The European Commission put forward a new strategy with the title: “A credible enlargement perspective for enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans”. It contains some very good and decisive comments and demands. It underlines the necessity of governments in the region to solve their bilateral issues and promote reconciliation. It demands from these governments to take a clear position towards future membership without ambiguity. But it states also that EU membership is in the interest of the EU: “It is an investment in the EU’s security, economic growth and influence and its ability to protect its citizens”. Nevertheless the document also underlines clearly the necessity to make the EU “more stronger and more solid, before it can be bigger”.

Still I think that the EU should think much more out of the box and design a really new(!) strategy because of the growing stronger influence of outside powers and the equally growing enlargement fatigue inside the region. All the outside influences especially those of Russia and Turkey – with strong media activities – are supporting an enlargement fatigue in the Western Balkan countries themselves. The disappointment of the people in the region because of the slow progress in the accession process is not directed against their own governments. But like very often in Turkey it is seen by the citizens as an expression of the reluctance of the EU countries to take on board new members.

Thus the enlargement fatigue in the EU itself is meeting a growing accession fatigue in the Western Balkans. And some political forces in the different Western Balkan countries support the disappointment and favor other political courses. So want could the EU do in order to offer the Western Balkans a more convincing way towards EU membership without neglecting the necessary membership criteria?

Some experts in the region see in a membership without fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria the only way out of the stalemate. They plead for a quick accession of all the countries of the Western Balkans as an answer to the accession fatigue. They do not see that this proposal is totally unrealistic and would never be accepted by all those countries which had a long and hard way of reforms to go, before having been able to join the EU. The EU is not just a club with membership without conditions. To refrain from insisting on certain fundamental rights and obligations of future member countries would destroy this basis of and would devalue the European project.

A new and courageous way must be found to bring the countries closer to the big European project without giving up the fundamental conditions for full membership. This way must be established in addition to individual and bilateral accession talks.

Certainly these new efforts must be done without claiming that the EU is the only place where the Western Balkans countries could find a political and economic home. But the EU must argue and proof that it can offer the best alternative for the people of the region especially in a globalized environment. Joining the EU must be a decision taken on basis of evaluating alternatives and not as a must because of lack of alternatives.

Strengthening the Berlin process

One offer of support for the region as a whole has been the start of and is the continuing Berlin process. It is predominately an approach targeting the basic economic interests of the countries and the people. From building an infrastructure network to creating conditions for additional trade and employment, the EU and certain member countries are giving support to the region.

The support of some infrastructure project is in competition to offers from the Chinese side, but that would not be a problem would it be better coordinated. Important is that the interest of the Western Balkan countries are safeguarded and that not outside economic interests prevail. That would also imply that in due time the Berlin process would be transferred into a community process of the whole European Union and not only stay as a process depending on the goodwill of some member countries.

In addition to the construction of an improved infrastructure the economic policies of the EU and of the governments in the region must be targeted on creating jobs. The lack of jobs is creating and enhancing a huge emigration flow out of the region. This is not so much a problem for the EU countries as for the countries of emigration. Very often the best educated and trained young people leave the region. This brain drain must be stopped but it needs jobs to do that. It is welcome that the Berlin process is also including discussions in the framework of a viable Civil Society Forum. But also for the civil society – especially the young generation – job creation is an important issue.

The recent report of the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies on the region speaks about the countries being „back on track to convergence“. But one must be aware that it will take a long time until the convergence is actually happening. And in the meantime new challenges will arrive from automatization to the increased role of Artificial Intelligence. Therefore keeping a well educated labour force in the countries concerned will be of vital importance for economic development and stability.

EU – Western Balkans Security Community

Beyond the economic interests other issues should bring the EU countries and the countries of the Western Balkans together. Rightly the new report from the Commission underlines the necessity of dealing more with the security issues and it proposes a “flagship initiative to reinforce engagement on security and on migration. That is welcome but I do not thing that is enough.

What we really need is a strong and institutional framework of cooperation in the form of an EU – Western Balkans Security Community. Such a new community could deal with all the security issues outside the pure military ones – dealt with in the framework of the NATO enlargement process. Trafficking of people, drugs and weapons, the influence of terrorist groups on the Muslim communities and the protection of the EU/Schengen borders should be in the centre of such common discussions and deliberations. In this connection all the security concerns in view of immigration could also be discussed and necessary measures undertaken.

There are enough issues a common EU/Western Balkan Security Community could deal with. If there is place for a separate Energy Community we could also have a Security Community where many important issues which are on the mind of the people of the region but also of EU citizens could be dealt with. Anyway EU citizens fear very often that with enlargement insecurity is imported into the EU and not so much security exported to the new member countries. Close cooperation inside a Security Community could demonstrate the determination to combat jointly insecurity and to do it with respect to fundamental rights. In this respect a Security Community would also strengthen the judicial cooperation. As insecurity and fears from outside dangers are more and more deciding political developments such a Security Community could bring results in the immediate interest of all European citizens.

Another possibility: membership in steps

Another alternative to bring the accession process forward and to give a clear answer to the political strategies of Russia, China and Turkey would be to opt for an accession in steps. All countries of the Western Balkan would be invited to join the EU right now but with limited obligations and rights. Parallel to the process of fulfilling the Copenhagen criteria they would get additional rights from voting rights to financial rights. There would be a clear incentive to do the necessary reforms in order to gain additional rights including additional financial benefits.

They would start with a second class membership and would step by step transform it into a first class full membership – according to their acceptance of the obligations of a full membership. The first step would give the countries of the Western Balkans already the right to join as a full member but only once the conditions are fulfilled. In the meantime they could participate not only on different programs but also in the discussions of the Foreign and Security Policy, of the different trade agreements the future economic structure of the EU etc. But they would only have voting rights after joining as full member.

Whatever way the EU chooses, a strategy „out of the box“ is necessary. Business as usual is the worst alternative. Enlargement became more and more a political issue and is of strategic importance for the balance of power inside Europe. Therefore the EU must design and develop a political strategy without giving up the Copenhagen criteria for full membership. It is up the countries of the Balkans to choose, as the Commission quite rightly underlines. But the national leaderships should choose now and tell their own citizens the way they want to go.