The European Union and the Western Balkans

At the yearly summer seminar at the island of Sipan close to Dubrovnik I presented the following ideas for a stronger EU -Western Balkan relationship. The summer seminar which is organized by the Croatian Atlantic Council with the support of the Vienna International Institute for Peace is an excellent opportunity of students of the region to discuss hot issues of the Western Balkan region.

The European Union and the Western Balkans

The EU and the Western Balkans are still in a process of rapprochement and unification. Critically or even cynically one could ask how two sick regions coming together could build a healthy new, enlarged organization or union. What is true is that both the EU and the Balkan region are confronted with old and new challenges.

Challenges for the EU

The EU is economically challenged by Trump, politically and maybe militarily it is challenged by Russia, and concerning its social cohesion it is challenged by strong migration. And the cohesion of the EU on basis of past consensus is also challenged. There is an increasing number of governments of member countries – based on election results – who are deviating from the democratic consensus reached after the tragedy of the World War II.

Obviously there is a growing gap of opinions how to approach these issues in a common way and partly there is a disagreement if these issues should be addressed in a common way or rather individually and separately. As we see with the migration issue, there are not only two blocks with different approaches but several approaches even within governments.

Stagnation in Western Balkans

The Balkan countries are also confronted with many challenges. For them it is not so much immigration but emigration which is of great concern as it is mainly emigration of well trained young people. Also fight against a higher than usual level of corruption and organized crime is a big challenge. Overall the economies of the region are not doing well and we find many democratic deficiencies like intervention into the media sector.

Overall there is still a clear and decisive willingness to join the EU as reform actor and as security supporter – in addition to NATO. The latter is particularly true for NATO membership. And there is a principal support on political circles of the EU for continuing the accession process. But very often there is a visible lack of enthusiasm. And that is connected with a stagnation in the accession process and that again is also – in part at least- because of a general economic and political stagnation in the region.

Issues to be cleared before accession

The accession of new countries from the Balkans is often linked to reforms inside the EU. And that is correct and can be argued rationally. But more important would be to create some clarity concerning major issues which have to be dealt with inside the EU but which have some impact on future members as well. Migration and integration of refugees is one of the most critical challenges. It poses the question how multicultural, multi-religious and openminded the EU should be. And it puts the question if and how the EU should deal with these issues in a multilateral – and also human – way.

This is of course not only a question of migration but concerns all questions where people feel themselves under threat. To feel threatened can have many reasons from fear of being on the loosing side economically to being victim of crimes etc. Migration has always been an element of our world and will be here to stay. But it always is a matter of numbers and of management by public authorities.

EU – Western Balkan Security Union

If  the EU wants to manage security issues connected with migration, but also those connected with trafficking of drugs, weapons and human beings and with radicalization more efficiently it has to cooperate with the countries of the Balkans much more closely. An EU – Western Balkans Security Union would in this respect help to overcome some concerns of many citizens inside the EU and help also raise the – soft – security inside the Balkan countries and enhance security cooperation between all countries. (See the joint paper by Maria Eleni Koppa and myself published by ECFR in the annex to this article)

A more for more process

Another way of enhancing the accession process without forgetting about the accession criteria would be a „more for more“ approach where positive steps are answered with positive steps by the EU. Especially financial support for public infrastructure investment should be brought in line with support inside the EU if some basic conditions are met by the candidate countries. These conditions should be defined in a common effort by EU and Balkan countries.

This approach is in contrast to the very timid approach of the EU Council although you can find some elements of a more forward looking approach in the recent Commission strategy paper. And it is also in contrast to the recent speech/article of George Soros who puts the emphasis on regional cooperation. This is an important aspect, but we need also a strong EU engagement – economically and politically. Otherwise the regional approach would not function well.

What is basically important is that the EU is showing respect for the countries of the Balkans. They should be treated as partners who should be consulted especially on foreign and security policies and not be treated so much as an object.

Alternatives for Western Balkan countries

EU – and in some way NATO – accession is not the only way of giving the countries of the region some international backing. Russia is offering some mostly ideological support and is also expressing some messages which could be interpreted as threats. China is offering some economic support but mostly loans, which have to be paid back. And Turkey is offering economic investment but also puts political conditions in the framework of the domestic fight of President Erdogan against his former ally Fatullah Gülen.

All these powers and others like Saudi Arabia etc. are entitled to be active in the Balkan region. And it is up to the Balkan countries to chose their economic, political and military allies. The EU can make some offers and according to my opinion should be more active in offering pre-accession benefits. Because these offers are also beneficial for the EU and its citizens.

