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At the onset of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE), the future of the European Union’s expansion in the Western Balkans (WB) seems to have reached a new stalemate. Yet, the CoFoE could offer an opportunity to rekindle the EU’s agenda in the WB. Much, however, may depend on the outcome of the process.

This paper argues that the CoFoE could provide a unique opportunity for the EU to clarify the relationship between its two approaches: one based on the objective of transforming the WB through EU membership and the other emphasising more geopolitical considerations as justification for EU membership. Failing to do so may further undermine the influence of the EU in the region while strengthening the influence of the other external powers.

This article discusses these points in five parts. The first examines the problems linked with the place allocated to EU enlargement in the CoFoE’s agenda. The second part deals with the concepts of backsliding and competitive authoritarianism, which have characterised recent changes in domestic politics in the WB as well as the related changes made to EU enlargement policy. The third part gives an overview of the geopolitical rivalries in the WB. The fourth discusses the tensions between the EU’s transformative approach in the WB and a more geopolitical approach. The fifth part includes suggestions for a possible way ahead to re-centre the discussions within the CoFoE on EU enlargement.

CoFoE and EU enlargement in Western Balkans

The idea of involving EU citizens in a public discussion on the future of the EU was proposed in September 2019 by French President Emmanuel Macron, who was looking to take advantage of the increased turnout in the EU elections of May 2019. The idea was then endorsed by the European Commission President-elect Ursula Von der Leyen, who included it in the political guidelines of her new Commission. Yet it took some time for the idea to become reality. This was due not only to the COVID-19 crisis but also the lengthy discussions between the three main EU institutions – the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the European Council.[1]

On 10 March 2021, the presidents of the three institutions agreed on a Joint Declaration that outlined both the main aspects of the discussion process and a non-exhaustive list of topics, which include: health, climate change and environmental challenges, an economy that works for people, social fairness, equality, intergenerational solidarity, digital transformation, EU values including the rule of law, migration challenges, democratic foundations, and how to strengthen the democratic process. It also included a number of overarching issues, such as better regulation, subsidiarity, proportionality, implementation and enforcement of the EU acquis, and transparency.[2]

The CoFoE has been welcomed as another ambitious EU attempt to set up a unique experience of transnational deliberative democracy. However, it has also raised a number of questions regarding its delivery not of concrete outcomes but outcomes that will merely reflect the lowest common denominator among the different views expressed.[3]

On a more practical level, the CoFoE includes a multilingual platform agreed by its executive board. On that multilingual platform, the topics were regrouped into ten broad categories, which may be amended in the course of the conference. The issue of EU enlargement is mentioned under the heading ‘the EU and the World’ – in other words, EU foreign policy. This makes sense as EU enlargement policy is usually viewed as part of EU foreign policy.

This grouping of topics shows the extent to which EU enlargement is being pushed to the margins of the CoFoE agenda. It also reveals a failure to recognise how EU enlargement should be a central issue when discussing the future of the EU for the following reasons.

First, EU enlargement impacts directly the internal structure of the EU. For example, it affects the EU financially (budget) and institutionally (decision-making). Second, EU enlargement is deeply intertwined with other EU policies. Indeed, it cuts across a number of internal policies ranging from the environment to the rule of law. Finally, EU enlargement relates to EU foreign policy and more importantly to the geopolitical stakes of its influence in the WB. In other words, a failed enlargement would not only undermine the credibility of the EU as a global actor, it would also call into question the credibility of its integrative model in the WB, a region that has been increasingly exposed to the influence of other powers, mainly Russia, China, and Turkey.[4]

There is, therefore, a real danger that the CoFoE might end up being another missed opportunity to relaunch the EU enlargement process at the time when, from both the EU perspective and that of the candidate countries, the likelihood of future membership seems more elusive than ever.

Backsliding and elusive EU membership

Since 2015, most WB countries have experienced a regression in democratic and human rights, as well as increased corruption. We must note that the COVID-19 crisis did not cause this devolution but made it even more visible.

