EU Solidifies Upperhand in Race for Western Balkans
On Tuesday April 17, 2018, the European Commission proposed to open European Union membership talks with Albania and Macedonia.This comes after growing concerns about the influence of non-EU countries, primarily China and Russia, in the Western Balkans.
Albania and Macedonia are located in the Western Balkans along with Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The proposal to open EU membership talks with Albania and Macedonia will need final approval in June by the EU’s heads of government.
The Commission recommended membership talks based on Albania and Macedonia’s progress toward certain requirements of EU membership in areas such as public administration, judiciary, fight against corruption, fight against organized crime, security policy, and ratification of human rights conventions.
The European Commission’s report suggests that Albania has been progressing toward EU requirement thresholds in the development of transport and energy networks with EU member states and has continued to progress in the above aspects, especially in terms of the rule of law. For Macedonia, the EU’s central membership concerns are freedoms of expression, freedoms of labor (such as free movement of workers), and persistent issues of corruption. Macedonia, however, is more prepared than Albania in terms of its interconnection with EU member states.
The expansion of EU membership into the Western Balkans has been debated for the past two decades. Montenegro and Serbia are aiming to join the EU in 2025, whereas Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina are farther behind (five EU member states still refuse to recognize Kosovo as an independent state).
Macedonia was recommended for talks nearly a decade ago (in 2009), but was vetoed by Greece because of the bilateral name dispute (Macedonia is the name of a northern Greek province). Recently, Macedonia has presented promising concessions to end the name dispute with Greece, potentially winning Greece’s vote in EU membership- talks.
The proposal follows concern over Russian and Chinese influence in the Western Balkans. China's economic interests include the “Belt and Road Initiative” which aims to further connect Asian markets with those of Europe and Africa. China has invested billions into Western Balkan infrastructure such as railways and energy plants, and €3 billion into an expressway connecting Montenegro and Albania. The investments are welcomed while bolstering economic ties. Exports to China from the region have doubled in recent years. China insists their interests are part of China-EU partnership, but Brussels perceives them as damaging to EU cohesion.
Russia's interests are the result of long-term cultural, political, and economic stakes in the region. Its interests are primarily for bargaining purposes with little intention in long-term authority. Former Serbian Minister of Economy, Saša Radulović, notes that “Serbia and the rest of the Balkans are a pawn in a great game of powers between Russia, the EU, and the US”.
Brussels is concerned that such outside influence will become damaging and give Russia and China leverage over Brussels.
For Albania and Macedonia the proposal on Tuesday is a hurdle in EU membership. According to Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, the two countries see “today’s positive recommendation as only one step in our journey”. Reform momentum in Albania and Macedonia is expected to continue. In June, current member states will have to weigh the benefits of EU expansion and securing influence over China and Russia with concerns over Albania and Macedonia’s persistent issues with organized crime, corruption, and bilateral disputes.