EU policies towards Russia, China and Turkey

Principally neither Russia nor China nor Turkey are enemies for the EU and even NATO in the Balkans. They may be competitors but none of these countries can offer what the EU can offer from modernisation to security.

A new approach for Western Balkans enlargement

Commentary
Hannes Swoboda & Maria Eleni Koppa
13th June, 2018

A three-step approach on a “more for more” basis will bring the EU and the countries of the western Balkans closer together.

After years of neglect, in February the European Commission presented a new strategy for the western Balkans. This renewed commitment came at the right moment: for too long, economic stagnation, nationalism, populism, organised crime, corruption, state capture and external drivers of instability have put pressure on western Balkan societies as they wait to join the European Union. The new strategy is an ambitious step in the right direction, as it acknowledges the need for an enhanced process that will bring the western Balkans closer to the EU, even during the pre-accession process.

Still, the EU must make bolder moves on this track. We strongly believe it is the time to do more. We need new ideas that can complement and reinvigorate the strategy, offering new impetus for the integration of the region into the EU structures. Our strongest enemy in the region is people’s frustration because of complicated processes and lengthy timetables, something which may eventually lead to a sense of resignation on the part of local populations.

Since the Thessaloniki Agenda of 2003, the only tangible result for the citizens of the western Balkans has been the visa-free regime. That is no longer enough. We have to act now and develop a permanent and coherent network that links the region to the EU and creates stronger institutional ties between the EU and the western Balkans, even before accession. Connectivity at all levels between EU and the western Balkans but also within the region itself should be our main objective for the pre-accession period.

What we propose is a three-step approach as a framework for a rapprochement between the EU and the countries of the western Balkans on a “more for more” basis – parallel to the ongoing bilateral accession negotiations, which will continue to be merit-based.

Step 1: Create a security union. It is beyond doubt that the region faces serious challenges at the security level: organised crime, trafficking, drugs, religious extremism, illegal migration. What is needed is an effective institutional cooperation framework on security issues in the form of an EU-Balkans security community. This should eventually lead to a security union. Even if this initiative is not supposed to tackle purely military issues, the change in the nature of threats and the blurred dividing line between internal and external security, linked to the new idea of indivisibility of security, will eventually lead to deeper cooperation at the level of Common Security and Defence Policy and, more concretely, in more integrated participation in missions and operations. Until the final settlement of the status issue, Kosovo could have observer status. Participation in this security community could start immediately. Meeting the security concerns of the citizens of many EU member and western Balkan countries is imperative.

Step 2: Participation in the structural funds. The first move would be to turn the Berlin Process into an EU process, a community process of the Union, and integrate it into the pre-accession strategy, with a special role for the European Commission. This would be an approach seeking to address economic issues in the western Balkan countries and could be a driver of regional economic cooperation, growth, and sustainability. The structural funds – currently reserved to member states only –  should be opened to candidate countries in this framework. The enabling of such access from the very start of negotiations must be integrated in the next EU Multiannual Financial Framework, especially for sectors such as education, social policy, health care, and infrastructure.

The opening of negotiations should be the basic precondition, but participation in the structural funds should also be conditional on making tangible progress on the rule of law and in other specific areas particularly where such progress results in deepening regional cooperation. This could be a real game-changer, as long as countries do not perceive simply as a substitute for the EU accession.

Step 3: Observer status in Council meetings. After closing chapters 23 and 24, the candidate countries could obtain observer status in formal and informal Council meetings, especially in the areas of justice and home affairs, foreign policy and defence, energy, and social policy.

Current lengthy procedures risk creating renewed frustration as they offer no real perspective or tangible results to the candidate countries. The EU should couple the individual accession track – where requirements are given and cannot be changed – with multilateral ties and participation rights that last until full accession.

This renewed determination should focus on a new narrative that inspires the people in the western Balkans, offering them a concrete and tangible path that leads to the EU. The real challenge is to avoid the derailment of the reform and integration process in the region and avoid allowing space for external or internal drivers of instability to open up.

The road is not obstacle-free. Major member states like France and Netherlands have exhibited real reluctance to pursue enlargement while deep reforms are needed in the EU structures. Other issues intrude: Spain, for example, does not recognise Kosovo and did not participate in the EU-Western Balkans Sofia summit in May of this year. Financial constraints due to Brexit, structural problems, and entrenched, deep-rooted mentalities in the western Balkans are all present. Still, we should not miss this window of opportunity and fail the people of the region again.

Our proposal aims to produce results for the wester Balkans from day one, by offering tangible advantages to the countries of the region, throughout the period of their negotiation processes, thereby promoting regional stability and cooperation. It is in the interest of the region, but it is in the interest of the European project as well.