presented to the public was indicative of the sea change that enlargement has witnessed most recently. Instead of the package being presented, per tradition, by the Enlargement Commissioner in front of a nearly empty conference room and handful of journalists, it was presented by the President of the Commission in front of a packed conference room and under barrage of social media fanfare.
Notwithstanding choreography, the substance of the President Von der Leyen presentation was nothing short of historic. First, it recommended start of accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova. It is impossible to overstate the importance of this moment. This was the dream of the “Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred” who gave their lives for free and European Ukraine during the Revolution of Dignity.
The decision also showcased how much the EU has changed since the Russian aggression of Ukraine. Before 24 February 2022, the most a pusillanimous EU could offer to Kiev and Chisinau was misbegotten “eastern neighbourhood partnership”. Word “membership” was a red line that could not be crossed. All of that changed thanks to Vladimir Putin. And in a record-breaking time. Never before did an acceding country go so quickly in the history of enlargement from submitting an application to membership, to candidacy to recommendation on the opening of accession talks – all under twenty months. For comparison, it took Albania thirteen years to jump through the same hoops.
Secondly, Europe’s eastern flank was cemented with the conditional candidate status for Georgia and finally, the wind blowing from the east got the sails of Western Balkans going, as well: Bosnia got conditional recommendation for start of the accession talks.
These decisions should not be seen as isolated political acts, but part of the wider EU’s reckoning of the fundamental importance of the enlargement for the peace, stability and prosperity of the European continent. These decisions come against a backdrop of Scholz Prague vision, Macron Bratislava awakening, Michel Bled pledge and Von der Leyen Strasbourg “call of history” speech.
New kids on the enlargement block
Beyond its political significance, the latest enlargement package brought several key messages that have the potential of redefining the enlargement process.
First, the latest enlargement package has obliged us to update our enlargement terminology. For years now the enlargement spoke of “six Western Balkans countries + Turkey”. Though somewhere along the line Turkey bit fell off and we continued to speak of Western Balkans Six only. Now, this year for the first time the EU package also covers Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Therefore, from now on instead of “Western Balkans Six” we will be talking about “ten acceding countries”.
Secondly, the inclusion of the eastern trio has now injected new dynamics into the enlargement process that could upset the current lethargy of the Western Balkan countries and encourage healthy competition between the countries. For example, when you read the reports of the ten countries it is very evident that in 2023 the trio has made the largest annual progress of the new “ten acceding countries”.
To this end, the Commission assessed that Ukraine made “good progress” in 24 different chapters and Moldova in 19 chapters, compared with Montenegro that made progress in 7 chapters and Serbia in 5 chapters. One of the knock-on effects of this kind of dynamics is that it will exacerbate pressure upon Western Balkans countries to catch-up with the eastern trio and improve their performance in the implementation of EU-related reforms.
Startling reformers of the region
When zooming-in to Western Balkans an interesting picture emerges. Out of six countries only two made limited progress in becoming more prepared for EU membership during 2023: Albania and Kosovo. The other four countries did not make any progress across 33 chapters.
But the surprise doesn’t end here. This year marks six years since the Commission started publishing the enlargement reports according to a standardised qualitative methodology that can easily be quantified.
This allows for numerical measurement and comparison of the countries progress on their path to the EU. Now, an accumulated six-year dataset confirms that 2023 was not an exception, but rather a rule: Albania and Kosovo are startling reformers of the region. They improved their preparedness for EU membership by 0.4 points, in comparison with 0.1 for other four countries.
In other words, the performance of Albania and Kosovo stands out not because of their Stakhanov efforts in the implementation of the EU reforms, but rather because of their neighbours’ apathy.
EU membership projection
Since we have now accumulated a six years dataset on the Western Balkans preparedness for EU membership, we can now extrapolate and hypothesise about the perspectives of Western Balkans membership in the EU.
According to the current pace of reforms of the last six years, Albania would be the first country to join the EU in the next 35 years. Kosovo would follow second in 45 years, Montenegro in 114 years, North Macedonia and Serbia in 120 years and Bosnia in 198 years.
However, under an alternative scenario, if we would treat the last six years as a deviance and we would assume that all Western Balkans countries would show “Kosovo-pace” willingness for EU reforms then the first country to join the EU would be Montenegro in the next 28 years. North Macedonia and Serbia would follow second in the next 30 years, Albania in 36 years, Kosovo in 45 years and Bosnia in 49 years.
And finally, in an optimistic scenario – where both: Western Balkans countries and the EU would double their current efforts - Montenegro would need 14 years to join the EU, North Macedonia and Serbia 15 years, Albania 18 years, Kosovo 23 years, whereas Bosnia would need 25 years.
In conclusion a question begs an answer: What do we make of this?
Well, Mark Twain would say “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Certainly, much criticism has been levied against any simplified metric system that tries to quantify complex real-life events. And in this light, European Commission enlargement methodology is certainly not perfect.
However, the enlargement package does offer us the most objective reality check on the reforms taking place in the Western Balkans. To this end the message is clear: the pace of reforms is very slow. Albania and Kosovo can find some comfort in the schadenfreude of the other four countries, but that will bring them no closer to the EU during our lifetime.
Demush Shasha is the head of the European Policy Institute of Kosovo, EPIK Institute, in Prishtina. He has 15 years of public service experience in the area of European integration. Previous to that, he joined the Government as a junior officer for European integration, later becoming the General Secretary of the Ministry of European Integration.
The opinions expressed are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.