Encountering hopes and disillusions for the Western Balkans on their arduous path of the European ideal
« The Western Balkans strategy is all about a European perspective, but it is a merit-based process, meaning each country has to do its homework first. Let’s use the momentum we created now and make decisive progress on the EU path » declared Commissioner Johannes Hahn. More than 15 years after the Thessaloniki Summit in June 2003, the 6 states of the Western Balkans, namely Montenegro, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Kosovo (WB6), have come out of oblivion with the Summit of May 17th, 2018.
With the persistence of ethnic tensions, unresolved border and name disputes, pandemic organized crime, and the increasing of Russian, Turkish and Chinese influence in the region, the need for a policy rethink turns out to be crucial for security stakes. The establishment of an agenda for the WB6, envisaging a true perspective for the future, is thus demanded.
As Bulgaria is at the presidency of the European Union (EU) and as Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov pledged for WB6 accession, the choice of Sofia as a host city for the Summit seemed particularly relevant. This Summit is the embodiment of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker‘s strategy for a credible enlargement perspective for an enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans. Therefore, European integration would primarily mean for Western Balkans the end of bilateral tensions. As Robert Schuman said, the conflict would « not be only unthinkable, but materially impossible« .
On the other hand, for the EU, integrating this region would mean a geopolitical victory over other actors and therefore more security. Major investments, policy attention made over more than two last decades were at risk with the Sofia Summit. Indeed, the success for the EU to help the WB6 achieve their full democratic transformation is particularly important with the rise of Eurosceptic policies in Europe.
Thus, with the Sofia Summit, the Western Balkans countries’ hopes for a future with the EU were at stake. The Western Balkans are undoubtedly a fractured region that needs more stability. As such, how can they enhance their regional cooperation? Will it facilitate their accession processes in the EU? Are those hopes and efforts for enlargement an unreachable ideal for WB6?
What is the enlargement process?
The process of enlargement follows a clear procedure in several steps which have to be strictly respected by candidate countries waiting to join the EU. Firstly, the candidate country submits its application to the presidency of the Council of the European Union. The European Commission makes an initial evaluation of the country and submits its opinion to the Council of the European Union. The Council, in compliance with the European Commission’s opinion, can assert conditions before the negotiations begin. The negotiations’ purpose is to help the candidate country in the fulfillment of criteria for EU membership. The procedure ends with the signature of the Accession Treaty of the European Union, with the support of the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, and the European Parliament.
During the summit, the EU and the Western Balkans partners set out a number of concrete actions to strengthen cooperation in the areas of connectivity, security and the rule of law.
It was thanks to the initiative of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel that first steps towards the accession of Western Balkans countries were made. She presented guidelines for actions for the Western Balkans. Those guidelines drew the path for other steps, from the Summit in Vienna, Paris, and Trieste. Each of the summits filled in the general framework defined in Berlin.
During each of them, specific topics were addressed: The Connectivity Agenda (Berlin), the importance of neighborhood relations and civil society (Vienna), climate changes and fight against terrorism (Paris) as well as the enhancement of small and medium enterprises, trade and investments and fight against corruption and organized crime (Trieste). The Berlin Process was initiated in order to consolidate and keep the dynamics in EU integration process in the light of increased Euroscepticism, still at the European agenda nowadays.
The Berlin process is « one of the most important mechanisms for regional cooperation » as declared by Igor Bandović from the European Fund for the Balkans. According to him, the regional cooperation is the key for the achievement of the process.
At what stage of the process are the Western Balkans?
The most advanced countries are Serbia and Montenegro as they have already reached the negotiation phase.
Montenegro is the most advanced as for the negotiations. However, the main black spot remains the fight against corruption and organized crime. Moreover, in early May 2018, the European Commission also alerted the country about threats to the freedom of press after an investigative journalist was shot and wounded.
Serbia is lagging behind Montenegro on many points. However, it has also started negotiations for its accession to the European Union. The progress in the area of the rule of law is crucial according to the European Commission. More precisely, it concerned the interference of political power into justice and administration.
Despite their progress, their accession is still « not so easy as the EU thought it would be » according to Vessela Tcherneva, European Council on Foreign Relations’ Deputy Director and Head of the Sofia Office. The European Commission granted, for the first time, a clear date for a possible accession (2025). Thus, it seems arguable to consider this perspective as realistic.