The use of the concept of democratic backsliding is contested.[5] Some authors prefer instead to use the term ‘competitive authoritarianism’ to discuss the nature of the political systems that have emerged in the WB since 2015. Such systems are characterised by weak democratic institutions and the exploitation of that weakness by authoritarian political actors to gain and retain power.[6] Those changes had become all too visible by 2019, when mass protests took place in Albania, Kosovo, and Serbia against increased suppression of democratic rights, corruption, and muzzling of the media, amid unfavourable economic conditions.[7]

As in other countries, the COVID-19 crisis led Western Balkan governments to curb individual freedoms. In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vučić, who has been in power since 2014, went so far as to impose a state of emergency in 2020, silencing the opposition by closing the Parliament and further restricting the freedom of the press. In Montenegro, pro-government demonstrations were allowed, but the police blocked protests organised by the opposition parties on health grounds.[8]

Regression, or at least lack of progress, is also reflected in conflict resolution in the region. The conflict between Serbia and Kosovo has shown few signs of a possible resolution, despite some positive steps, such as Kosovo’s decision in June 2020 to remove all barriers on the import of goods produced in Serbia. Bosnia and Herzegovina has experienced significant political turmoil in the aftermath of the 2018 elections, which left the country without properly functioning governing institutions, not to mention repeated attempts by Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Republika Srpska, to undermine the country’s complex system of government.[9]

Such developments seem to be pushing WB countries further away from EU membership and call into question the EU enlargement methodology based on the fulfilment of the Copenhagen Criteria of 1993, which emphasise the rule of law and good governance as conditions for joining the EU. In addition, a string of internal crises that the EU has faced since 2008 (the Euro crisis, migration problem, Brexit, etc.) contributed to further decreasing the appetite within the EU to include new Member States, creating to some extent an ‘enlargement resistance’.[10]

In this context, there have been attempts to put the issue of EU enlargement on the EU front burner again. In 2018, the Bulgarian EU Presidency convened an EU-WB summit, but it did not produce any concrete results. In 2018, the European Commission issued a new Enlargement Strategy for EU accession aimed at the WB, which mentioned, for the first time, the year 2025 as a possible horizon for the accession of the most advanced candidates, such as Montenegro and Serbia.[11] In 2019, however, the enlargement issue suffered a new setback. In October, France, the Netherlands, and Denmark opposed starting accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. France’s opposition was based on two arguments. The first and main argument was that the EU needed to reform itself internally before engaging itself in a new wave of accession. The second was that these two countries had not made enough progress on domestic reforms, in spite of some notable attempts in North Macedonia by Prime Minister Zoran Zaev (in office since 2017).[12] This last argument led the French to issue, a month later, a ‘non-paper’ proposing a new methodology for the accession process. The new methodology was based on four key principles: gradual accession, stringent conditions, tangible benefits, and reversibility.[13]

These developments led the EU Commission, in February 2020, to put out its own new EU enlargement methodology, largely inspired by the French non-paper. The new methodology that builds on the 2018 New Enlargement Strategy emphasises four key aspects: credibility, predictability, dynamism, and more political steering by the Council and the Member States.[14] It provides for a more flexible process, along with six policy clusters that would allow for faster conclusion of the accession discussions and greater political scrutiny on the part of the Council and Member States, who will play a more central role in steering the enlargement process.[15]

Following the adoption of the Commission’s new methodology, the EU Member States agreed to start formal accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. However, the negotiations stalled in June 2021, after Bulgaria demanded that North Macedonia first address their bilateral linguistic and cultural dispute.[16] Progress in the accession negotiations of the other candidates has been slow.

Montenegro was seen as the most promising candidate for EU accession. It applied for EU membership in 2008 and was granted candidate status in 2012. To date, thirty-three negotiation chapters have been opened and three have been closed. Still, the 2020 Commission Country Report on the country’s progress towards EU membership highlighted several problematic issues, especially concerning human rights, the freedom of the press – the perpetrator of the 2018 shooting of a local journalist has still not been brought to justice – and corruption.[17] In May 2021, Montenegro opted in to the new EU enlargement methodology in the hope of speeding up its accession process.[18]

Serbia’s path to EU membership has not been any easier since the country was granted candidate status in 2012. In the last two and half years, the discussions have reached a stalemate, with little if no progress being made. In its 2020 Country Report, the Commission expressed growing concerns over Serbia’s deteriorating human rights situation and rule of law, not mentioning the deadlock in the country’s peace talks with Kosovo. To complicate matters more, on 25 October 2019, Serbia concluded a free trade agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, likely to be incompatible with EU accession. This move appeared to have been more about foreign policy than about trade and showed the extent to which Serbia is playing the EU off against the other powers in the region.[19] In May 2021, Serbia also decided to opt in to the new enlargement method.[20]

