The UK and the future of the Western Balkans Contents

Chapter 4: Euro–Atlantic integration

32.Many witnesses saw peace and stability in the region as being achieved through greater Euro–Atlantic integration. In most cases, witnesses meant countries joining NATO and the EU.


33.Of the six Western Balkan countries, two are already members of NATO (Albania joined in 2009; Montenegro in 2017) and two are in the process of seeking membership (Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia). Serbia currently has no membership ambitions. Kosovo has expressed a desire to join NATO but as a number of NATO members do not recognise it, Kosovo has not been able to begin the process of moving towards membership.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

34.In Bosnia and Herzegovina we were told that support for NATO membership was high in the Entity of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina but not in the Entity of Republika Srpska. So, although membership was the country’s formal ambition, it was a divisive policy. This was emphasised when the National Assembly of the Entity of Republika Srpska adopted a proclamation on military neutrality on 17 October 2017 with particular reference to military alliances.

35.This division has stalled progress on one of the key requirements laid down by NATO before the Membership Action Plan (MAP) can be joined: the registration of immovable defence properties (for example, barracks). Sixty-three of these remained unregistered or registered as Yugoslav, as there were disputes about whether they ought to be registered as properties of one or other entity or of the state. However, we were told by the Deputy Foreign Minister, Josip Brkić, that there was no “plan B” to joining NATO.41


36.Kosovo has a long-standing aspiration to join NATO but as four NATO members do not recognise Kosovo—Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain—formal accession procedures have not been able to begin. However, NATO remains very active in Kosovo. NATO’s peacekeeping Kosovo Force (KFOR) has been in the country since 1999. Its role in the country has developed over time and has included capacity building support for Kosovo’s security organisations, counter-radicalisation work and assisting with the establishment and training of the Kosovo Security Force (KSF).

37.In Kosovo we were told that the KSF was in the process of evolving into the Kosovo Armed Force as part of its state building efforts and desire for greater Euro–Atlantic integration. The KSF took part in NATO regional exercises as well as regional activities and had signed Memorandums of Understanding with defence ministries of the region. However, we were also told that the creation of Kosovan army was objected to by Serbia.42


38.In Macedonia NATO membership is popular (and a more immediate priority than EU membership). The Foreign Minister, Nikola Dimitrov, said that over 70% of the population were in favour of joining. Mr Dimitrov said that membership would prove “that Macedonia is here to stay and within these boundaries”.43 However, progress towards membership has been blocked by Greece’s objections to the country’s name. Sir Adam Thomson, European Leaders Network (ELN), saw little prospect of their membership moving forward without the name issue being resolved.44 In contrast, Angus Lapsley, FCO, hoped that the recent change in government raised “the prospect that they might be able to reach an agreement with Greece on the name issue, and the Greek Foreign Minister himself has recently said that there may be a window of opportunity.”45 Mr Dimitrov also believed that there was a chance for progress to be made. He hoped to present Macedonia as an ally to Greece and to build a positive relationship to allow resolution of the name issue.46 The Government’s position was that the UK would “encourage discussions between Athens and Skopje … using and identifying opportunities where we can offer practical and more active support.”47


39.Serbia does not currently aspire to join NATO. According to Dr Jarosław Wiśniewski, LSE, “NATO is still perceived to be the villain among the ethnic Serb population, despite over 18 years since the bombing of Yugoslavia.”48 However, Angus Lapsley thought that full membership was not the only level of co-operation Serbia might have with NATO. For example, “President Vučić of Serbia is coming to address the NAC—the North Atlantic Council—in a few weeks’ time.”49 Dr Jonathan Eyal, RUSI, noted recent civil defence exercises NATO had held with Serbia.50 General Sir Michael Rose referred to Serbia holding 22 military exercises with NATO in the last year.51 Angus Lapsley concluded that “it is perfectly plausible that Serbia will not for a long time, or may never, see NATO as its future.”52

Impact of joining NATO

40.Dr Jonathan Eyal described NATO as an “exporter of security in the region”.53 He said that although membership could not remove tensions between member states, “it suspends them on a political rather than any military level … Croatia and Slovenia have notably continued problems over the border demarcation, but it [NATO membership] elevates them to the political level”.54 The Albanian ambassador described that effect of joining NATO on his country:

“Twenty years ago, Albania was, let us say, a kind of consumer of stability. Now, as a NATO member, our armed forces are contributing to the stability in our region. We have armed forces in Kosovo and Bosnia as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we are contributing through our navy to the GLC to control of the refugee influx.”55

41.General Sir Michael Rose warned that NATO countries must “maintain the high standards that we require them to achieve before they join”.56 Sir Adam Thomson noted that it was in NATO’s interests for prospective members to meet its requirements: “what still drives the organisation is a concern for stability, security and, to a degree, prosperity in the western Balkans … it is not driven by a concern simply to get these countries into the fold.”57

42.NATO membership and cooperation could enhance the peace and stability of the region. We agree with the Government’s continuing support for the membership ambitions of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia. Providing they meet the requirements for membership, their accession would be a welcome step towards greater stability in the region.

