Taking the helm of the Council of the European Union (EU) presidency on January 1st, the Bulgarian government spelled out four priorities for its six-month term: the future of Europe and young people; improving relations with the Western Balkans; the completion of a competitive and fair Digital Single Market; and security and stability. For candidate countries such as Serbia and Montenegro, this signals a revitalisation of their accession negotiations following a period of both enlargement and accession fatigue. For the EU, it is a departure from the official 18-month Programme of the Council for the Estonian/Bulgarian/Austrian rotation taking place July 2017 – December 2018. For Bulgaria, as a relatively new member, it is a unique selling point in carving out its place in the EU policymaking realm at a time when the legitimacy of its government is in question over corruption issues. Certainly, no country is better placed to embrace the further integration of the Western Balkans: Bulgaria is geographically, politically, and culturally closer to the region than the Western EU states, yet carries no post-Yugoslav baggage like Croatia and Slovenia do. Altogether, whilst the grand statements and strategies must be taken with caution, Commissioner Johannes Hahn and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hinting at possible 2025 accession to the EU has revived membership hopes for candidates Serbia and Montenegro.
In Focus: Digitalisation and Transport
In its third segment, the Bulgarian programme outlines a proposal for “the step-by-step adoption of the EU Roaming Rules by the Western Balkan countries as well, through gradual reduction of the charges and increasing the broadband internet access opportunities, an important initiative for digital connectivity.” Currently, the roaming charges an EU mobile phone user incurs in the Western Balkan countries are equal to those experienced in South Africa or the United States. Almost poetically, this reflects the lack of connectivity between the EU and its neighbours. Even before the no-roaming charges policy came into effect in June 2017, the charges travellers used to encounter were over four times lower within EU borders than in the Western Balkans. .
Building on the idea of connectivity, Bulgaria will also focus on key infrastructure, especially “keeping cooperation processes in the Western Balkans region, where one of the main objectives is developing and connecting transport infrastructure as a driving force for growth and job creation.” Given that Montenegro has already opened Chapter 14 (“Transport Policy”) and that Serbia is at a “good level of preparation”, the Bulgarian efforts could accelerate Chapter 14 negotiations. Bulgaria also aims to improve both countries’ progress on Chapter 21 (Trans-European Networks) as the programme further states that Bulgaria’s main task is that of “oversee[ing] the successful continuation and closure of the negotiation process towards the reform of the regulatory framework for electronic communication. In the area of digital connectivity, the Bulgarian Presidency will create possibilities to accelerate the integration of the Western Balkans in the EU digital policies.” This focus on digitalisation is the most progressive component of Bulgaria’s presidency; it recognises the role that the digital world plays in economic integration, and the role it could play in the Western Balkans.
Indeed, Bulgaria is in a unique position in the integration of the Western Balkans, especially when it comes to one of the most significant hurdles to accession: corruption and organised crime. Whilst both Serbia and Montenegro have opened Chapter 24 (“Justice, Freedom and Security”), they are ranked 66th and 72nd on Transparency International’s Corruption Index suggesting that closing these chapters is a long way away. Bulgaria, despite being an EU member state, still faces corruption and organised crime issues itself – on TI Corruption Perception rankings it is 75th making it (according to public opinion) the most corrupt country in the EU. Older members have shown their distrust in the Bulgarian government as recently noted by Dutch PM Mark Rutte, who is sceptical about both Bulgaria and Romania joining the Schengen Zone, as well as current candidate countries being overly encouraged towards accession. Conversely, the Bulgarian manifesto in relation to the Balkans promises to: “encourage their European perspective, including through enhancing security, stability, democratic foundations and the rule of law.” The statement itself is vague and the task at hand Herculean, but the new EU Strategy for Enlargement promises more, calling this moment a “historic window of opportunity [for the Balkans] to firmly and unequivocally bind their future to the European Union.”
