Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


With EU enlargement back on the political agenda, the West has an opportunity to revitalise its policy toward the Western Balkans. This June marked twenty years since the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, where EU leaders declared that the “future of the Balkans is within the European Union.”

Yet two decades later, EU membership for all Western Balkan countries remains elusive, as the region struggles to overcome persistent ethnic tensions and implement necessary reforms for accession.

The long-term goal of Western policy toward the region must be realised with the EU assuming responsibility for the Western Balkans as the USA increasingly turns its attention to other areas of the world, such as the Indo-Pacific.

In many Western Balkan countries, popular support towards EU membership remains robust. This support however should not be taken for granted. To reach the citizens of Western Balkan countries we need the governments and civil society in the region.

All our partners and the EU must work against malign influences and narratives distorting the image of a unified Europe. To remain strong, we must present a unified front, building together a better future for all our citizens.


Yugoslavia fell apart violently at the end of the Cold War, spawning brutal wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina (1991-1995), an Albanian insurgency and a Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo (1998-1999), and a brief Albanian uprising in North Macedonia (2001). Since then, the region’s fortunes have been mixed.

Two Yugoslav successor states, Slovenia and Croatia, have since joined the EU; two others, Montenegro and North Macedonia, have become part of NATO, along with neighbouring Albania. Bosnia struggles under an unwieldy constitution imposed by the Dayton agreement in 1995. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 but its statehood is far from universally recognised and it is not a member of the UN. The region’s states that remain outside the EU all aspire to membership.

The European Council met in Thessaloniki on 19 and 20 June 2003 and underlined its “determination to fully and effectively support the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries, which will become an integral part of the EU, once they meet the established criteria”.

Moreover, the European Council welcomed the Draft Constitutional Treaty presented by the President of the Convention, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and the Vice-President, Giuliano Amato. Defined as a historic step in European integration, the Draft included the enlargement process and the “Union’s ability to act as a coherent and unified force in the international system”. Back then, the President of the European Commission was Romano Prodi.

Therefore, the EU-Western Balkans Summit in June 2003 stressed further strengthening the privileged relations between the EU and the Western Balkans.

Current situation

Twenty-plus years after the wars that followed Yugoslavia’s collapse, Western state-building efforts and the prospect of EU membership have failed to deliver hoped-for reforms in Western Balkan states or to resolve the region’s lingering disputes. Russia’s war in Ukraine has energised accession proponents, but EU enlargement remains a long-term project.

As Russia’s assault on Ukraine wreaks fresh havoc in Europe’s east, war wounds that the Western Balkans suffered more than two decades ago continue to fester. The Dayton peace accord that has held Bosnia and Herzegovina together is unravelling. Efforts to resolve Kosovo’s dispute with Serbia over its independence are frozen. Montenegro has seen violent unrest. North Macedonia is a bright spot, but it has yet to begin accession negotiations with the European Union. Neither has Albania. Bad governance, sluggish economies, corruption and European ambivalence have stalled the EU process. The war in Ukraine has spurred talk of jumpstarting enlargement efforts, but major acceleration seems unlikely for now to promote regional stability and integration,

As a matter of fact, a secessionist movement threatens to break Bosnia and Herzegovina apart, while Kosovo and Serbia remain at loggerheads over the former’ status. Until these disputes are addressed, they will threaten regional stability. While the possibility of EU membership remains an important motivator for regional actors, it alone cannot solve these problems.

Brussels should proceed on multiple tracks, putting crisis mitigation first. The EU should work to defuse the Bosnian crisis and improve Serbia-Kosovo relations while promoting Kosovo’s international ties. The EU should consider ways to further encourage greater European integration before full membership is possible.

The new context

The European Council’s decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova in June 2022 , while widening the enlargement process, also had the effect of returning enlargement policy to the spotlight of the EU agenda. This new context allowed the relaunch of the process for the Western Balkans after a decade of profound crisis, generating new hopes and enthusiasm in the region.

