Without a strengthened engagement strategy, the EU risks losing its relevance in the Western Balkans

An EU-Western Balkans summit is being held today in Slovenia. Before the summit, Odeta barbullushi outlines four key steps the EU should take to ensure that it continues to be relevant to the Western Balkan states.

An EU-Western Balkans summit will take place today in the picturesque area of ​​Brdo, hosted by the Slovenian EU Presidency. This is the fourth such summit, the first being organized by the Greek Presidency in Thessaloniki in 2003. It is here that all countries in the region were promised a path to EU membership and are being told that their place was in the European Union.

This place never seemed more precarious than it is today. Of course, the process of joining the EU was always going to be difficult, long and a shifting goal for the candidate countries. But the prospect was still at hand. This changed with the statement by former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in 2014 that there would be no further enlargement until 2019.

At the time, that seemed like an overly cautious assessment. Today, committing to the accession of one of the Western Balkan States by the end of the decade would lead to a deep division between the Member States. For Albania, 12 years after the country’s application for membership was filed and almost two years after the EU Council’s decision to open membership negotiations in March 2020, no formal start date negotiations have not yet been given. The reason is linked to the reunification of Albania with North Macedonia, whose bilateral problem with neighboring Bulgaria has blocked the way forward.

The problem is not just the length and unpredictability of the process. Rather, it is the discoloration of its substance. The process of EU integration has failed to capture and correct the retreat of those countries mistakenly referred to as the pioneers, while the negotiation process has become a bureaucratic exercise shrouded in the incomprehensible language of references. This has not translated into progress or well-being for the citizens of these states.

The weakening of the substance of the accession process has been accompanied by a decline in ambitions in terms of regional cooperation as well. Regional cooperation between the Six of the Western Balkans, as launched in the framework of the Berlin process, has been built around four objectives: strengthening cooperation with the aim of fostering economic convergence; improving connectivity between the region and the EU; encourage reforms related to the EU membership program, in particular those related to the rule of law and the fight against corruption; and finally, to create an environment conducive to the resolution of bilateral problems and disputes.

Over the years, the process has become mainly associated with the implementation of the common regional market, a goal agreed by the leaders of the region at the Sofia summit last November. The political framework that linked regional cooperation to the EU accession process on the one hand, and the resolution of bilateral issues on the other, has largely slipped to one side.

If there is one region in the world where the EU can still regain its meaning and confidence, it is the Western Balkans.

Today, at the EU-Western Balkans summit, EU member states have the opportunity to reclaim some of the influence the EU has lost in the region in recent years. There are at least four ways in which the EU and the Western Balkans can engage in a more meaningful way.

First, they must keep their promises. Accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia are expected to start within a year. Kosovo should benefit from visa liberalization. The Kosovars, who number more than two million inhabitants, are now the only people in Europe prevented from entering the Schengen area without a visa, although they have met all the technical criteria since 2018. The process of accession negotiations will be long, tedious and reversible, and the accession process may not be like any of the accession processes so far. But it will regain the confidence, the credibility of the EU, and will always maintain the pressure – however slight – necessary to implement a reform program. And that would certainly help balance the role of Russia and China in the region.

Second, it is necessary to prepare for the long term. As accession negotiations continue, the EU will need to create and reorganize its set of incentives for cooperation and help implement reforms for the Western Balkans Six. To be clear, the EU remains the region’s main trading partner. Over the past two years, the EU has provided no less than 3.3. billion euros, in collaboration with the European Investment Bank, to face the Covid-19 health crisis and to help the post-pandemic socio-economic recovery, of which more than 761 million euros have been spent to support the resumption of the social and economic impact of the crisis. This investment must be secured and supported by preparing the region for gradual integration into the single market.

This could only be done gradually, within a plausible time frame and under conditions that do not weigh on the already weak post-pandemic economies of the region with extraordinary structural costs. This includes engagement with the private sector. Supporting businesses in the region with the aim of integrating them into European supply and value chains could be one way. Helping small and medium-sized businesses become more financially and technologically savvy is another.

The full implementation of the common regional market must go hand in hand with the implementation of the EU’s € 9 billion economic and investment package approved last year, which is mainly devoted to improving infrastructure, rail and road connectivity, as well as energy and digitization in the region. The focus should be on frontloading funding for key infrastructure projects that link the region to the rest of the EU, and on improving the competitiveness and investment climate in the region for the package to be successful. to mobilize up to 20 billion euros of investments within this decade.

Third, we need to help the region “build back better”. This does not only mean with regard to infrastructure and the economy, but also, critically, the human resources and human capital of the region. The Western Balkans have experienced a deep brain drain, with much of the workforce migrating in recent years. The EU must engage with the Western Balkans for the gradual integration of the region into the European Education Area and EU initiatives to foster research and innovation. It should create specifically tailored programs for capacity building in these policy areas for the region. Of course, the only way to approximate legislation in the above areas is to concretely negotiate the related chapters of the acquired.

Fourth, the EU must engage politically with the region. There is little that can be done about trade and economics. If there is no political framework through which the EU can engage with the Western Balkans, trade is unlikely to work miracles and bring warring parties together. It would have cost EU member states little to include the Western Balkans in the consultation process for the Brdo summit declaration, but it would have signaled a real political will to dialogue and listen to countries in the region.

In the area of ​​bilateral disputes, political coordination with the United States remains of crucial importance, given the specificities of state-building in the region. In this regard, the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo must continue and it must be based on clear expectations and a road map, as well as real pressure from both partners on the parties to cooperate genuinely. This would include having the audacity to denounce any violation and strengthen commitments.

The EU holds a certain appeal not only because it is financially and economically useful, but because it has built its aid to the region within a normative framework of values, norms and political identities. In other words, it has woven its financial mechanisms into a discourse of peace and security, the rule of law and good governance, and guaranteed rights and freedoms. It is as much a manufacturing mechanism sense as it is to provide Support.

But in the absence of this normative framework, money alone will never be enough to keep the Western Balkans at peace, democratically governed and secure. And if there is one region in the world where the EU can still regain its meaning and confidence, it is the Western Balkans.

Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: European Council

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