The two other countries in the WB – Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo – are yet to be granted the status of candidate countries. Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for EU membership in 2016. In 2019, the Commission delivered its opinion indicating fourteen key priorities to be addressed by the country in order to be eligible for EU candidacy. As far as Kosovo is concerned, the lack of consensus among EU Member States on recognising the country’s independence prevents any formal discussions on EU membership, even if the EU has developed bilateral links with this not fully recognised entity.[21]

The lack of progress in the EU accession process for WB countries has led to strong reactions from key EU political figures and think tanks. In June 2021, the German, Portuguese, and Slovenian foreign affairs ministers reasserted the strategic importance of the EU extending membership to the WB countries while lamenting the stalemates in the accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.[22] In July 2021, on the eve of the start of the Slovenian EU Presidency, a network of think tanks from both the EU and the candidate countries called for a rethink of the EU enlargement methodology, emphasising the need for greater differentiation between the candidate countries and more robust monitoring of their progress towards accession.[23] The last EU-WB summit held under the Slovenian EU Presidency on 6 October 2021 did not lead to any significant breakthroughs, falling short of mentioning the word ‘accession’ and just ‘reconfirming its commitment to the enlargement process’.[24]

The combination of democratic backsliding in most WB countries and changing EU approaches has brought the EU enlargement process to a new stalemate. This may lead to decreasing EU influence in the WB while other powers such as Russia, China, and Turkey gain ground.

Western Balkans states acceding to the EU

Geopolitical rivalries

The EU is, without doubt, the primary external political and economic actor in the WB. EU membership remains the main policy objective of all the countries in the region. Economically, the EU is by far the largest trading partner of the WB countries, accounting for more than 67 per cent of their imports and more than 73 per cent of their exports, well ahead of Russia, China, Turkey, and the other countries that barely reach double-digit figures.  Financially, the EU is the largest donor and the largest investor in the region, dwarfing the other external powers by providing 60–80 per cent of the foreign direct investments in the different countries in the region. Even so, the EU is still suffering from a perception deficit in the region. For example, in a 2017 poll conducted, 24 per cent of respondents were convinced that Russia is at least at par with the EU when it comes to development aid. In reality, Russia accounts for less than 0.5 per cent of development aid to Serbia and the EU for more than 60 per cent.[25]

However, that does not mean that local responses to EU policies and decisions have not reflected deep concerns, and at times sharp criticisms in the WB, especially in relation to the COVID-19 crisis. In spring 2020, the EU decided to ban exports of medical supplies, which cut the WB off from access to vital tools such as personal protective equipment and masks. A year later, as the EU rolled out the vaccine, it refused to share it with the region. This does not mean, however, that the EU did nothing. In May 2021, the EU announced financial support of up to €3.3 billion to help mitigate the health and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, consisting of a mix of loans, guarantees, and other financial instruments. The rollout of vaccines in the EU and the US is taking place via \ the COVAX mechanism set up by the World Health Organization, heavily supported by the EU. More recently, in April 2021, the EU committed to supply more than 651,000 doses to the region. However, there is no doubt that the EU lost a large chunk of credibility among the local populations in the region because of its vaccine diplomacy.[26] A July 2021 survey in Serbia showed that 54 per cent of the people see Russia and 47 per cent see China as a key ally of the country, while the figure for the EU decreased to 57 per cent [27]

The other countries that have increasingly invested both political and economic capital in the WB are, in order of importance: Russia, China, and Turkey.