43.The Government should support measures to help Macedonia join NATO, with or without a solution to the name issue.

EU accession

Timetable for accession and support in the region

44.All six Western Balkan countries have ambitions to join the EU. Each is at a different stage in the accession process (see Box 2). In 2003 in Thessaloniki the heads of state at the EU–Western Balkans Summit declared “The future of the Balkans is within the European Union.”58

Box 2: EU membership status of Western Balkan countries

  • Albania: candidate country since 2014
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina: potential candidate status
  • Kosovo: potential candidate status
  • Macedonia: candidate country since 2005
  • Montenegro: candidate country in 2010, negotiations began in 2012
  • Serbia: candidate country since 2012, negotiations began in 2014

Source: European Commission, ‘European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement’, 6 December 2016: [accessed 21 December 2017]

45.However, in 2014 in his inaugural address to the European Parliament as President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker suggested a halt to EU enlargement for the term of the Commission as no candidate countries would be ready in that time. He said “This applies especially to the Western Balkans.”59

46.On 13 September 2017 Mr Juncker sent a letter of intent to the President of the European Parliament and the chairperson of the Council of the EU. In it he listed a number of initiatives “to be launched with a 2025 perspective”, which included a “Strategy for a successful EU accession of Serbia and Montenegro as frontrunner candidates in the Western Balkans, with a particular emphasis on the rule of law, fundamental rights and the fight against corruption and on the overall stability of the region.”60 Bulgaria have since announced that the Western Balkans will be a priority for their presidency of the Council of the European Union. They are calling for “a clear action plan with each of the countries, without creating unrealistic expectations, but with concrete steps.”61

47.Mr Juncker’s statements and a perception that EU membership is an increasingly distant prospect have created disillusionment in the region with the accession process. During our visits to the region we were told that after the Thessaloniki Summit enthusiasm for EU membership had been high. Since Mr Juncker’s statements, though still relatively high, support had dropped.62 The FCO echoed this view:

“The prospect of EU membership still unifies divided countries/communities and a divided region. But it is increasingly seen as a distant or abstract prospect by some in the region.”63

48.Nikola Dimitrov, Macedonian Foreign Minister, said that there was a sense of his country, and others in the region, being “locked in the waiting room” of accession. This made it hard for governments to pursue the difficult reforms necessary for EU membership and to maintain public support for them. 64

Accession process

49.Besides the timetable for membership, the accession process itself was criticised for not leading to genuine reforms. Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon described the phenomenon from his time as High Representative:

“Chris Patten had a lovely phrase. He used to say: ‘The problem with all the Balkans by the way is that they pretend to do what we ask them and we pretend to believe them’.”65

50.In Serbia, we were told that reforms required by the EU were made on paper only—their implementation changed nothing. For example, state media companies had been privatised to meet EU requirements but the newly privatised companies had been bought by those close to the ruling party, leaving them effectively functioning as state media.66

51.The effect of this approach “diminishes the power of Brussels.”67 Dr Andi Hoxhaj, University of Warwick, described the accession process as “a box ticking exercise with no long-lasting impact”, meaning “the process of EU approximation has become unrelated to progress in democratisation in region”.68

52.For some, this “box ticking” on the EU’s part is exacerbated by a suspicion that the commitment of local politicians to EU membership is lukewarm. In Bosnia and Herzegovina we were told that although the majority of politicians advocated EU membership, they recognised that combatting fraud and corruption, and establishing a free judiciary and the rule of law, could substantially undermine their ability to exercise power in the way they were accustomed to.69 One participant in the roundtable session we held said that every politician in Bosnia and Herzegovina had “around seven sentences” about the EU which they repeated as necessary but their commitment went no deeper.70

53.Some witnesses said the EU’s approach to the region had prioritised “stability over democratic values”.71 This was why the EU, and ‘the West’ more generally, was content to believe progress was genuinely being made. Tena Prelec, LSE, said that the West had supported “stabilitocracy” and this had “been exploited by actors who have presented themselves as beacons of stability while consolidating their patronage networks, ensuring near invincibility at elections in years to come.” She argued that “Cracking down on corruption, ensuring the rule of law, potentiating the education system and stimulating a meritocratic structure in job allocation is much more important than ensuring short-term stability.”72

54.Timothy Less, Nova Europa, saw the situation as “an effective end to the process of EU enlargement” and asked “what on earth do you do with those countries when the remedy that we have been promoting for the last 20 years, stabilisation through integration, appears to have reached a dead end?”73

UK’s support for accession

55.The outcome of the UK’s EU referendum has affected the region’s accession prospects. In addition to Brexit being portrayed by some in the region as a rejection of the values of the EU (see paragraph 14), the UK’s departure from the EU was seen as a blow for two further reasons: “Brexit negotiations are expected to further absorb the much-needed energy for EU’s enlargement policy” and the “UK has been considered as an enlargement-friendly country; hence its exit from the EU is seen as a loss of an important ally within the EU.”74

