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Open EU Single Market to the Balkans

For a merit-based EU accession process that offers a credible goal

The EU accession process should offer membership in the Single Market as an interim goal to any of the six Western Balkan nations interested in it. The best chance to achieve this lies with the upcoming Slovenian EU presidency and an EU-Balkan summit in late 2021.​​​​​​​

ESI newsletter: Slovenia, Serbia and an EU-Balkan breakthrough in 2021 (9 March 2021)

ESI report: Hamster in the Wheel. Credibility and EU Balkan policy (15 January 2020)

In January 2020, ESI published a report on the crisis of the EU accession process and argued that the EU has a strong incentive to offer to any interested Western Balkan nation the chance to join its Single Market as an interim goal in a reformed two-stage EU accession process. 

Two weeks later, on 31 January 2020, Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic suggested that the EU should offer Serbia a fair opportunity “to come closer to the EU’s Single Market ... This way our citizens will see concrete benefits. Of course, with an understanding that on Serbia’s European path the key for us remains joining the EU as a full member at the end.”

Membership in the Single Market would allow the Western Balkan states, once they meet all the requirements, to benefit from the four freedoms – the free movement of goods, capital, services and persons. At the same time, sceptical EU members could avoid any debate about accepting new EU members.

Slovenia’s EU presidency in the second half of 2021 brings a concrete chance for a major push towards the realisation of this idea. In 2008 a previous Slovenian EU presidency played a pivotal role brokering a compromise to get to a meritocratic visa liberalisation process for the Western Balkans. This ended years of frustration and division on the issue within the EU and led to all Western Balkan citizens (except those from Kosovo) to be able to travel visa free to the EU by the end of 2010. It was a major success of Slovenian diplomacy.

So how can a reformed two-stage EU accession process be launched in 2021?

First, the Serbian government communicates to the Slovenian government, to other EU member states concerned about enlargement policy – France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands – and to the European Commission that it is interested in a process that would allow Serbia to join the EU Single Market once all required reforms are implemented.

Second, the Slovenian government prepares a concrete proposal with European Union institutions to be presented at an EU-Western Balkan summit later in 2021. Such a proposal would lead to the drafting of concrete roadmaps setting out the benchmarks which countries need to meet in all 22 areas covered by the Single Market as well as for the rule of law (more details on this here). This looks very close to full EU membership, because Single Market membership covers most of the acquisCitizens and companies would enjoy the freedoms that citizens and companies from Norway and Iceland enjoy today. Governments in the Western Balkans could prove to sceptics in the EU that they can sustain the discipline of acceding and abiding by EU rules once inside.

Third, the offer to join the Single Market is extended to all Western Balkan countries, including Kosovo. The EU makes clear that this proposal is not imposed on Western Balkan countries but constitutes a fair and credible offer to those governments eager to prove that they can implement the many reforms required for integration within the next few years. This would be a game changer also for those countries which have not yet opened accession talks: Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also Albania and North Macedonia.

Fourth, the EU and those Western Balkan countries interested in joining the Single Market develop an institutional framework for this, so that once countries have joined the Single Market they will, like Norway does today as a member of the European Economic Area (EEA), continue to adopt future EU rules and regulations in the areas covered by the Single Market.

The EU-Western Balkan Transport Community set up in 2017 offers an interesting model. It includes all six Western Balkans countries and aims at full integration in the fields “of road, rail, inland waterway and maritime transport as well as the development of the transport network between the European Union and the six Western Balkan Parties.”

The treaty setting up the Transport Community lists all applicable rules, including those related to public procurement and state aid. It foresees each country becoming fully part of the EU market in this area once it meets the conditions. The Transport Community includes a permanent secretariat, a Ministerial Council, which meets annually and consists of representatives of the European Commission, the six Western Balkan States and observers from any EU member state that wishes to attend. Potential disputes will be resolved before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and its decisions are “final and binding.” Balkan courts can also turn to the ECJ for opinions and questions just like EU member state courts. The EU contributes 80 percent to the Transport Community budget.

The Transport Community’s institutional structure could easily be developed further into an institutional framework for a wider EU-Western Balkan Economic Area, including a permanent role for the European Court of Justice and the European Commission after countries accede.

Carrying out the reforms needed to join the Single Market and to join the EU has been phenomenally beneficial for peripheral economies. Taking into account differences in price levels, Lithuania went from 37 per cent of the average EU GDP per capita in 1999 to 81 per cent in 2018. During the same period, Romania went from 26 to 66 per cent.

North Macedonia is today at the level of Lithuania in 1999. Bosnia and Herzegovina today is where Romania was in 1999. Countries can change. Enlargement policy can have a major impact. For this, it must be credible, merit-based and serious. It has happened before. It can happen again.