The Balkans has been part of Russia’s strategic backyard since the nineteenth century. Russia is the main energy supplier to every country in the region and skilfully takes advantage of its religious and cultural proximity to them. It has also been supporting local political forces with the intention of preventing the resolution of conflicts in the WB, whether between Serbia and Kosovo or in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and has been heavily involved in disinformation campaigns in the region. During the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the WB, Russia displayed its support by supplying countries such as Serbia with  masks and by setting up a vaccines production facility scheduled to begin operations in autumn 2021 in Serbia.[28]

However, even if Russian policy in the WB is seen as a nuisance to the EU, its impact should not be exaggerated. First, Russia has mostly approached the WB as part of its relations with the other great powers. Second, except in the energy sector, the economic importance of Russia to the WB is rather limited.[29]

In some respects, China is a newcomer to the WB. Its involvement in the region is part of a larger policy called the Belt and Road Initiative, and aims to set up a format for cooperation with Central and Eastern European countries. These bilateral links were formalised in 2012 with the launch of the 17+1 format.[30] The last two summits of this format took place in 2018 in Sofia, Bulgaria, and in 2019 in Dubrovnik., Croatia. In the WB, China has become a new source for funding for a series of infrastructure projects, some of which have been considered as disrupting the EU objectives in the region .[31] As in other parts of the world, the motivation for China’s involvement in the WB is much less political than financial and economic. It has nevertheless contributed to corruption and bad governance amid frustrations expressed in some Central and Eastern European countries with respect to their access to Chinese markets and lack of trade opportunities.[32] During the COVID-19 crisis, China was also keen to show support for the WB by providing large quantities of masks, protective clothing and vaccines, including the establishment of a vaccines production unit in Serbia.[33]

Turkey’s involvement in the WB has long been centred on its religious and cultural diplomacy, which involves funding preachers, mosques, and Islamic schools and cultivating close relations with local leaders. Such support proved useful in the repression of the so-called Gulenists, by helping extradite members from countries such as Albania and Kosovo, often in disregard of national and international human rights commitments.[34]

The geopolitical configuration of great powers’ influence in the WB makes the EU a central actor in the region. However, with influence comes the issue of strategy. Here, the EU risks giving more importance to geopolitics than to its transformation objectives for the region.

Transformative EU versus geopolitical EU

When taking office in 2019, EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen announced her willingness to have a geopolitical Commission. This announcement did confirm a new emphasis on geopolitics in EU external policy. That new emphasis had become visible in the aftermath of the EU-Russia crisis of 2014, which reminded the EU of the resurgence of power politics in Europe. If anything, the COVID-19 crisis in the WB highlighted the extent to which the region has once again become a space for renewed competition between the great powers.

In its involvement in the WB, the EU has portrayed itself as a major transformative force or what some scholars call a ‘transformative power’.[35] This was clearly reflected in the 2015 EU Commission enlargement strategy, which stated that ‘EU membership has a powerful transformative effect on the countries concerned, embedding positive democratic, political, economic and societal change’.[36] In this light, EU policies are aimed at guiding the reform process in the candidate countries by setting accession conditions referred to as accession conditionality and Europeanisation – a process by which adaptation to the EU becomes deeply intertwined with domestic policymaking – and by providing the candidates with substantial financial support. These principles are the core of the transformative approach that rejects both a geopolitical approach and the concept of national interests.[37]

Since 2016–2017, the EU seems to have gradually shifted to a new geopolitical approach in its involvement with the WB. This shift is reflected in some key EU foreign policy documents, such as the new 2016 EU Global Strategy which places a stronger emphasis on EU interests, stability, resilience, and the need to develop defence capabilities.[38] The 2018 Commission’s Enlargement Strategy, while not giving up on its transformative dimensions, uses new words and concepts in connection with the WB as being within the sphere of the EU’s interest: ‘EU membership for the WB is in the Union’s very own political, security, and economic interest.’[39]

If the 2018 new EU enlargement strategy emphasised the need for human rights and good governance reforms, the 2020 Enlargement methodology gives the Member States more say in assessing the situation in the countries concerned. This greater political steering may take a tougher or a more lenient approach, according to the foreign policy preferences of the individual Member States. In any case, the use of unanimity in these decisions may well lead to other deadlocks, as Member States can always use enlargement decisions as a way to settle political scores with the candidate countries,as reflected in Bulgaria’s recent veto blocking the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.[40]

There is, therefore, the EU risks gradually shifting to a new approach, from one seeking transformation to one driven by geopolitical considerations. The latter could lead to two kinds of developments. The first would be to devalue the transformative ambitions of the EU in the WB in favour of other objectives aimed at stabilising different countries in the region. The second development would be to show greater tolerance towards democratic backsliding in order to counter the influence of external powers, which would mean the EU compromising the very values on which it is founded. The net result of such an approach would be to grant EU membership to WB countries while disregarding the state of their democratic institutions.

