11 December 2019

The European Union in Western Balkans’ region: Geography is the “key”, but not enough for integration

Ştefan Oprea

Western Balkans’ region, flustered by ethnical violence at the beginning of the 90’s and, afterwards, by international interferences, remains a weak and volatile area, despite all progresses made when confronting nationalist forces. When approaching this area, the reality, defined by stagnant economies, high unemployment level, political regimes led by leaders who would rather leave Europe behind than power itself and young people leaving their own country, reveals pessimism and hopelessness.

Image source: Mediafax

Governments and most of the people, obsessed with borders and territories and willing to define communities’ success through their national pride’s intensity and less through economic growth and, additionally, old and new actors who are trying to take a stance in the region, are worsening EU’s ability to think as an important geopolitical actor in the region and even become one. Although EU is committed to maintaining Bosnia’s territorial integrity, it is also Balkans’ main trade partner, and people in the area continue to leave their country for Eastern states, proving that EU’s influence and role in region’s democratization progress and EU’s accession process are not strong enough to please citizens’ expectations. And that’s not all.

Given this context, EU launches, in February 2018, a strategy for “A credible enlargement perspective for an enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans”, showing its commitment in bringing a new integration urge. Two months later, with European Commission’s decision to adopt its annual enlargement package and the seven individual reports (Montenegro, Serbia, Turkey, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo), it has revealed that EU’s enlargement policy is a major and consistent investment in Europe’s peace, security, prosperity and stability. Unlike 2003’s situation, when EU promised the member state status for the first time, now, they were admitting the positive changes taking place within the denominated states, in terms of progresses in relation with EU.

Furthermore, by reviewing the accession idea, the European Union was actually reiterating that the integration promise is not a miracle, and 2025 can be the moment to accomplish such desideratum.

This strategy’s success was, however, conditioned on Europe’s posterior necessary reforms in Western Balkans, whereby all these countries had to be in line with EU’s accession requirements. Moreover, EU was clearly stating that the accession will, after all, depend on worthiness and the mentioned deadlines are only ambitions, not obligations.

Despite the fact that the strategy, statements and plans have created optimism and hope, nowadays’ reality shows that European governments could not treat this challenge seriously but, on the contrary, they “showed themselves off” through divisions and indecision when adopting the long-term policies on the Western Balkans.

This is the reason why, of all the five candidate countries (Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey), Serbia has a conflict with Kosovo that can hardly end soon, and a unitary position, within EU, in terms of Kosovo’s independency recognition, far from being feasible in the near future.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, recognized as possible candidates by the European Commission, are not ready, yet, to start the negotiations, which are developed totally different from the rest of the candidate countries, mainly due to their internal mechanisms’ particularities.

The accession road will be long and difficult for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo as well, however, other Balkan countries’ accession could definitely give them an economic and social urge and also the hope to join them someday.

Given these circumstances, can Europe afford waiting for a political agreement, started by Belgrade and Pristina, to stop the frustration that could block the entire region?

Furthermore, can Europe afford, while going through a global re-location, to continue to support this geopolitical risk, created by an unsolved conflict?

Theoretically, the answer would be negative. However, reality shows us a different perspective. And not exactly a great one.

Region’s continuous processes to join EU, the accession Strategy for the Western Balkans, the financial investment in economic and infrastructure projects etc., proved to be ineffective for the enlargement project. Although Europe has a road map with a long recommendations list, useful and realistic do make this step, in fact, EU has ignored most of its own advices, and region’s civil society is still too weak to embrace a real long-term stability.

April’s recent reunion, wherein German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron have invited Western Balkans’ leaders to Berlin, has revealed EU’s internal differences in term of its enlargement and, furthermore, the necessity of a realistic plan for their integration within European Union’s structures.

The European bloc should take the lead within the negotiations, closely collaborate with other actors, including Washington and Moscow, which have their own strategic interests in the region, and firmly propose Belgrade and Pristina some solutions for the conflict. The “local solution” came out to be ineffective and unacceptable. The same thing should be strongly supported by the “Contact Group” (UE, France, Germany, United Kingdom, United States and Russia) to end those political fights in Bosnia. They should follow Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Greece’s example.

Berlin’s reunion failure has increased the hopes for enlargement’s topic continuation, but also for getting to a consensus at the Berlin Process Reunion, from 5th of July, Poznan, Poland. Within this event, held under the Polish presidency, foreign affairs, home affairs and economy ministers from some EU member states tried to reassure Western Balkans’ countries representatives (Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania, as well as the possible candidates: Bosnia and Kosovo), which want to access the European Union, that EU remains committed to support their accession.

Unfortunately, EU’s consensual reassurance has, again, failed (some of the 28 member states’ bloc were against a new enlargement).

The lack of a specific accession timespan and revealing that EU’s strategy deadline for Serbia and Montenegro’s accession, 2025, is an ambitious objective, has robbed the audience of the motivation they needed. Nor EU’s leaders’ message, which should have followed their promise and get to a positive agreement on North Macedonia and Albania’s accession negotiations’ start did not find a favorable, firm and feasible answer, hence the atmosphere is concluding.

To that end, North Macedonia’s prime-minister statement, Zoran Zaev, within the joint press conference with German chancellor Angela Merkel, speaks for itself: “We are not asking to become a member of the EU, we are just asking for further motivation to improve ourselves and to move closer towards European societies”.

When hearing another statement, made by European commissioner, Johannes Hahn, across the same summit, saying: “Geography is destiny. The Western Balkans are part of Europe: we share the same history, the same geography, the same cultural heritage and the same opportunities and challenges today and in the future. We are each other’s destiny. So let there be no doubt that the place of the Western Balkans is inside the European Union”, we can definitely raise other questions too, such as, is enlargement, now, still EU’s priority? Indeed, we can also question other things.

Are candidate countries accomplishing their assumed commitments to fulfill EU’s accession specific criteria?

Are they capable to give up their nationalist pride and get to a regional reconciliation?

We can hardly answer to these questions, but nowadays reality shows us that:

  • the enlargement process is, most likely, Western Balkans’ most positive evolution and reforms’ most positive driving force;
  • closing EU’s accession perspective for these countries would also stop reforms, affect the rule of law (which is already happening) and would vanish any regional reconciliation possibility;
  • EU processes, as well as of other involved countries too, are revealing the lack of that critical mass that could refresh a possible enlargement process;
  • EU needs to simplify and improve the accession process.

Because citizens, 56%, and the business environment, 64%, have a positive perspective on the enlargement process, regional cooperation’s intensification and, implicitly, the economic and diplomatic effort supporting the accession process, must continue.

North Macedonia’s reconciliation and quick reforms, rule of law, fundamental rights and great governance example is extremely important and should be followed by others.

The decision leaders took in Poznan, which is offering North Macedonia and Bulgaria the responsibility to organize the next Berlin Process summit shows that EU tries a new approach in terms of enlargement, giving a responsibility to an aspirant country within this intergovernmental cooperation initiatives, dedicated to multilateral relation’s refreshment between Western Balkans and EU member states.

Considering all of these, will the bilateral presidency of Berlin’s process be the “miraculous” solution for unlocking the enlargement process or will only be an invitation for Western Balkans’ nations to solve their issues on their own?  

Translated by Andreea Soare