When the EU Commission President Juncker delivered his “State of the Union” address on September 13, 2017, five sentences of his speech referenced the Western Balkans and “maintaining the credible enlargement perspectives” for the region. These sentences were applauded by “friends of the enlargement” within the EU, as well as the candidate countries, even though one of those sentences was, “No candidate is ready,” followed by 12 sentences about Turkey…

Currently, there are four candidate countries in the Western Balkans. Serbia and Montenegro have initiated the accession negotiations chapter while Albania received candidate status in 2014 and is waiting to start the accession negotiations conditioned by further progress in reforms. Meanwhile, after the recent political changes, Macedonia is optimistic that the new government will reignite the reform process, though much work remains to be done. One issue to be overcome is the name dispute with neighbouring Greece. Unless the international community assists the two countries in reaching a compromise, Macedonia will remain stuck in the same position for years (candidate’s status achieved in 2005) which could have a devastating impact on the country’s morale. Furthermore, there are two remaining „aspiring countries “, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo which still await the candidate status. Significant internal reforms are needed for each country to pass the threshold, and five EU member countries do not even recognise the latter as a country.

The Western Balkans have been increasingly emerging on the EU’s radar over the past two years. Very recently, Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, spoke about the “unfinished business in the Western Balkans“, referring to the enlargement. Moreover, French President Macron publicly endorsed the “European perspective of the Western Balkans“. These statements are positive signals from European heavy-weights and Euro-technocrats towards the region, aiming to keep them motivated, engaged and within the European orbit. However, these signals could represent efforts to make up for Juncker’s declaration at the beginning of his tenure back in 2014 when he said the following 5-year-term of the Commission under his leadership will mean the EU without any enlargement. Although it was probably just a calculated play by the “team Juncker” which has proven to be correct, it was received very emotionally in the Balkan region and was perceived as delay tactics.

On the other hand, the current positive signals might be misinterpreted in some of the Balkan capitals – not as an encouragement to keep them motivated but rather as a reaffirmation that they have been doing enough. Frankly speaking, not nearly enough has been done and many reforms are needed still in all candidate, as well as aspiring countries. What is needed is not only the “tick the box” reforms but real policy implementation put into practice. However, this is the tricky part. Policies such as the rule of law, independent judiciary, independent media and good governance should not be just phrases but should become the reality. Unfortunately, with some internal problems within the EU itself, it is challenging to keep the candidates on the right track. The EU is then accused of using double standards whereby countries which are already members of „the club” do not have to play by the rules.

The EU’s internal challenges are hurting the candidate countries the most because the “older” EU countries which also tend to be more sceptical about the enlargement process will have more pronounced concerns.  These include arguments that with the enlargement the EU is letting in more trouble-makers who could further erode the EU’s unity.

Therefore, to maintain the credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans, first of all, the rules of the enlargement must remain consistent. Conditions must be equal for all the candidates (with the exception of unique national situations, e.g. in case of Serbia, this would be represented in Chapter 35 on the relations with Kosovo) and must be clearly declared before-hand. The accession negotiation process of each country must be transparent, and at the same time, it must be clear that there are no short-cuts to the membership.

In parallel with that, the EU should send clear signals that once a candidate country fulfils accession criteria, it will be accepted and that member countries will work with their own home constituencies to explain benefits of welcoming the Western Balkan countries into the EU family.

Although reforms are difficult for many Western Balkan countries, they must be implemented, and they must be implemented in a credible manner. The EU should be clear that simulation of reforms is not acceptable. Candidate countries must take firm ownership of reforms in order to modernise and improve conditions for their own citizens’ benefit, not “because Brussels wants it from us”. Under the latter narrative, it should not be surprising that support for EU membership is drifting in a number of countries of the Western Balkans – most recently especially in Serbia. Furthermore, there are tools as well as funds, and willing member countries, to assist the candidates with reforms for the transformation.

Juncker spoke about “more democratic Europe for 2025” and references to this year emerged multiple times in his speech. Soon after, this led to floating interpretations that the year of 2025 is meant as the earliest deadline for the next EU enlargement round as perceived by “Team Juncker“. This has elicited mixed reactions as well. Some applaud it as a commitment of the EU to enlarge after all, while others think that the EU should not set a deadline for itself on this particular matter.

I would join the latter group as I believe giving a deadline in this case is a mistake. I understand it was done with good intentions after analysing all variables of the enlargement equation, but it was perceived very negatively among the Western Balkan countries, especially in Serbia and Montenegro who have advanced the most in the EU integration process. Generally, there has been a feeling among the candidates (minus Turkey, plus aspiring countries) that the date is too far away – beyond the mandate of even the following Commission. These sentiments cast shadow over the credibility of the deadline. Therefore, the EU should refrain from giving deadlines for itself as the integration processes must be driven by the candidates. This is especially true for the Western Balkans.

I believe we should turn the table around – candidates need to be ready and when they are ready (the EU accession process offers plenty of benchmarks from which the level of progress can be established), the EU members will be able to persuade their own constituencies to support the enlargement. That, however, requires work on the home turf by member states to ensure political support, while candidate countries must work on their home turf to gather support for reforms and their proper implementation.

In the process, we should refrain from naming the “best pupils in the class”. We made a similar mistake in the Eastern Partnership group a few years back with Moldova and it did not work out well. It is understandable that the EU needs a success story among the candidates but to accomplish that, we should not turn a blind eye to serious problems, such as the rule of law, judiciary independence, corruption, independent media or concentration of power in a number of candidates’ countries. At the same time, they should not attempt to sit on two chairs (EU and Russia), especially if “those chairs are so far apart”.