To some extent, EU Member States are still divided, with several – including France, the Netherlands, and the Scandinavian countries – insisting on the need for the EU to continue serving as a transformative power in the WB while others – including Austria, Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovakia – are willing to speed up the accession process.[41]

A more geopolitical approach to the WB, if confirmed, may be based on an exaggerated reading of great power competition in the region. As the figures mentioned above show, none of the great powers active in the Balkans can aspire to replace the EU as the leading political and economic partner of WB countries. In addition, some of these external powers, such as China and Turkey or even Russia, do not have any interest in seeing a complete collapse of the EU enlargement to the WB, as these countries could be used as spearheads to take advantage of the EU single market. A weakening of the EU influence in the WB may also produce a vacuum that could fuel further instability in the region by exacerbating great power rivalries.

Lastly, an overemphasis on geopolitics in the EU approach towards the WB also presents the risk of overlooking the new challenges the region has been facing in the early 21st century. For example, the region has a very poor record on protecting the environment.[42]

CoFoE and EU enlargement to the WB: the way ahead

As mentioned above, enlargement and its geopolitical implications do not figure as a topic of discussion in the CoFoE. That does not mean that the CoFoE cannot make some useful contributions on these issues.

The first one concerns the importance of reasserting the EU’s values as the very foundations of the EU project. Indeed, one can hardly expect the EU to recommend further democratic reforms to candidate countries while some EU Member States, such as Poland and Hungary, are themselves drifting in the direction of ‘illiberalism’. A reassertion of EU values would strengthen EU credibility as a transformative power in the WB.

The second issue relates to the discussions on the EU’s role in the WB as a transformative power and on the credibility of the integration project in the region. Here the CoFoE could provide a framework to reassert the Europeanness of the WB. Doing so would offer a strong symbolic and political boost to pro-EU liberal political forces in the region.

The third issue concerns EU decision-making. It was set aside in the Joint Declaration, but may well come back if the EU citizens wish it. This should include reform of the rule of unanimity, especially when it comes to EU enlargement. The use of unanimity always presents the risk of some Member States being willing to settle their bilateral issues with the candidates, stalling the process even further.

Conclusion

It would be tempting to brush aside the issue of EU enlargement when discussing the future of Europe. This would overlook the fact that EU enlargement is very much at the heart of EU integration.

Above all, there is an urgent need to include the citizens and civil society groups from the WB in the works of the CoFoE. The future of Europe is also their future, as so many policies, from the rule of law to environmental protections, are of vital importance for them. Failing to do so, may well play into the hands of the illiberal forces in the WB and their external backers.

There is also a real risk that the CoFoE may become another missed opportunity as far as EU enlargement is concerned. Such a situation could potentially lead to the EU losing influence and credibility as a transformative power in the WB, as well as the creation of a geopolitical vacuum in which all the countries in the region may be tempted not only to play the great powers against one another but also to serve as pawns in the larger game on the global chessboard.

If you would like to read more about the Conference on the Future of Europe, feel free to access this other Future of Europe Journal article on the topic here.

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[1] S. Kotanidis (2021), ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’, Briefing – European Parliament, p. 3, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2021/690590/EPRS_BRI(2021)690590_EN.pdf

[2] Joint Declaration on the Conference on the Future of Europe (2021), ‘Engaging with citizens for democracy – Building a more resilient Europe’, https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/en_-_joint_declaration_on_the_conference_on_the_future_of_europe.pdf.

[3] Kotanidis, ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’, pp. 4–5.

[4] H. Hasa (2021), ‘The EU’s credibility as a global actor is undermined by its stalled enlargement process’, LSE Blog, 16 July, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2021/07/16/the-eus-credibility-as-a-global-actor-is-undermined-by-its-stalled-enlargement-process/.

[5] L. Cianetti, J. Dawson, and S. Hanley (2018), ‘Rethinking “Democratic Backsliding” in Central and Eastern Europe – Looking Beyond Hungary and Poland’, East European Politics, 34(3), 243–256. DOI: 10.1080/21599165.2018.1491401.

[6] F. Bieber (2018), ‘Patterns of Competitive Authoritarianism in the Western Balkans’, East European Politics, 34(3), 338. DOI: 10.1080/21599165.2018.1490272.

