Last week, EU leaders called their decision to grant EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova a “historical momentfor the block. It was not said how long it might take for the final “moment” to arrive.
Other EU candidate states have been languishing for years, even decades, in the “eternal waiting room” of the EU. Not only did this raise doubts about the attractiveness of the EU for Eastern European countries, but it opened the door to the emergence of other regional power brokers.
Consider Turkey’s role in the Western Balkans.
Although the Western Balkans remain firmly in the geopolitical orbit of Brussels and Washington, Ankara is moving quickly to strengthen its economic and political presence in countries such as Serbia, North Macedonia, Albania and Bosnia. –Herzegovina.
Once linked by the Ottoman Empire, Turkey and the Balkans share a common history. But they are also part of an ignominious club, countries that have obtained EU candidate status but have waited patiently, in the case of Turkey, since 1999, in vain.
Today, EU membership for Ankara and its Balkan allies looks like a lost ambition. Three Balkan states, Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania, have started their own process of integration into the Open Balkan initiative, which many regional leaders see as a substitute for EU membership.
Turkey, for its part, pursues a multi-vector foreign policy, and the Balkans play an important role in this strategy. Ankara has already signed free trade agreements with all Western Balkan states and, following these agreements, is steadily increasing its economic weight.
For example, bilateral trade between Turkey and Serbia, the largest economy in the Western Balkans, was around $2 billion in 2021; it is expected to more than double to $5 billion by the end of this year. Over the past decade, Turkish investments in Serbia have also increased by several orders of magnitude, from $1 million to $300 million today.
Such cooperation should only grow. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to visit Serbia soon, while his Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu recently visited the region for meetings with leaders from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia North and Croatia (the newest EU member state, which joined in 2013 after nine years of candidacy).
Cavusoglu also visited Kosovo, the breakaway province of Serbia which declared independence in 2008 and is recognized as an independent country by Turkey, most EU members and most Balkan states, but not by Bosnia and Herzegovina.