The Progressive Post

The EU-Western Balkans summit: is there any hope?

11/10/2021

The EU-Western Balkans summit in Slovenia on 6 October ended with a renewed sense of heightened impatience with the blockages in the accession processes of the six candidate countries. There is an urgent need for the economic and investment plan, that was proposed exactly one year ago, to materialise – especially as it is a demonstration of European unanimity on the strategic importance of the region.

18 years after its commitment to a European perspective for the Balkans at the Thessaloniki summit, the European Union has reiterated this promise for the remaining Balkan countries in the Slovenian town of Brdo, with whom it shares a “mutual strategic interest”. But enlargement remains conditioned to the EU’s ability to “maintain and deepen its own development”. The wording has the merit of slightly softening the harsher words that were used by the French President Emmanuel Macron at the May 2018 summit, when he cooled down early hopes among the partners from the Balkans and the EU by rekindling the hackneyed debate on EU-deepening before any enlargement. The Brdo statement thus suggests that these are indeed two processes that can move forward in parallel, without the first being a condition to the second.

Nevertheless, the temptation to link the two will remains strong. We must therefore be aware of the damage caused to European credibility by Brussels’ own inability to produce the required transformations in a region to which EU integration had been promised. In its post-conflict stabilisation approach, combined with a liberal approach to economic reforms, the EU has an important part of the responsibility for the development of ‘stabilocracy’.

Today, it is not only third powers like Russia or China that are taking advantage of the weaknesses of the European anchorage of the Balkans. Illiberal member state governments are also seizing the opportunities offered by European neglect of the quality of the rule of law and democracy. The seriousness of the criticisms against the biased attitude of European Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi that were revealed before the summit reminds us that the European Parliament was well advised when it disqualified in 2019 the first candidacy proposed by Budapest. The Commissioner’s bias, in line with Viktor Orbán’s, in favour of Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić is an illustration of what undermines European credibility. It was the same when a non-paper was circulated in April from the Slovenia of Janez Janša, arguing in favour of borders changes in the Balkans – a scenario that we thought evacuated with the end of the Trump era.

Thus, behind the difficulties of imposing the word ‘enlargement’ in the Brdo declaration, although the member states unanimously agreed to recognise the importance of the Balkans, it appears that they are paying for the degraded cohesion of the Union. As a result, several visions of the EU are offered to the Balkans. Yet, as outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel recalled on her farewell tour of the Balkans, the region has become of “absolute geostrategic interest”.

In view of this, the economic and investment plan constitutes an opportunity to firmly anchor the region in the Union, provided that the attachment to the rule of law and to democracy is sincere on both sides. In this regard and in support of this plan, the third tranche of the Instrument for Pre-Accession, combined with the new methodology for implementing and monitoring reforms, is developing new potentials, which are realistic only if the political will exists on all sides. 

Following a Slovenian proposal, the summit defended in vain the date of 2030 for the accession of the six countries. What is the point of offering a date that generates new hopes, but also new disappointments, when Brussels has already weakened the reliability of its own word? However, if we were to retain the 2030 date, let us work to bring the region in line with our common struggles for the climate and for sustainable development, by specifically harnessing the potential of the European plan. This possibly offers a much more transformative and mobilising lever than the membership process alone. It may even be the plan of the last chance.

But that will not be enough to keep hope in the Balkans. While following its own pace of institutional reform, the EU will have to demonstrate that the door remains open. It is not about doing so only through regular political dialogue or coordinated security actions, as the Brdo statement puts it. It appears necessary that in the absence of a fixed date for full integration, partial membership of European programmes or funds is made possible. There are many ideas in Balkans’ civil society, bringing them into the debates of the Conference on the Future of Europe would be welcome.

Meanwhile, the French presidency of the EU is raising many expectations, after the same France caused disappointments. Unblocking the Bulgarian veto over a dispute regarding language and ethnic minority, which is taking North Macedonia hostage, and by extension Albania too, or correcting the absurdity of Kosovo not benefitting of the visa-free regime like the other countries of the region, will require strong commitments. Will Paris be able to meet this part of Europe’s hopes?

*This article is being published in cooperation with the Fondation Jean-Jaurès. Please find here the French version

Photo credits: European Council

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