Albania and the former republic of Yugoslavia of Macedonia are both candidate countries.
Albania‘s main weaknesses are its public administration as it lacks independence and transparency of justice. Above all, it is in the fight against organized crime and corruption that the country is the latest. As an example, it is the first country of origin of cannabis trafficked in the European Union, according to a report by Europol. The European Union also insists on discrimination and even segregation affecting minorities (mainly Roma and Jejgits).
Macedonia faces a name dispute with Greece as it refuses the denomination due to a Greek region with the same name. Although the name Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) was accepted to the United Nations, Greece still hinders its accession to NATO and to the EU. On the other hand, while the country has largely reformed its judicial system and significantly improved the independence of the judiciary, corruption, organized crime, and money laundering remain serious problems.
The two last states, namely Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidates.
Bosnia and Herzegovina‘s implementation of reforms is largely paralyzed by the high complexity of the political system. It reveals the stigma left by the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992-1995) between the Serb, Croatian and Bosnian peoples. The signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995 established a federation of two entities: the unitary and centralized Serbian Republic of Bosnia and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Moreover, the lack of rule of law and market economy remains.
Kosovo is the most controversial state as in 2008 it declared its independence from Serbia. The latter still doesn’t recognize its independence. Therefore, their neighbor relations need to be normalized. Moreover, Kosovo did not reach a full recognition at the international level. As an example, Spain is reluctant. This is also the reason why Spain boycotted the Sofia Summit. This lack of clarity on its European perspective reflects the EU disunity towards Kosovo and therefore complicates the process.
As a consequence, it must be underlined that the EU remains scattered on the enlargement to Western Balkans. Indeed, according to Ekaterina Zaharieva, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bulgaria, some Member States would be voluntarily postponing the enlargement. As she explains, the solution lies in the success of the necessary reforms.
Although Commissioner Johannes Hahn described the Western Balkans strategy as a « merit-based process » it needs to be emphasized that the region became more active and committed to overcoming the challenges. As an example, Albania plays an active role in the coalition for counterterrorism by creating a national strategy against violent extremism via a holistic approach.
Thus, the biggest hurdle in the WB6 enlargement is the lack of equal support among the EU members. As such, the issue of a rework of the European Union raises. As for Manfred Weber, the EU is « not yet prepared for 6 new members« . Those dissonances truly paralyze the potential chances for WB6 as the will of the EU is crucial in the advancement. The EU truly has a role to play. Firstly, because the Western Balkans would need an ally in the European Parliament who can « help, assist and pave the way for the future members« . Secondly, because the EU efforts are needed to manage the necessary reforms as explained by Maja Bobić of the European Movement Serbia. As such, the enlargement is a bilateral process that needs to be done mutually with equal efforts on both sides.
The statement of Hedvig Morvai, Executive Director of the European Fund for the Balkans, reflects of what is going on with the WB6: « Please include the Balkans in that debate. This is a special type of motivation for those societies« .
Yet, the promise for a European future reveals a certain cynicism among WB6’s citizens. Each hope created by signs of progress towards the enlargement process is tinged with the despair of the daily deterioration of their political and economic situation.
Angelina Eichhorst, deputy managing Director for Western Europe and External European Action Service, emphasized the role played by citizens in the process. However, can we really consider their demotivation as genuinely influent? Isn’t it the role of EU leaders to not discourage citizens and to meet them so that the values of our European model are promoted and the reforms required understood?
The EU investment in EU-Western Balkans relations
If the WB6 accession seems to be a more complicated process than expected, the EU prevails as the main investor in WB6. EU is the biggest trading partner with 72.8% of the total trade flow of the region. It has doubled over the past decade and the EU investment reached €8.9 Billion. European leaders agreed to boost the EU’s interconnections with the Western Balkans, particularly in the following areas: energy and transport, economic rapprochement and political stability. Through this initiative, the strategy sets out an unprecedented support for the required transformation. It is divided into 6 key points, namely the « 6 flags initiatives » to support the transformation of the WB6:
- Strengthen the Rule of Law: it enables the development of impact indicators, trial-monitoring, case-based peer-review mission ad a new advisory mission.