The focus on improving the rule of law in the Western Balkans is reflective of the hard facts of transnational organised crime and political patronage: spread across the Balkans they form networks that the region must tackle together, not separately. Balkan societies will continue in failing to tackle their drug and bribery problems through piecemeal isolated policies, and these must instead be comprehensive with cross-border security coordinated. Hence, the Bulgarian pledge to “work on enhancing cooperation with the countries of the Western Balkans in fighting serious and organised crime, terrorism, and border control.” Bulgaria and Romania have for over a decade been monitored under the Cooperation and Verification Mechanism (CVM) designed by Brussels “as a transitional measure” to assist the two countries in their shortcomings within judicial reform, corruption and organised crime. Whilst anti-corruption activists worry the momentum of the CVM has waned, it is clear that because of their similar domestic environment, the Western Balkan candidates must eventually be subject to a similar mechanism. Not only are the Western Balkans the key to improving the CVM in neighbouring Bulgaria and Romania, but learning from their experience is key to constructing an appropriate CVM for Serbia and Montenegro should they meet Juncker’s provisional timeline of a 2025 accession.
A Wake Up Call
Finally, the focus on corruption is also reminiscent of a recent Op-Ed by Deputy Director of ECFR, Vessela Tcherneva, who coincidentally was a member of former Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nickolay Mladenov’s cabinet until 2013. Her commentary, What Europe Can Do For The Western Balkans, is a blunt critique of Europe’s policy of ‘stabilocracy’ in the Western Balkans. Tcherneva accuses the EU of exchanging stability for authoritarian kleptocracy in the Western Balkans and that by turning a blind eye to strongmen, the Union is not doing enough to bring the region closer. Certainly, whilst the fears of ethnic violence and instability in former Yugoslavia are justifiable since it experienced Europe’s bloodiest conflict since WWII, it is high time that the EU calls out corrupt strongmen on what they are. In not doing so, it may not be alienating the leadership as governments of the Balkans seem to be in consensus on their common European paths, but it is certainly alienating its populations. In a region so vulnerable to nationalist anti-EU rhetoric, this is dangerous politics. As not only Tcherneva, but leading academics such as Dimitar Bechev and Florian Bieber point out, the EU’s pursuit of stability at the cost of democracy could cause the loss of both.
At a time when Europe is so fragile to right-wing populism and post-factual politics, perceptions matter and popular opinion matters. Brexit, the war in Ukraine, and the refugee crisis are amongst the many recent developments that have shifted the EU focus elsewhere and as such created an enlargement fatigue. As a result, domestic perceptions of enlargement are mixed both in and outside of Europe. The Bulgarian presidency might well play the key role in changing those perceptions in their attempt to set the Balkans on an irreversible path towards the EU. Returning to the EU Enlargement Strategy, it is now that rhetoric must turn into action. It is far too easy, and also cowardly, to focus merely on the shortcomings of the new document and the Western Balkans, and dismiss accession as unlikely if not impossible.
Instead, a worthy cause lies in capitalising on the
demands opportunities the EU paper outlines: strengthening the rule of law; improving security; supporting socio-economic development; increasing connectivity; developing a digital agenda; and, facilitating regional reconciliation. From a provisional step-by-step timetable for Serbia and Montenegro to the nod to a looming start of accession negotiations for Albania and Macedonia, the EU has written the most detailed manual for accession that the Balkans have seen so far. Certainly, it is the most significant symbol of commitment to their accession that Montenegro and Serbia have seen so far, although To those who complain that the EU has not outlined sufficiently concrete policies for strengthening the rule of law and facilitating reconciliation efforts – it is not the bureaucrats of Brussels who can untie our knotted bloody pasts. They certainly cannot buy us democracy and reconciliation. Instead, the EU must begin to hold Western Balkan strongmen accountable (an aspect that the new document does not touch on); they must ensure the transparency and legitimacy of future accessions through communication within the current member states. In return, the Western Balkans must acknowledge that indeed “joining the EU is a choice”, and that while the Bulgarian EU presidency may bring them closer, getting in involves a decade of decisive reforms.
 “Taking forward the Strategic Agenda: 18-month Programme of the Council”, Council of the European Union. 2017; The programme only mentions the Western Balkans twice, but does signal EU Enlargement as one of the foreign policy priorities.
 “Programme of the Republic of Bulgaria for the Presidency of the Council of the European Union” 2018. Republic of Bulgaria, 10.
 “Programme of the Republic of Bulgaria for the Presidency of the Council of the European Union” 2018. Republic of Bulgaria, 33.
 Ibid. 18.
 “A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans”. 2018. The European Commission, 2.
“Programme of the Republic of Bulgaria for the Presidency of the Council of the European Union” 2018. Republic of Bulgaria, 27.
 Though high in Montenegro, current statistics suggest that support for joining the EU is at little over 50% in Serbia.
 “A credible enlargement perspective for and enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans”. 2018. The European Commission, 3.