While the fact that Montenegro has until very recently been the only EU candidate country from the Western Balkans able to open some of the 35 acquis negotiating chapters may look a bit surprising, this perfectly well reflects the shortages of the changed EU approach to the accession of the Western Balkan states after 2006. The reasons for this are not only related to the longer or similarly long official EU candidate status of the other two candidates Macedonia (which got this status half a decade before Montenegro) and Serbia (which became an official EU candidate 14 months after Montenegro on 1 March 2012). They are also related to Montenegro’s not very convincing democratic record27 and its less successful economic transition compared to Macedonia and similarly successful economic transition compared to Serbia (see the indicators given in Table 2.2). However, the surprise is even bigger when one looks at the number of negotiating chapters which Montenegro has succeeded in opening since the launch of its accession negotiations in June 2012. While Macedonia is still waiting to officially launch its accession negotiations due to the reasons discussed above, and Serbia opened its first chapters only in December 2015, despite its accession negotiations being officially ‘launched’ almost 2 years before and only 16 months after Montenegro (Table 2.3), the latter opened 20 negotiating chapters by the end of 2015, two of which have already been provisionally closed.
The current state of play of progress in the accession process of the candidates for EU membership from the Western Balkans is a result of the different capacities of individual Western Balkan states to meet the EU accession conditions, but even more so a result of the changed EU approach towards further enlargement after the emergence of enlargement fatigue in the mid-2000s. This changed approach has not only included the establishment of a general set of additional accession conditions for the new candidates for EU membership but also the identification of some specific (additional) conditions for some of the candidates. While their post-communist counterparts which joined the EU within the 2004/2007 enlargement round had to meet a relatively clearly defined set of accession conditions (defined in June 1993) that did not change by the time they concluded their accession negotiations, the EU candidates from the Western Balkans have had to cope with a tougher set of continuously increasing requirements from the very beginning of their EU aspirations. While in this regard the SAP conditions related to the post-war reconciliation and peace-building in the region were just and necessarily imposed (as the ‘Copenhagen-plus’ criteria) on these states due to developments during the 1990s, the same can hardly be said for the conditions that the EU imposed on these states after it began feeling ‘enlargement fatigue’ in the mid- 2000s. The problem was not so much in the additional conditions which were set equally for all the new candidates (the Copenhagen- plus-plus conditions for the Western Balkan states) after the European Council’s decision to ‘renew [the] consensus on enlargement’ in 2006, but rather in specific conditions which were additionally imposed on the individual Western Balkan states (the Copenhagen-plus-plus-plus conditions), primarily with regard to protracted disputes about their own or their neighbours’ statehood status.
While Montenegro and Albania (and earlier Croatia) were spared EU requirements to comply with these specific conditions related to statehood status, progress in the accession process of the other four candidates or potential candidates for EU membership from the Western Balkans in recent years has been almost exclusively determined by the EU’s assessments of their compliance with these (additional) specific conditions. This is particularly true when considering the progress in EU accessions of Serbia, Macedonia and B-H. Their additional problems with these ‘extra’ post-2006 conditions were not only related to the additional ‘costs of compliance’ (Schimmelfennig 2008), that is, the fact that they needed to (additionally) deal with these additional conditions as such. A greater factor which made this additional engagement largely fruitless was that, as shown earlier, these specific conditions (or EU incentives) were often inappropriately formulated, with very little respect for a country’s specifics and realistic chances to meet them. In this way, and in sharp contrast to the experience of the countries of the 2004/2007 EU enlargement, the Western Balkan candidates and potential candidates for EU membership (with the partial exception of Croatia, Albania and Montenegro) since 2006 have been largely denied the most important form of EU assistance for post-communist reform - the possibility to link their political and economic reforms to the EU accession negotiation process. This has ultimately led to the more difficult access of these countries to other types of foreign assistance (including the inflow of FDI) and in the most drastic cases of Macedonia and B-H, it has actually resulted in the backsliding of some of the previously achieved reforms.