Ukraine and Moldova were given candidate status just weeks after applying to join the EU. Bosnia and Herzegovina applied in 2016. It is still waiting.
After the European Union took just weeks to decide on candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova, Western Balkan countries - some of which started their accession path more than a decade ago - felt the bloc owed them a sign.
Half of them — Albania, North Macedonia and Serbia — threatened to boycott a summit with EU leaders just two days before it was meant to take place.
At the eleventh hour, Bulgaria's opposition leader announced that his party would lift its veto on North Macedonia accession based on a compromise proposal brought forward by the French presidency of the Council.
But this may be the only sign the Western Balkans receive this week with an EU diplomat stressing on Wednesday that there were "no conclusions foreseen nor very concrete decisions" to expect from EU heads of state on Western Balkan enlargement during their Council summit on Thursday and Friday.
That means that Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo will, once more, be kept waiting.
EU leaders are, however, widely expected to grant Ukraine and Moldova candidate status, days after the Commission recommended such a step and weeks after they filled out all the necessary paperwork.
How long have they been trying to get into the EU?
In contrast, Bosnia and Herzegovina applied to join the bloc in 2016 and has yet to receive candidate status despite the Commission endorsing the move in 2019.
Albania applied in 2009, received candidate status in 2014 and got an all-clear from the Commission to start negotiations in 2018. But they have not yet started.
Serbia also applied in 2009, got candidate status in 2012 and started negotiations in 2014. Montenegro has a similar trajectory. It applied in 2008, secured candidate status in 2010 and accession negotiations started in the summer of 2012.
But the longest-standing bid is North Macedonia's. The country of two million inhabitants first applied in 2005 with the Commission recommending that negotiations start in 2009. They have not yet started.
Kosovo, meanwhile, is a potential candidate but despite first signalling it wants to join the bloc back in 2008, it is nowhere closer. That's because its independence is not recognised internationally, and especially not by Serbia. Instead, the EU acknowledged its European perspective, another symbolic gesture that makes note of its aspiration to become a member state.
Why does it take so long?
The Commission emphasised earlier this week as it endorsed granting candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova that the whole accession process is "merit-based" and "dynamic".
Neither Ukraine nor Moldova will be entitled to more EU funds and it doesn't mean that negotiations will start anytime soon.
Instead, the Commission and EU leaders will demand they both make progress on reforms to strengthen the independence of the judiciary, media and civil society as well as independent institutions that fight against corruption and cronyism. Only when they have made significant progress on these conditions, will actual negotiations be allowed to proceed.
And even after negotiations start, the whole process can falter if reform progress doesn't continue at pace, according to the Commission.
This largely explains the delay for Serbia "as it is not in President Vucic's interests to enact reforms that EU membership requires, as these would undermine his patronage system and his hold on power," Luigi Scazzieri, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, told Euronews.
EU candidate countries are also expected to align themselves with the bloc's policies and programmes and "there is a serious lack of alignment" from Serbia, an EU diplomat said. For instance, Serbia has condemned Russia's aggression on Ukraine but has so far refused to implement any sanctions against Moscow, a step Brussels traditionally expects from its partners.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is also in that category, according to another EU official who affirmed on Wednesday that "for two years we have seen no reform and no movement from Bosnia" on the 14 priorities the EU outlined it needed to work on.
Commission vs Council
Yet, for all of its claims that reforms mean progress, this has not been the case for North Macedonia and Albania.
"The two countries have done everything that the EU has asked them to do, so the EU going back on its word and refusing to open negotiations as it said it would undermines its credibility," Scazzieri explained.
Their bid was first blocked by France and the Netherlands — which argued the enlargement process needed to be improved before new countries were brought into the fold — and then by Greece over a dispute over the country's name which led to a historic deal between the two countries in the summer of 2018. Now it's being blocked by Bulgaria.
Sofia wants formal recognition that North Macedonia's culture and language are heavily influenced by Bulgaria as well as stronger protections for the country's Bulgarian minority.
Albania, whose bid is coupled with North Macedonia's, has been collateral damage.
But now that the leader of Bulgaria's opposition, Boyko Borissov, has said he is in favour of a French proposal to unblock the situation, which would entail North Macedonia adding an amendment to its constitution to acknowledge its strong historical and cultural links with Bulgaria in exchange for Sofia backing the negotiation framework, movement could soon happen.
It is dependent on Macedonian lawmakers backing it by a two-thirds majority as required for constitutional changes.
Will the war on Europe's doorstep accelerate enlargement?
The delays for Albania and North Macedonia have had a "negative impact on the credibility of the EU," the Commission underlined in its latest annual enlargement report.
For Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, "there are two schools of thought" on the war's impact on enlargement.
"One is saying that now the EU is unfair because it's paying so much attention to Ukraine and letting the Western Balkans slip. But also there's a school of thought which goes something like: there's momentum behind enlargement, let's get on the bandwagon and get the Western Balkans on the radar. The overall is that there's expectation that the EU should be more forthcoming," he told Euronews.
This could also open the door to movement for Bosnia and Herzegovina despite the lack of overall progress.
"If Ukraine and Moldova are given candidate status, the case for granting Bosnia candidate status as well would be stronger, given that many EU leaders have said Ukraine and Georgia are still a long way from membership," Scazzieri at the Centre for European Reform pointed out.
"Bosnia's institutions are still very dysfunctional. If Bosnia does become a candidate, it will face a very uphill path," he said.
For Serbia however, the events in Ukraine do not change much, and progress is unlikely "so long as Kosovo is there," Bechev said.
"If there was no sovereignty dispute, you could see Serbia making strides and basically because it has the administrative capacity and the size and everything and some friends in the EU. They could have been easily the next country to accede to the EU but Kosovo is such an impediment," he went on.
Bechev now predicts that Montenegro is the most likely to join the EU first.
"It's the most advanced in the negotiations, it has no open political issues with neighbours, it's very small and it's digestible," he said, adding that all that needed his political will on both sides and the country of 620,000 could be a member by the end of the decade.
Conscious of the idea taking root in the Western Balkans that no matter how much they reform, their membership bids may not progress accordingly, the EU is now looking into a European Political Community to which third countries could dock themselves to and have closer ties with the bloc.
French President Emmanuel Macron first floated the idea during a conference in early May but has publicly remained light on the details. He has however reiterated multiple times that this would not be a consolation prize and that countries could be part of the community as they continue their accession journey.
EU leaders are expected to discuss the idea during their summit on Thursday and an EU diplomat from Western Europe said their country is very open to such an idea, underlining however that member states would have to come up with criteria for who could join it. These could include, they said, shared democratic values with the EU which would therefore exclude counties such as Belarus under its current regime.