EU must speak with one voice for Western Balkans influence

High-level visits, stirring speeches and new blueprints proliferate as EU leaders gear up for a much-anticipated meeting with their six Western Balkan counterparts on June 23.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Moscow’s growing influence in southeast Europe and EU membership applications by Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have refocused attention on the EU’s stalled enlargement drive.

  • Years of unfulfilled EU promises and lost opportunities cannot be forgotten overnight

They have also revived flagging EU interest in the security, stability and vulnerability of countries in the Western Balkans.

The attention is long over-due, and the new momentum is much needed.

The EU’s too-often complacent approach towards southeast Europe, marked by desultory promises of “maybe, one day” membership, have caused frustration and led to a loss of EU popularity and credibility.

With the EU’s much-touted “transformational” power in decline, Western Balkans’ reforms have slowed down and nationalism is on the rise.

Sticking to the out-dated “same old, same old” enlargement template set at the Thessaloniki summit almost 20 years ago is no longer a valid option.

A sharper new geopolitical approach is desperately needed.

Glacial pace

Moves to incorporate the six states into the EU fold are progressing at a glacial pace.

Montenegro, in accession negotiations for 10 years, is the only country that has opened all thirty chapters of negotiation although only three have been provisionally closed.

Accession talks with Serbia are painfully slow, with only 22 of the 35 policy areas opened. Belgrade’s close relations with Russia and the government’s refusal to impose sanctions on Moscow have strained ties with Brussels.

Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are still awaiting candidate status. Unlike the rest of the region, Kosovo has not yet been granted a visa-free travel regime to the rest of the EU.

Most damagingly, Brussels has failed to start negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia although both countries have received the greenlight from the European Commission, with the European Parliament also recently hammering home the need for quick decisions in view of the new “geostrategic context”.

An immediate breakthrough is unlikely, however, with Bulgaria, which joined the EU in 2007, and North Macedonia still locked in an unresolved dispute over references to history, identity and language.

Impatience with the EU is running understandably high in Skopje which saw its Nato and EU accession bids held up by Greece until the signature of the Prespa agreement in June 2018 which resolved the thorny issue of the country’s name.

Albania, whose accession track is linked to North Macedonia’s membership, is collateral damage in the affair — although some now hint at “decoupling” the two applications.

Economic distress

As hopes of EU membership fade, southeast Europe is becoming “an enclave of economic distress, social tensions and unresolved conflicts in the middle of Europe,” warns the Robert Schuman Foundation.

In addition to the falling birth rate, emigration to the EU is on the rise. Nationalism is rife, with the war in Ukraine helping to re-ignite old wounds and feuds.

The region’s leaders are torn between their support for the German-endorsed regional integration initiative known as the “Berlin Process” and the “Open Balkan” blueprint for easing borders launched by the leaders of Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia and which Montenegro has now hinted it may join.

With prospects for delivering on past promises fading fast, French president Emmanuel Macron and Charles Michel, the EU Council president, are seeking to innovate.

Macron’s blueprint which was unveiled last month calls for the setting up of a new “Political European Community” that would allow Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to be more closely involved with the EU without waiting for full-fledged membership.

But the French President has so far been short on detail.

Michel, more forthcoming in describing the aims of his proposed “Geopolitical European Community”, has said that instead of the current all or nothing “zero-sum game” in which countries have to wait until the very end to benefit from EU membership, there should be provisions for their gradual, phased, integration during the accession process.

Progress in negotiations would mean access to EU aid programmes and funding, backsliding would be punished and bilateral disputes would receive immediate attention, according to the plan.

Both Macron and Michel insist their proposals do not replace enlargement. But Kyiv has already rejected any alternative half-way to EU membership.

Alarm bells have also been set off in the Western Balkans which fear further procrastination.

Yet, both ideas, as well as Italian politician Enrico Letta’s proposal to create a European confederation, need serious consideration.

So do suggestions that the EU should increase economic resilience in southeast Europe by providing more substantial financial assistance (primarily grants, not loans) to increase the standard of living and improving overall human capital in the region.

These proposals now need to be fleshed out, explored further among EU states and then explained to the Western Balkans.

Years of unfulfilled EU promises and lost opportunities cannot be forgotten overnight.

But the upcoming summit is a make-or-break opportunity for the EU to clarify what happens next and to listen to the region’s concerns.

As competition for influence in the region increases, EU leaders must speak with one voice to the leaders and people of the Western Balkans.

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