56.To ensure progress towards accession was not weakened by Brexit, Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon said that “In the Balkans, we and Brussels should be ad idem in what we are trying to pursue, and we should add our weight to theirs.”75 The Government’s Foreign policy, defence and development: a future partnership paper stated “The UK will also seek to continue to promote European values through cooperation in regions where we share common objectives, including the Western Balkans”.76 Fiona Mcilwham, Head of the Western Balkans and Enlargement Department, FCO, said that this would be done through “some sort of relationship”, yet to be agreed, and through “bilateral spend”.77

Alternatives to EU membership

57.Despite the concerns and criticisms, no witnesses proposed any alternative to pursuing EU membership. The Prime Minister of Serbia, Ana Brnabić, told us that although membership was the goal, the reforms required by the EU were desirable in themselves—the journey was as important as the destination. Even if the EU ruled out further enlargement for the next 10 years, Serbia would continue to pursue accession in order to tackle corruption, strengthen its public institutions and open its markets.78

58.Professor James Ker-Lindsay, St Mary’s University, summarised the impact of aiming for EU membership:

“the EU has been the single most important stabilising influence in the region. The prospect of membership has done more than anything else to prompt the countries of the Western Balkans to engage with one another in a more positive manner as well as address many of the domestic problems they face. … Overall, the EU has been the key driver of social, political and economic reform in the Western Balkans”.79

59.Although the timetable for accession appears to have lengthened, the EU has been consistent in its position of wishing to see the Western Balkan countries join the Union. For example, President Macron of France described enlargement into the Western Balkans as “a key factor of peace and stability on our continent”, ensuring the region does not move “towards either Russia or Turkey, or towards authoritarian powers that don’t currently uphold our values.”80

60.It is concerning that support for EU membership in the Western Balkans has weakened. Statements by senior figures in the EU such as the President of the Commission postponing accession to some distant date in the future are not helpful. This is not in the UK’s interests as EU membership is the most reliable path for Western Balkan countries to achieve security, stability and prosperity. Post-Brexit the UK must continue wholeheartedly to support the accession ambitions of Western Balkan countries.

61.The UK remains well-placed to promote the values and institutional standards EU membership requires. This must done in concert with the EU and bilaterally. The Government must not allow our leaving the EU to be presented as a rejection of those values and standards. It is important that the UK and EU do not allow themselves to be played off against one another by local actors with different agendas to our own.

62.Although the journey towards membership may be important in its own right, genuine progress to combat corruption, embed the rule of law, ensure freedom of expression and of the press, and achieve other reforms necessary for EU membership must be made. Outside the EU but remaining a champion for accession, the UK should be a critical friend of countries in the region. The Government should speak out when countries in the region fall short of the values and standards required and use its influence to ensure shortcomings are recognised.

41 See Appendix 6.

42 Ibid.

43 See Appendix 5.

44 Q 56 (Sir Adam Thomson)

45 Q 56 (Angus Lapsley)

46 See Appendix 5.

47 Q 69 (Fiona Mcilwham)

48 Written evidence from Dr Jarosław Wiśniewski (BUB0005)

49 50 (Angus Lapsley)

50 Q 52 (Angus Lapsley)

51 5 (General Sir Michael Rose)

52 Q 52 (Angus Lapsley)

53 Q 52 (Dr Jonathan Eyal)

54 Q 54 (Dr Jonathan Eyal)

55 Q 26 (HE Qirjako Qirko)

56 5 (General Sir Michael Rose)

57 Q 52 (Sir Adam Thomson)

58 European Commission, Press Release: EU-Western Balkans Summit, (21 June 2003): [accessed 28 November 2017]

59 Jean-Claude Junker, Opening Statement to the European Parliament plenary session, 15 July 2014: [accessed 28 November 2017]

60 Jean-Claude Junker and Frans Timmermans, State of the Union 2017: Letter of intent to President Antonio Tajani and Prime Minister Jűri Ratas, 13 September 2017: [accessed 28 November 2017]

61 Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union: [accessed 7 December 2017]

62 See Appendix 6.

63 Written evidence from the FCO (BUB0018)

64 See Appendix 5.

65 Q 12 (Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon)

66 See Appendix 6.

67 Q 12 (Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon)

68 Written evidence from Dr Andi Hoxhaj (BUB0004)

69 See Appendix 6.

70 See Appendix 7.

71 Written evidence from Westminster Foundation for Democracy (BUB0006)

72 Written evidence from Tena Prelec (BUB0007)

73 Q 38 (Timothy Less)

74 Written evidence from Foreign Policy Initiative BH (BUB0025)

75 Q 14 (Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon)

76 Foreign Policy, defence and development, para 69

77 Q 70 (Fiona Mcilwham)

78 See Appendix 6

79 Written evidence from Professor James Ker-Lindsay (BUB0015)

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