[7] Balkan Insight (2020), ‘Looking back at 2019: Year of mass protests across Balkans’, 2 January, https://balkaninsight.com/2020/01/02/looking-back-at-2019-year-of-mass-protests-across-balkans/.

[8] N. Wunsch (2020), ‘How Covid-19 is deepening democratic backsliding and geopolitical competition in the Western Balkans’, LSE Blog, 20 May, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2020/05/20/how-covid-19-is-deepening-democratic-backsliding-and-geopolitical-competition-in-the-western-balkans/.

[9] M. Edwards (2019), ‘The president who wants to break up his own country’, The Atlantic, 2 January, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2019/01/serb-president-dodik-bosnia/579199/.

[10] S. Economides (2020), ‘From fatigue to resistance: EU enlargement and the Western Balkans’, Dahrendorf Forum IV Working Paper No. 17, 20 March, https://www.dahrendorf-forum.eu/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/From-Fatigue-to-Resistance.pdf.

[11] European Commission (2018), ‘A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans’, 6 February, p. 3, https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/default/files/communication-credible-enlargement-perspective-western-balkans_en.pdf.

[12] Even though being labelled as a ‘hybrid’ regime by the Freedom House, the new government elected in 2017 started a process of reforms with mixed results. See Freedom House (2020), ‘Nations in Transit 2020’, https://freedomhouse.org/country/north-macedonia/nations-transit/2020;  Le Monde (2019), ‘Macron accusé d’« erreur historique » pour avoir fermé la porte de l’UE à la Macédoine du Nord et à l’Albanie’, 23 October, https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2019/10/23/macron-accuse-d-erreur-historique-apres-avoir-ferme-la-porte-de-l-ue-a-skopje-et-tirana_6016606_3210.html.

[13] Non-Paper (2019), ‘Non-Paper – Reforming the European Union accession process’, November,

https://www.politico.eu/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Enlargement-nonpaper.pdf.

[14] European Commission (2020), ‘Enhancing the accession process – A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans’, 5 February, https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/enlargement-methodology_en.pdf.

[15] B. Stanicek (2020), ‘A new approach to EU enlargement’, Briefing – European Parliamentary Research Service, March, pp. 2–3, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2020/649332/EPRS_BRI(2020)649332_EN.pdf.

[16] A. Rettman (2021), ‘EU enlargement still “hopelessly stuck”’, European Voice, 24 June, https://euobserver.com/world/152248.

[17] The Guardian (2018), ‘EU tells Montenegro attack on journalist will affect membership bid’, 11 May,

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/11/eu-montenegro-attack-journalist-olivera-lakic-membership-bid.

[18] C. Crowcroft (2021), ‘Montenegro wants to join the EU – but will Brussels have it?’, Euronews, 1 February, https://www.euronews.com/2021/02/01/montenegro-wants-to-join-the-eu-but-will-brussels-have-it.

[19] V. Vuksanovic (2019), ‘Serbia’s deal with the Eurasian Economic Union: A triumph of foreign policy over economics’, LSE Blog, 28 November, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2019/11/28/serbias-deal-with-the-eurasian-economic-union-a-triumph-of-foreign-policy-over-economics/.

[20] Euractiv (2021), ‘EU-Serbia: A stagnation comfortable for both sides’, 18 June, https://www.euractiv.com/section/enlargement/opinion/eu-serbia-a-stagnation-comfortable-for-both-sides/.

[21] Rettman, ‘EU enlargement still “hopelessly stuck”’.

[22] Federal Foreign Office (2021), ‘EU enlargement: A strategic and shared interest’, 26 June, https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/newsroom/news/2468650.

[23] M. Emerson and M. Lazarevic (2021), ‘Avant-garde proposal for EU enlargement to the Western Balkans’, Euractiv, 15 July, https://www.euractiv.com/section/enlargement/opinion/avant-garde-proposal-for-eu-enlargement-to-the-western-balkans/.

[24] A. Brzozowski and V. Makszimov (2021), ‘EU leaders to restate Western Balkans enlargement commitment but without timeline’, Euractiv, 5 October, https://www.euractiv.com/section/enlargement/news/eu-leaders-to-restate-enlargement-commitment-but-envisage-no-timeline/.

