Western Balkans is a political term, introduced by the EU and EU-centric actors, referring to the countries of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Serbia and Albania. European Integration in the region plays a very important role in both domestic politics, and in foreign policy orientations. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the countries of the Western Balkans have been pursuing the EU Integration path. The Thessaloniki Summit in 2003 set the clear perspective and commitment of the EU towards enlargement in the region, for the first time.
However, ever since the process of enlargement itself started, it has been gradually altered due to both, EU-related internal issues (for instance, the economic crisis of 2008, Brexit, the 2015 refugee crisis and most definitely the current global COVID-19 pandemic) as well as Western Balkan Countries (WB6) fulfilment of requirements for accession as set forth in the Treaty of the European Union. During these 30 years of aspirations for European integration of the Western Balkans, the process itself has undergone some changes. Every past enlargement was accompanied by a self-learning process wherein the EU rethought and improved its approach. Their application is observed in the enlargement process of the Western Balkans.
Recently, the European Union has published its new Enlargement Methodology, updating the EU enlargement process set to take place from 2020 onwards. This new enlargement methodology was published during the first 100 days of Ursula Von der Leyen new European Commission, during which both the ‘EU Green Deal’ and ‘Gender Equality Strategy’ were introduced. This new methodology introduces an enlargement process holding conditions applicable only to North Macedonia and Albania, while Serbia and Montenegro will continue their accession negotiations in the ‘classic way’.
So far, the enlargement process for the Balkans in the case of Serbia and Montenegro has taken the following steps such as signing the Stabilization and Association Agreements (SAA), granting candidate status and currently opening of negotiations. In these countries, chapters are currently opened parallelly, from each line ministry. For instance, Serbia has until now opened eighteen chapters out of thirty-five, two out of which are already closed. Meanwhile, Montenegro has managed to open all 33 chapters, since 2012 when the accession negotiation process started.
However, the change introduced in this new methodology, applied to Albania and North Macedonia stands exactly at this point, whereby chapters are not opened parallelly but are grouped under some clusters. Each cluster opens after one is deemed to be fully aligned, bearing in mind the first one to open and the very last to be closed is the ‘Fundamentals’ Cluster, which include the political criteria (e.g. human rights, rule of law…). The political chapters are for the first time considered as precondition to economic ones. As stated in the methodology, “…it includes supporting fundamental democratic, rule of law and economic reforms and alignment with core European values. This will in turn foster solid and accelerated economic growth and social convergence.”
The new enlargement methodology has been widely commented, especially by the media in the two countries for which it was designed, Albania and Northern Macedonia. On the other hand, Serbia and Montenegro have been offered this methodology as an option, but, if chosen, it would have no impact on the current framework within their ongoing negotiations for accession. On the other hand, following the address of Commissioner Varhelyi “…the EU has welcomed the appointment of the new Government in Bosnia and Herzegovina and is ready to work with the authorities on the implementation of the 14 priorities identified, paving the way towards the candidate status. For Kosovo, it is important that the new government resumes work on reforms, including the implementation of the Stabilization and Association Agreement and building on the European Reform Agenda, to deliver tangible results for citizens.”
However, how can we analyze this methodology and what are the potential implications for the region, especially for Albania and Northern Macedonia? The first and most visible effect of the new methodology is a prolonged process in case the reforms are not taken as serious and priority commitments by local governments. This could lead to the integration of Serbia and Montenegro earlier than Albania and North Macedonia, indirectly affecting the geopolitical balance in the region. Border disputes and unresolved neighboring issues in the previous enlargements have resulted in veto. Therefore, to avoid potential and possible ‘vetoes’, it is relevant for WB6 governments to stay fully committed to the integration process.
Secondly, in all official communications of the European Commission, the key word is ‘credibility’. In this context, the new methodology seeks to establish a realistic perspective of credibility from both the side of EU and WB6 as well. “[Credibility]… means the Western Balkans leaders must deliver more credibly on their commitment to implement the fundamental reforms required, whether on rule of law, fighting corruption, the economy or ensuring the proper functioning of democratic institutions and public administration, and foreign policy alignment.  A re-establishment of credibility directly increases the conditionality . The latter term, which is accompanied by reward in case of successful accomplishment, is seen as the bargaining power the EU counts on to leverage countries that want to join the Union. In addition, the new methodology, while focusing on the basic principles of the rule of law and democracy, reinforces what has historically been the main postulate of the EU Integration process: democratizing the countries which are pursuing accession.
Most of the reforms in Western Balkans were conducted in the framework of EU integration process and often facilitated by the EU, such as judiciary public administration reforms . This has often been accompanied by a gap between the purpose of reforms and their implementations. Also, it has also been accompanied by a dualism in rhetoric used by governments of the region. Having had the EU integration process on hold in the past years has nourished usage of nationalist rhetoric for short-term benefits, by the leaders of WB6. Therefore currently, in all the countries of the Western Balkans there is a dualism in the rhetoric used by leader - one that serves the national audience which often is nuanced with nationalism and a discourse not in line with EU recommendations, and the other in English and ‘for the sake of the European Commission’. Finally, this methodology may put an end to this dualism given that it sets as necessary the real and credible commitment needed to be shown by leaders of WB6.
Finally, the current COVID-19 pandemic is expected to have a sizeable impact on the EU’s economy, pushing enlargement down again in the list of EU priorities, after the remaining Brexit period. On 25th of March 2020 the Council of European Union opened accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia . Although the accession process might be delayed for the WB6 countries, such a new approach aims to provide solid and clear mutual commitment to credibility by both local governments as well as EU. Thus, this reshuffle is to be observed as an opportunity for both the EU and WB6 to put democratic principles first, as well as to encourage Western Balkans civil society to demand further accountability of their institutions into practice
 European Union Factsheets, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/factsheets/en/sheet/168/the-western-balkans, last accessed 3rd of May 2020.
 Enlargement Methodology, https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/enlargement-methodology_en.pdf, page 4, last accessed 3rd May 2020.
 Remarks by Commissioner Várhelyi at the European Policy Centre briefing: Reforming enlargement policy?, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2019-2024/varhelyi/announcements/remarks-commissioner-varhelyi-european-policy-centre-briefing-reforming-enlargement-policy_en, last accessed 3rd of May 2020
 EU Conditionality refers the tool that EU applies to aspiring countries to reform their policy in accordance to EU norms. Conditionality is used during accession process which ensures reforms within the applicant country to prepare to take on new responsibilities. Also, it is a tool that assures existing member states on the progress made by applicant countries.
 Enlargement Methodology, https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/enlargement-methodology_en.pdf, pg. 2, last accessed 3rd of May 2020
 Many reforms in the WB6 have been promoted and facilitated by EU, such as the Justice reform in Albania, the public administration and constitutional reform in Serbia and the promotion of Belgrade-Prishtina Dialogue. For more refer to https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/countries/package_en, last accessed, 5th of May 2020
 See the summary at https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2020/03/20/recognise-the-benefits-of-integrating-the-rest-of-the-balkans-into-the-eu/, last accessed 2nd of May 2020
 Council Conlcusions, https://data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-7002-2020-INIT/en/pdf, last accessed 2nd of May 2020