The geostrategic importance arising from enlargement toward the Balkans became clearer after 2022 and their interdependence with the EU  should become clearer today in the new international context, in security terms. More generally, it would be important to stress how the Western Balkans accession can benefit both the EU and the candidate countries.

On 21 August, leaders of the EU candidate countries met in Athens at the invitation of the Prime Minister of Greece Mitsotakis, marking the 20 years of the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Thessaloniki. Namely, at the Athens Summit were present as well Prime Ministers of Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria, Presidents of the European Commission, Von der Leyen, and European Council Charles Michel, who repeated that enlargement remains high on the agenda as a top priority for the EU. Likewise, the Athens meeting joined the Presidents of Ukraine and Moldova, the leaders of the new candidate countries.

Political instability in the Western Balkans

There are many troubling issues that concern and affect the political instability of the Western Balkans. Some of these are legacies of the past, some are present geopolitical constraints and some are emerging from the inability of political elites in these countries to strive forward.

As one report of the European Parliament in 2022 has noted and is important to quote in length: “Legacies of the 1990s  - military conflicts, nationalistic narratives, international sanctions against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the NATO bombing - have left deep scars on Western Balkan societies, political systems, and political culture.

The democratization processes have been undermined by: the low level of media freedom; non-transparent policymaking; non-inclusion of the civil society organizations in the consultation process; weak rule of law due to the insufficiently reformed judiciary; inefficient public administration and resulting limited absorptive capacity of EU funds; and ambiguity in politicians' foreign policy stances.

Heavy external involvement in the making of states in Bosnia - Herzegovina as well as Kosovo together with  periods of instability that have afflicted the EU during the last decade or so, including the Eurozone and the migration crises along with Brexit, have led to growing skepticism about the EU and hence diminished its attractiveness.

This, in turn, has led to declining support for the EU in some Western Balkan countries and further reversals in favour of authoritarian regimes . The past has been instrumental to determine the current transition route of these countries, which has still inroads to make toward the consolidation of democracy and rule of law.


The high support and enthusiasm of the citizens of the region for EU integration is not always supported by the EU member countries. For example, some of the  ideas emerging in 2022  from Élysée Palace were that of the “clusters methodology” and associate memberships for the countries in the region. In a nutshell, both ideas, with the notable difference that one was the official policy, while that of associate members was only a proposal, made it difficult for the countries in the region to reach the stage of full accession.

Furthermore, as the associate membership suggested, these countries would not have the same political rights as the other 27 states that are already part of the EU. For example, they would not veto any proposal of the EU Council of Ministers and other EU political institutions. However, this has not diminished the political will of the elites as well as the aspiration of the citizens from the Western Balkans to join the European Union as soon as possible. This in turn will provide for greater political stability, less corruption and organized crime, more democracy, and freedoms and higher economic performance from these countries.

Geopolitical strife in Western Balkans  

As a matter of fact, with the West distracted by Ukraine and Russia in turmoil, parallel crises in Bosnia and Kosovo risk spiralling violently out of control.

The Bosnian Serb leadership’s recent step towards legal secession from the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina, in combination with an escalation of violence in northern Kosovo, are threatening to plunge the Balkans into new chaos  and possibly new ethnic conflicts.

Political tensions have exploded across Bosnia since the assembly of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity, Republika Srpska, passed a law declaring rulings of Bosnia’s state-level Constitutional Court non-applicable in the entity.

These renewed Balkan troubles are developing amidst geopolitical strife exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. While already deeply intertwined, further cross-fertilization of these parallel storms could bring catastrophic results for the Balkans and all Europe as well.

The EU’s continued failure to understand, let alone apprehend, the Balkan’s crises and to resolve Balkan problems through political manipulations and short-term fixes, is likely to further strengthen already strong influences of Russia, China, Turkey and other foreign actors in the region.