[25] R.  R. Panagiotou (2020), ‘The Western Balkans Between Russia and the European Union: Perceptions, Reality, and Impact on Enlargement’, Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 29(2), 225–226. DOI: 10.1080/14782804.2020.1798218.

[26] P. Schmidt and V. Dzihic (2021), ‘Vaccine diplomacy and enlargement fatigue: Why the EU must rethink its approach to the Western Balkans’, LSE Blog,28 April, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2021/04/28/vaccine-diplomacy-and-enlargement-fatigue-why-the-eu-must-rethink-its-approach-to-the-western-balkans/.

[27] J. Hosa and V. Tcherneva (2021), ‘Pandemic trends: Serbia looks east, Ukraine looks west’, ECFR Commentary, 5 August, https://ecfr.eu/article/pandemic-trends-serbia-looks-east-ukraine-looks-west/.

[28] Schmidt and Dzihic, ‘Vaccine diplomacy and enlargement fatigue’.

[29] Panagiotou (2020), ‘The Western Balkans Between Russia and the European Union’.

[30] Established initially as the 16+1 initiative, which included Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia. In 2019, Greece joined the initiative and,in May 2021, Lithuania pulled out of that initiative.

[31] N. Markovic Khaze and X. Wang (2020), ‘Is China’s Rising Influence in the Western Balkans a Threat to European Integration?’, Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 29(2), 238–240. DOI: 10.1080/14782804.2020.1823340.; K. Juničić and S. Michalopoulos (2019), ‘Chinese Balkans investments disrupt EU objectives, Commission warns’. Euractiv.com, 4 April, https://www.euractiv.com/section/china/news/chinese-balkans-investments-disrupt-eu-objectives-commission-warns/

[32] D. Lilkov (2021), ‘The 17+1 mechanism: Something doesn’t add up – Re-evaluating cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European countries’, In Brief – Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies, April, https://www.martenscentre.eu/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/The-171-Mechanism-Something-Doesnt-Add-Up.pdf.

[33]  A. Juncos (2021), Vaccine Geopolitics and the EU’s Ailing Credibility in the Western Balkans [Carnegie Europe, 8 July, https://carnegieeurope.eu/2021/07/08/vaccine-geopolitics-and-eu-s-ailing-credibility-in-western-balkans-pub-84900

[34] M.E. Koppa (2020), ‘Turkey, Gulf States and Iran in the Western Balkans: More than the Islamic Factor?’, Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 29(2), 255–257. DOI: 10.1080/14782804.2020.1754769.

[35] H. Grabbe (2006), The EU’s Transformative Power. Europeanization Through Conditionality in Central and Eastern Europe (London: Palgrave Macmillan).

[36] European Commission (2015), ‘EU enlargement strategy’, 10 November, p. 2,  https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=celex%3A52015DC0611.

[37] Grabbe, The EU’s Transformative Power, p. 3.

[38] S. Lehne (2020), ‘Geopolitics, the EU and the Western Balkans’, in Nechev, Z. (ed.), Stimulating Strategic Autonomy: Western Balkans’ Contribution for a Shared European Future (IDSCS), pp. 11–19, https://idscs.org.mk/en/2020/11/06/stimulating-strategic-autonomy-western-balkans-contribution-for-a-shared-european-future/.

[39] European Commission, ‘A credible enlargement perspective’, p. 1.

[40] S. Cvijic (2019), ‘Ditching unanimity is key to make enlargement work’, Euractiv, 4 February, https://www.euractiv.com/section/enlargement/opinion/ditching-unanimity-is-key-to-make-enlargement-work/.

[41] M. Petrovic and N. Tzifakis (2021), ‘A Geopolitical Turn to EU Enlargement, or Another Postponement? An Introduction’, Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 29(2), 161–162. DOI: 10.1080/14782804.2021.1891028.

[42] C. Lesoska (2020), ‘A Green Deal for the Western Balkans’, in Nechev, Z. (ed.), Stimulating Strategic Autonomy: Western Balkans’ Contribution for a Shared European Future (IDSCS), pp. 20–27, https://idscs.org.mk/en/2020/11/06/stimulating-strategic-autonomy-western-balkans-contribution-for-a-shared-european-future/.

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