Commentary: Europe’s new agenda in the Western Balkans

A quiet but fundamental shift is under way in the European Union’s policy on the Western Balkans. With the term of the current European Commission nearing its end, it seems that any plans for enlarging the union are following suit. Enlargement is becoming the policy that shall not be named – at least, in town hall meetings and parliaments in western Europe.

It is no secret that most of the European public is against enlargement – as an upcoming ECFR survey demonstrates. (Strikingly, Austrians and Germans, who host the largest Balkan diasporas as a share of population, are among those who are most sceptical about enlargement.)

But, as Eurobarometer confirms, this trend is not new. What has changed is policymakers’ clear commitment not to deviate from public expectations on peripheral issues such as this one. “Because of the fear for [sic] foreign immigration”, one German MP explained recently, “people in my constituency would notice – and scrutinise – a decision to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia. Even though it is just a small step, far away from accession, it will be perceived critically by the public at this moment.”

Of course, the reasons for this defensive posture go beyond the migration crisis. They have to do with Romania’s and Bulgaria’s difficult transformations into member states, with the rule of law deficits in Poland and Hungary, and with the lack of leverage that other member states and EU institutions have over these countries.

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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its author.



Vessela Tcherneva

Vessela Tcherneva is deputy director of the European Council on Foreign Relations and head of ECFR’s Sofia office. Her topics of focus include EU foreign policy and the Western Balkans and Black Sea region. Between January and July 2022, she held the position of Foreign Policy Advisor to the Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov. From 2010 to 2013, she was the spokesperson for the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a member of Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov’s political cabinet. Previously, she was secretary of the International Commission on the Balkans, chaired by former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and former German President Richard von Weizsäcker; supervising editor of the Foreign Policy Bulgaria magazine; and political officer at the Bulgarian Embassy in Washington, DC. Tcherneva holds an MA in Political Science from the Rhienische Friedrich-Wilhelm Universität in Bonn.