Some local and international officials and experts say recent developments in Russia may have also played a role in the Bosnian Serb leadership’s move towards secession from the rest of the country.  Dodik - one of the few politicians in the world who in past years has met Putin regularly, almost every year -  may have tried to draw the Kremlin to support his two-decade-long separatist dream.

Meanwhile, recent elections in Turkey have cemented the domestic position of Turkey’s conservative president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and opened space for his even greater involvement in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia, Kosovo and Albania.

Turkey and Russia may try to fill vacuum

Perhaps the only thing that Bosniak, Bosnian Croat and Serb politicians seem to agree on at this stage is to blame  the EU for the recent deterioration of the situation in Bosnia, Kosovo and the rest of the Balkans.

The steady weakening of the EU presence in the Balkans  has made Bosnia-Herzegovina even more vulnerable to the influences of the two main regional power centers – Belgrade and Zagreb – as well as other geopolitical actors, especially the USA, Russia, Turkey and China, as well as Iran and the Arab States of the Persian Gulf.

Most Balkan experts also agree that the deepening crisis in the Balkans may draw other foreign actors – already well present in the Balkans – to further strengthen their respective influences.

Turkey and Russia see the Balkans as the gate for Europe and the place where they can be big and strong. The latest elections in Turkey have further strengthened the position of the hard-line Turkish president Erdogan, and  with the new foreign minister, Hakan Fidan, who was the head of intelligence agency, Turkey will further increase its presence in the region.

This is already likely to happen anyway; in recent weeks, NATO asked Turkey to provide additional troops for peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Bosnia.

Other experts say the apparent political chaos in Moscow may lead to greater Russian engagement in the Balkans. Putin  might just as easily engage, to create a distraction from events at home.

External Powers' influence in the Western Balkans

External actors are increasing their influence over the political elites and peoples of Western Balkans countries.  Increasingly, Eastern actors have been using hybrid threats (disinformation warfare, covert operations to win the hearts and minds of the population by Russia), spreading violent extremism (Gulf countries), potentially debt-trapping some Western Balkans countries (China), violating the EU laws on arms trade (Gulf countries) and implementing identity reengineering (Gulf countries, Iran, Russia, Turkey) in order to advance their geopolitical interests. Indeed, the Eastern actors often adopt a holistic approach in focusing on winning hearts and minds of the Western Balkans population.

These security risks can derail the stability of the region in the long term with negative ramifications towards the EU  integration processes as well as EU regional policies. For instance, it has been found that for political reasons, the West is now less attractive to the Western Balkans. Local elites may be less willing to engage with the West because they are reticent to promote the rule of law, or because of a lack of personal ties between the Western Balkans elites and Western counterparts.

Moreover, there is fatigue to engage with the West because interaction is very time-consuming and complicated, for instance with regard to obtaining grants. Most importantly, factors such as the lack of coherent strategy from the West, the failed post conflict reconstruction due to the prioritization of stability over democracy, the lack of a realistic EU enlargement agenda, and the lack of engagement with the local population has disillusioned both elites and common people across the Western Balkans region.

EU Growth Plan for Western Balkans

On October 16, 2023, the European Union introduced a new growth plan for the Western Balkans, offering a pathway to deeper integration with the EU in exchange for substantial reforms. This initiative, discussed during a summit held in the capital of Albania as part of the Berlin Process, aims to pave the way for the full membership of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia in the European Union.

This move comes in response to the pressing need for a united response to challenges such as Russia’s war in Ukraine and lingering regional conflicts, underlining the EU’s commitment to the region.

One of the core elements of the EU’s new growth plan is a conditional approach to integration. Western Balkan countries will have the opportunity to access parts of the EU single market on a case-by-case basis in exchange for demonstrating significant reforms. This conditional approach will grant them entry into the EU market for goods and services, road transport, energy, electricity, customs cooperation, e-commerce, cashless payments, and more. The key aspect to highlight is the reciprocity between reforms and market access.

