A year ago, the European Union (EU) gave the green light to launch membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. The late decision instilled some optimism not only about the future of the region, as an indisputable step towards realizing its European aspirations, but also heralded the fact that the Union can take strategic decisions, even in the midst of a great pandemic crisis.
Fast forward to May 2021, there are still no dates set for intergovernmental conferences, the framework that established the guidelines and principles governing accession negotiations with each candidate country, a step that would make the decision of the EU for Albania and North Macedonia a concrete fact. Both countries have undergone serious reforms in recent years. After several slammed doors from the EU to the countries of the Western Balkans, timing is important.
One way to solve this problem is to work on getting things going. Get the EU moving, this time with the help of a supportive US administration, and get the process going again. After all, the EU accession process is at the heart of transatlantic policy towards the regions on the Union’s periphery, including the Balkans. However, just because the process has proven itself since the 1990s, doesn’t it mean that it is still effective?
In the Western Balkans, a question: do the leaders of the candidate countries really want to follow this path? Given the mixed results of the past decade, are the region’s leaders content to simply stay in power (through democratic means or not) and, yes, repeat the platitudes they know they have to)? Can we ask ourselves whether it is still worth working with them if they no longer believe in the process?
Perhaps another way to ‘get things going’ is to broaden the membership process, to seek to develop constituencies in the Balkans that will actually do something against corruption, or the influence of actors like Russia, China or Turkey, who will in fact develop the national consensus that joining the EU is less of a price than the recognition of the achievement of European standards in the areas of daily life, from civic engagement to honest business through educational opportunities. After all, Europeans have hesitated because they don’t really want more countries to join the EU that are not credible and democratic. Credibility: The Balkan countries as well as the EU need a shake-up.
The current quagmire
Labeled as a “Historical error”, France’s refusal of October 2019 calling for a slower approach to EU membership in the region, and suggesting a conditional seven-step, condition-based process to hold candidate states accountable for the standard of rule of law in order to avoid backsliding, has caused delays and divisions, even among EU Member States. To be clear, all of the arguments supporting Macron’s decision are true, in the letter, but less in the spirit.
Albaniaand North Macedonia have been granted EU candidate status since 2014 and 2005, respectively. North Macedonia has been a candidate country for more than 15 years and accession negotiations have not yet started. Worse yet, they could be delayed further because Bulgaria could indeed stop the process starting , because it refused to approve the EU membership framework for North Macedonia in November 2020. Montenegro and Serbia are pioneers in the process of integration into the EU. They opened accession negotiations in 2012 and 2014. Bosnia and herzegovinais a potential candidate who applied in February 2016 and signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement (ASA) in June 2015. Similarly, for Kosovo , the SAA entered into force in April 2016 and is not yet a candidate country.
For the Western Balkans, the visa-free regime with the Schengen area was introduced in 2010, with the exception of Kosovo. It was proposed by the EU Commission in July 2018 but is still awaiting approval by the Council of the EU. Refusing visa liberalization in Kosovo after meeting the preconditions undermines the momentum for internal reforms and weakens the motivation for the EU-led Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, thus delaying progress across the region.
To be clear, opening accession negotiations does not mean accession. In the best case, Croatia took eight years from the opening of accession negotiations in 2005 until it officially became a member of the EU in July 2013.
A time of change
As the West emerges from the pandemic, it should be noted that the situation is different from what it was a decade ago and it is time to update some methods.
It is not a static world. In a new field of competition from the great powers, new external actors have amplified their engagement and their illiberal influence in the Western Balkans thanks to increased economic and political visibility. While the Euro-Atlantic milestones are relatively strong, they coexist with a new involvement of other world powers and mixed trends in internal relations.
The EU integration process is further weighed down by EU uncertainties, a long-standing ‘enlargement fatigue’ which has spilled over into ‘reform fatigue’ in the Western Balkans, the global pandemic crisis and the questionable dedication of some political elites. In the region. Western inattention has created opportunities for China and Russia doing stupid things in the Western Balkans
In recent years, aggressive Russian interference in the Western Balkans has intensified in an attempt to increase the costs of the region’s integration into NATO and the EU, acting as a spoiler and exploitative internal political and economic vulnerabilities. China is peddling its questionable financial and economic deals and debt traps to gain economic and geopolitical control of the region.
The coronavirus pandemic has also opened new avenues for China and Russia to deploy masks and vaccine diplomacy in the region. The early and hesitant reaction of the EU has increased the demand for assistance from other sources. While all countries in the region use Chinese and Russian vaccines, except Kosovo, in Serbia, China has been credited as the “only country that can help”, further discrediting EU solidarity as a ‘fairy tale’. On the other hand, Russian propaganda found advantages over the West, delivering messages of “abandonment by the West in the Balkans. “ In short, the pandemic has only exacerbated recent trends of illiberal influence in the Western Balkans. On the economic level, the balance sheet of the pandemic with an average negative growth rate of nearly 7% threatens to worsen living conditions, worsen economic and social inequalities and exacerbate migration and brain drain. .
The main objective of European integration is long-term stability and security, economic progress and the well-being of the citizens of the Western Balkans and of the countries of the EU. The EU must anchor the region in the Euro-Atlantic community in all areas, from security to the economy and geopolitics. It must restore its credibility in the region and restore hope to young people. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, one of the region’s strongest supporters of European integration, reiterated the need to keep Western commitments, warning that if the process slows down and “if we are not careful , we will lose the Western Balkans ”.
The EU and its Member States must focus on a visionary and pragmatic calculation of the benefits and costs, as a rational basis for a revitalization of the enlargement process. Any further delay would have allowed the EU’s natural power of attraction to decline and the creation of competing visions for the future. In fact, this is already seen in the region As such, it was not a charitable decision, but in the the vital personal interest of a geopolitical Europe.
To do this, consideration should be given to expanding the EU accession process beyond the traditional government-to-government basis on which it now rests. It may mean a less centralized process, but it should frankly move away from the kind of centralization that has led to chaos, stasis or even authoritarian government in recent years. It’s time to bring together the companies and institutions that support business, from stock exchanges to central banks, in touch with each other; it is time to strengthen and formalize the relationship between universities and institutes; It is time to bring together councils of mayors and local leaders to address the practical issues on the ground facing everyone, EU members and citizens of the Balkans. This is not about undermining national leaders, who are, after all, the ones who will end up dealing with their European counterparts. Rather, it is about making real what it means to become a member of the most illustrious, prosperous and civilized group of countries in the world.
The EU’s dedicated efforts to promote good governance in the Western Balkans fell short of expectations as some countries lost ground in all areas to improve the rule of law, ensure media freedom and accountability democratic. This, in turn, has created space for populist leaders who declaratively continue to promote the European idea without changing their usual political habits..