- Reinforce engagement on security and migration: Security and the fight against terrorism have been the main focus of foreign policy programs of Europe. EU aims to reinforce cooperation on fighting organized crime, countering terrorism and violent extremism. It aspires to a better management of security on the border as well as migration through coordination between agencies and officers.
- Enhance support for socio-economic development: it aims at increasing employment through a guarantee fund, supporting start-ups, access to finance of SMEs. It supports innovation and research. A major focus is given to education and health. EU aims at giving opportunities for youth and innovation through programs such as Erasmus +, Horizon 2020, Creative Europe and Competitiveness for Small and Medium Enterprises(COSME).
- Support reconciliation and good neighborly relations: It will include transitional justice and disappeared persons. Moreover, a special focus is given to culture. WB6 will be associated to the Europe Year of Cultural Heritage.
- Create a digital agenda: it aims at enabling the digital transition towards for WB6. It includes several actions: a roadmap to faceplate lowering roaming costs, support the development of broadband, providing a better access to eGovernment, eCommerce, and eHealth applications. The digital agenda is led by Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for the Economy and the Digital Society. She signed the agreement on the digital agenda at the Sofia Summit.
Signing agreement on the Digital Agenda, Sofia Summit 17th May 2018.
- Increase connectivity: the EU is committed to promoting a favorable market and investment environment in the region in order to move « faster » towards a digital economy. Indeed, better connections will allow increasing competitiveness, economic growth, and security supply. Energy security, through the improvement of cross-border energy interconnections and the diversification of supply sources and routes, as well as energy efficiency efforts and better integration of renewable energies, is on top of the agenda. The EU is committed to expanding the Energy Union project in the Western Balkans, in particular by putting in place a regional strategy to take advantage of renewables, like hydropower. In the field of transport, the EU has promised to launch a new set of projects with substantial subsidies, notably to support the ‘Blue Highway’ and the ‘Peace Highway’.
The outcomes of the Sofia Summit
European leaders, along with Albania, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia stressed in a joint statement their « unequivocal support for the prospect of Western Balkans in line with the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit ». Each leader had in mind the stakes of EU for WB6 enlargement namely the presence of foreign influence and the fractures in the region. « The region is encased, it is subject to multiple destabilizations, pressures, and could, through history, pressure, turn to Russia and Turkey and it would be bad for the EU », explained French president, Emmanuel Macron. « If we want to continue to be a strong player in the Western Balkans, there is a need for a clear European perspective in the region », said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz during his National brief at the Sofia Summit
During the press conference, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, wanted to be reassuring: « I see no other future for the Western Balkans than the EU. There is no alternative, there is no plan B« . However, the reality does not seem as easy as his statement. Boyko Borissov, the Bulgarian Prime Minister, clearly showed his annoyance at the reluctances of some states. He called for relativization of the hopes for the success of EU enlargement as he reminded that « Western Balkans represented 17 million inhabitants and a GDP, if taken together, of 96 billion euros » (that is the GDP of Slovakia) and denounced that they » scare the Western media« . As a consequence, Mr. Donald Tusk admitted: « We must be optimistic and cautious with our promises« .
During the Sofia Summit, the focus was placed on regional cooperation and with the European Union. As a result, the enlargement process was discarded. After the Thessaloniki Declaration, WB6 leaders had real hope in this summit. As such, the promise for enlargement remains unfulfilled, but at least the direction is positive.
For the EU, the establishment of a dense network of connections and opportunities within the region and with the EU is essential to bring our citizens and economies closer together, as well as to strengthen political stability, economic prosperity, and cultural and social development.
However, if the Strategy represented a breaking point after a decade of enlargement fatigue as it offers a clear date for the accession of forerunners (Montenegro and Serbia in 2025), the enlargement process seems unreachable. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that 2025 is not a realistic date for the EU enlargement. The focus has to be made on the progress that has been achieved by the candidates.
Chancellor Angela Merkel during her National Brief
Enhancing regional cooperation and cooperation with the EU appears to be a consolation prize for the WB6 but its only way out.
As for President Macron, in favor of a reform for the EU before any new membership, « we need to encourage a strategic dialogue, without laxity and without hypocrisy« . Isn’t it time for History to overcome political conflicts of our time to be in line with political realities?
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