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Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) resolution on Western Balkans

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted a resolution on 11 October 2022 calling on the EU to give new impetus to the enlargement process for the Western Balkans. This was based on a report by Greek member of PACE (and former Prime Minister of Greece) George Papandreou.  

The resolution referred to the slow progress in the enlargement process since the Thessaloniki EU- Western Balkans summit in 2003, when the EU committed to working towards enlargement to include the Western Balkan countries. Since then, Croatia has joined the EU, but other Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia) remain at different stages in the accession process (see section 2.3 below).

The PACE resolution referred to the length of time that had elapsed since the Thessaloniki summit and suggested that there had been a “failure to adequately reward progress” that had “sapped political momentum and public enthusiasm” in these countries for joining the EU.  The resolution also referred to Russian influence in the region and the risk that this would be “used as a wedge to deepen fractures and lead to further destabilisation”.

The resolution said it was important not to lose focus on the Western Balkans, even if the need to support the European aspirations of other countries, such as Ukraine, had emerged in the meantime. At the same time, it called on countries in the Western Balkans to address issues including a polarised political climate and rule of law and governance issues, and to refrain from inflammatory discourse.

The resolution also called on the Council of Europe and the EU to work together in assisting the Western Balkan countries to make progress in meeting EU accession criteria relating to democracy, rule of law and human rights, and to resolve disputes in the region.

Horizontal Facility for the Western Balkans and Turkey

The PACE resolution made reference to the EU and Council of Europe working together through the Horizontal Facility for the Western Balkans and Turkey. This is a cooperation initiative established by the Council of Europe and EU which assists countries in complying with Council of Europe standards and EU rules and accession criteria.

Recommendation to Council of Europe Committee of Ministers

Alongside the resolution, PACE also adopted a recommendation to the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers (foreign affairs ministers of Council of Europe Member States) calling on it to strengthen the strategic partnership between the Council of Europe and the EU in relation to the Western Balkans, and to work together to promote the rule of law and good governance, promote dialogue and address other issues in the region.

The Western Balkans and EU enlargement

Albania, the Republic of North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are all candidate countries to join the EU. These are all countries that have applied to join the EU, and with whom the EU has approved the beginning of accession negotiations. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are recognised as potential candidates and have stabilisation and association agreements with the EU. 

Progress for the candidate countries has been slow: Negotiations began with Montenegro in 2012 and Serbia in 2014, but have made little progress.

North Macedonia was granted candidate status in 2005, and Albania in 2014. Negotiations with North Macedonia in particular were held up by objections from Greece and Bulgaria, and there was also a wider reluctance within the EU to enlarge further.

The Commission presented draft negotiating frameworks for both countries to EU Member States in 2020, but the negotiations did not begin until July 2022.

At the June 2022 European Council meeting, EU political leaders expressed their “full and unequivocal commitment to the EU membership perspective of the Western Balkans” and called for the acceleration of the accession process. At the same time, they agreed on EU candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova.

On 22 October 2022, the European Commission adopted its 2022 Enlargement Package, providing a detailed assessment of the state of play in the EU accession process. It recommended that Bosnia and Herzegovina be granted candidate status by the Council of the EU “on the understanding that a number of steps are taken to reinforce democracy, functionality of state institutions, rule of law, the fight against corruption and organised crime, guarantee media freedom and migration management in the country”. The decision on candidate status still needs to be taken by the Council of the EU (Member State ministerial representatives).

European Political Community

Western Balkan countries have been invited to participate in the European Political Community (EPC), which had its first meeting on 6 October 2022. The EPC was proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron as a way of bringing all European countries with “shared core values” together to find space for cooperation. The proposal was originally viewed with suspicion by Western Balkan countries as a possible substitute for EU membership. However, the EU stressed that the EPC would not develop as an alternative to the EU enlargement process.

The EU and Serbia

EU candidate countries are expected to align themselves with any sanctions adopted by the EU. Serbia has not done so in relation to EU sanctions against Russia since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. A European Parliament resolution on Serbia in July 2022 expressed regret about this, and also that Serbian representatives avoided the vote in the Council of Europe that expelled Russia from the organisation in March 2022. It also referred to the cooperative relationship between political forces in Serbia and authoritarian political parties in Russia and various issues with the rule of law in Serbia and said that no new EU accession negotiating chapters with Serbia should be opened until these matters were rectified.

At the end of September 2022, Serbia and Russia signed a foreign policy consultation agreement leading to reports that Member States and the European Parliament would call for a stop to further EU accession talks.

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