To further incentivize swift compliance with requested reforms, the EU leaders have proposed a substantial investment package. This package includes 6 billion EUR in investment, comprising 2 billion EUR in grants and 4 billion EUR in loans. These funds will be allocated based on the successful delivery of reforms, making them a crucial driver for progress in the Western Balkans.


The Western Balkans, as this tip of Southeastern Europe is often referred to, is one of the most volatile regions worldwide. It has traditionally produced more history than it consumes as Winston Churchill once said. The present-day global and European challenges, ranging from the Russian invasion of Ukraine to current economic stagnation while waiting for a looming financial crisis, are some of the headaches that have troubled the region recently. This is coupled with growing geopolitical risks such as the Russian-Ukrainian conflict that has inflated the prices worldwide but also it threatens the region also politically because Western Balkans has been for some time considered as the “soft underbelly of Europe”.

Practices of Russian disinformation and the spread of fake news, coupled with overt military assistance to its proxies in the region, have worried most policy-makers among EU member countries and others who see this as efforts toward destabilization. Chinese  and Turkish  penetration is also growing, posing a challenge of another nature but still in contradiction with the European Union integration path that all the countries in the region have professed. More and more we see threats of destabilization in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina through the separatist tendencies of Republika Serbska, while the situation in northern Kosovo is volatile. Furthermore, the ongoing Serbia-Kosovo dialogue has been going nowhere, while the situation in Montenegro is boiling for some time. 

These geopolitical threats are exacerbated by economic and financial challenges such as growing inflation, looming economic crises, and the lack of substantive foreign direct investments in the region. Some of the economic and financial symptoms, coupled with geopolitical risks and political instability, are indeed some of the main challenges to be addressed by all the countries in the region. They also are on the way to successful accession of these countries in the European Union.


The Western Balkans are at the receiving end of asymmetric hostile influence. Malicious actions are customised to take advantage of a target’s weaknesses. Vulnerable institutions and low public trust in the institutions of representative democracy - from governments to the media - as well as other thorny domestic issues can enhance the influence of hostile foreign actors who aim to further divide the public and weaken states.

The threat is horizontal and ever-evolving, versatile and crowd-sourced. It is also transversal - seeking influence across domains, institutions, and organisations. In response, governments must develop their awareness of these vulnerabilities and build resilience through long-term measures to reduce their state’s susceptibility to outside influence and to enhance the ability of both government and society to withstand pressure.

The Western Balkans  have come into the international spotlight as an arena for big power competition. In their foreign policy orientation, the region’s six countries (Albania, Bosnia - Herzegovina , Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia)  all share Euro-Atlantic affiliations, although the degree of affiliation varies.

Internally, functional and structural weaknesses - whether Albania’s legacy of an isolationist communist dictatorship or the consequence of the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia in the other countries - open doors for hostile foreign actors to project their influence. The environment is rife with ethnic tension, border disputes, and neighbourly disagreements. All of these countries are developing democracies that have yet to fully recover from the aftermath of the Yugoslav wars. Their Euro-Atlantic orientation is currently a matter of tense debate.

While Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia have become NATO members, Serbia oscillates between East and West, its EU candidate status notwithstanding. Although EU membership is still uncertain for the Western Balkan countries, all six have expressed their willingness to join the Union but are advancing down this path at different speeds.

Efforts to promote rule of law and media freedoms in Western Balkans have generally resulted in weak outcomes, and corruption and crime rates remain high; Western Balkans economies remain dependent on foreign investments and civil society is easily targeted by information operations, especially in the current climate where there is a lack of trust between the governments and the people.

All of these factors have contributed to the creation of an environment that is vulnerable to hostile foreign influence. The essential first step in effectively countering such actions and preventing regional stability from being further undermined is a methodical assessment of the Western Balkans’ permeability to hostile influence.