Several hundred ethnic Albanians rallied Thursday in front of Kosovo’s Parliament to oppose a vote on normalization with Serbia. The protest echoed similar demonstrations held last Tuesday, when members of the Kosovo-based Self-Determination Movement burned signs reading “Agreement with Serbia.”
The protests were to be expected. The recent rapprochement between Serbia and Kosovo — the longtime foes signed a historic accord in April to improve their respective chances at E.U. accession — has garnered virulent domestic opposition. Ethnic Serbs living in northern Kosovo, in particular, oppose normalization, as do nationalist movements in both states. However, while pockets of resistance remain, the cow has already been sold, so to speak. After the failure of ten rounds of E.U.-brokered talks, the April accord (which is contingent on the end to the ethnic partition of northern Kosovo) has accelerated a decade-old journey towards accession. Serbia is set to begin membership talks by the end of January. And the five-year-old state of Kosovo — which declared independence from Serbia in 2007 — was promised an association agreement on Tuesday, the first step to E.U. membership.
But is accession worth it? Amidst relative economic and technological decline in the E.U., membership no longer gleams like the panacea to financial and political woes it once was. Indeed, even formerly enthusiastic candidates have pulled away from the western bloc. Namely Turkey, which had cooled towards the group well before its present sociopolitical turmoil and subsequent E.U. snub. Iceland, as well, has pulled back. And even Croatia — which is set to become the 28th E.U. member on July 1– has expressed some doubts. Nevertheless, the advances towards accession made by Serbia and Kosovo — which are considerable considering their longstanding enmity — prove that for the Balkans at least, the E.U. has maintained some of its former allure. Even as the Eurozone flounders, worse-off Balkan economies regard the European bloc as a conduit to economic and regional stability, an improved role on the global stage, and a broader, more dynamic labor market.
That said, doubts persist on both sides. In Serbia, less than half the population supports E.U. accession, according to a September 2012 poll. As evidenced by continued protests, many in Kosovo are reluctant to accept the normalization conditions of the April deal. Especially when its E.U. membership remains hypothetical, in comparison with the concrete talks accorded Serbia. After the disappointment of seeing other Balkan states like Romania and Bulgaria (which joined in 2007) and Hungary (2004) backslide on reforms, the E.U. has equal reason to be cautious. Furthermore, economic lethargy — and fear of an influx of labor migrants — have dulled Europeans’ enthusiasm for E.U. enlargement. Nonetheless, Brussels remains committed to expansion, as noted Raimundas Karoblis, the E.U. ambassador for Lithuania, which will take over the bloc’s rotating presidency on July 1: “Enlargement gives fresh blood to the E.U. — we welcome that.”
Just in case, however, Brussels has ensured that what was always a slow process is now glacial. Serbia will need to recognize Kosovo’s independence — a sore sticking point — and conversely, Kosovo must attain the recognition of Serbia and of five E.U. states that have yet to do so. In addition, the E.U. aspirants must prove they can successfully implement voluminous E.U. legislation that spans 140,000 pages. Analysts predict the Balkan states — and any current contender for that matter — won’t be incorporated into the European bloc until at least 2020. Meaning that while Serbia and Kosovo’s accessions may be inevitable, they are still many headaches away.