“Nobody in Europe will be abandoned. Nobody in Europe will be excluded. Europe only succeeds if we work together. Europe is our common future.”

Angela Merkel

Western Balkan countries have been for a while now on their way towards the EU integration and for each one of them the journey is about different priorities, tempo and effort invested toward that important goal. But, although these candidate countries share different struggles within their national system, they all go through the same steps in order to reach and fulfil the EU conditions and expectations – the Copenhagen criteria.

Western Balkan countries reforms must ‘fit’ the EU requirements for accession, among which the Stabilization and Association Agreements (SAA) with each of the candidate countries. Each one of these agreements, regulates and observes the fundamental principles of EU and their implementation such as democracy, human rights, regional cooperation, free movements of goods, as well as issues pertaining matters of judiciary and security. In this aspect, SAA process is at the very core of the EU policy towards the Western Balkans, having as its objective obtaining full integration through stabilization, support for market transformation and promotion of regional cooperation.

However, each one of these agreements in an individual ‘evolving’ process in the way it is applied, based on lessons learned from past enlargements. Consequently, membership criteria it’s turning into a more complicated tool in the hands of the EU. And so, although the Copenhagen criteria has given a general guideline to where an aspirant country should be headed on its path to EU membership, it is often claimed to be incomplete, confusing and not corresponding to the internal needs in each one of the aspiring for EU membership states.

Today, the principle of conditionality is applied mostly based according to the “merits of each candidate country” mainly regarding their achievements, national reforms and speed of their improvements in regard to the Commissions conclusions and regular reports. EU conditionality is now a pre – accession method of integration, where strict rules are needed and applied in order to provide effective convergence with the EU itself. As a result, these candidate countries are currently evaluated on tangible and very concrete results achieved, turning the EU accession process into a complex and long one for the Western Balkan region. Of course, one does not doubt the good intentions of the EU to support, assist and help those countries on their way towards full EU membership. However, while with one hand ‘gives’ the EU has also applied the technique of ‘punishment’ with the other hand and where the non-fulfilment of such pre – defined benchmarks may be sanctioned by the suspension of negotiations in the form of a non-opening of the related negotiation chapter, or possibly in the reopening of the provisionally closed one.

Furthermore, the accession conditions are defined individually and on a case by case basis for each candidate country and independently from the others. This means, that such agreements are never the same which in practical terms means quite a long path to follow in order to qualify for EU membership. Taking as an example the SAA with Albania reveals other issues as well, such as the priorities of these agreements, their main scope and EU focus. Moreover, the final objective of the conditionality ‘eligibility’ is to prepare a country for accession, but as it turns out from the approach EU is implementing in the region, the fulfillment of such criteria is not a guarantee that the membership will be secured, which makes the climb to EU accession very challenging for the candidate countries. EU membership therefore has to be earned.

This approach has transformed the enlargement process into an unpredictable and dependent on politics in EU member states and Commission process, rather than based on the progress in the region, where the accession policy does not evolve around the Copenhagen criteria anymore, but other factors, making the entire accession process very broad, confusing and open to considerable interpretation. The inability, or the to be more correct, the pressure form the EU to deal with the agenda as it is placed under the Copenhagen conditionality, places such countries under doubts as to what is more important to them and their integration towards the EU. SAP agreements with other aspirant countries show the same ‘symptoms’, raising the question if telling such countries what to do and not how to do it – is the right move towards their further integration. And so, while the region continues it’s struggle to meet the Copenhagen conditionality, the question that remains is the same:

Has EU changed the rules of the game?


Literature and materials

D. Kochenov. ‘Behind the Copenhagen façade’, European Integration online Papers (EIoP) Vol. 8 (2004) N° 10;

C. Deubner. ‘How can EU integration advance in the 21 century? Key policies and coalitions’,

H. Brucker, P. J. H. Schroeder & C. Weise. ‘Doorkeepers and Gatecrashers: EU Enlargement and Negotiation Strategies’, European Integration, Vol. 26, No. 1, 3–23, March 2004                                                                                                                                 

2 Aug. 2015