The EU and the Western Balkans: Visions and Horizons
The European Union and the Western Balkans are intertwined territories bound together by history, culture, the economy and increasing joint security and climate challenges.
The future decisions related to the regional integration and enlargement will deeply impact the lives of the populations in the different countries and redesign the context by offering new visions and perspectives. The history of the European Union is punctuated by strong cohesive momentums during the different historic waves of enlargement. With the current challenges created by the Brexit, the new starting EU political mandate, and the geopolitical growing uncertainties, the question of any future enlargement towards the Western Balkans has been further postponed and appeared to be, at least during the last mandate of the EU Commission, tacitly unprioritized. By entering a too long status quo on effective enlargement horizons, there is a risk for Europe to restrict boundaries, horizons, and even to consider the Western Balkans as an unstable neighbourhood, rather than as a strategic asset for the territory. This article will try, with a distance, to analyse the different visions and horizons of the enlargement towards the Western Balkans through different scenarios.
The European Union and the Western Balkans economies are deeply related. EU-Balkans trade doubled in the 10 years. EU accounts for majority of imports and experts of the Western Balkans. Nearly all exports can enter the EU without custom duties or limits on quantities since 2000. In addition, EU companies are by far the largest investors in the Western Balkans where EU companies invested over 10 billion in the past 5 years. Most of the countries (but not all) have a visa free travel to the EU. There is a long history of cooperation on security and joint efforts in peacebuilding and stabilization, which have known ups and downs, difficulties and echoed different visions in the different EU member states (not all EU member states have recognized Kosovo’s independence). Some of the Western Balkans’ countries (including Albania), have already joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization NATO, or will join in the near future for North Macedonia.
The EU has an official development a policy to support the gradual integration of the Western Balkan countries with the Union. On 1 July 2013, Croatia became the first of the seven countries to join. Montenegro, Serbia, the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania are official candidates. Accession chapters have been opened with Montenegro and Serbia, whereas Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidate countries. Comprehensive tools such as the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) and the Regional Cooperation Council have been set up as a framework for the regionals between the EU and countries in the region. It is based on bilateral contractual relations, financial assistance, political dialogue, trade relations and regional cooperation. As a matter of fact, however, the key decision makers from the European Commission’s president Jean-Claude Juncker and most of the EU heads of states, had made clear so far that there would not be new enlargements in the short term. The advanced reasons, apart from the insufficient progress from the candidate countries have been the necessity to reform EU institutions first, and the growing concern that opening borders, would mean more migrations into Europe (the question of the arrival of refugees through the Balkans’ route has indeed been often advanced). With the new EU Commission’s mandate, expectations may grow as to clarify if the future enlargements will take place and when they could be expected to be completed. Nothing is absolutely granted in the area, even if the EU has already opened chapters of negotiations with both Serbia and Montenegro for future membership.
Therefore, to simplify the reading I suggest below different likely scenarios for the short-term evolution of the EU enlargement policy towards the Western Balkans, while highlighting what would be the constraints, and consequences of each scenario.
Case Scenario 1 The enlargement process is blocked for the next EU Mandate
This scenario would not be an unknown one. It would in any case not be presented as such, but rather be introduced as a temporary phase towards future negotiations. 2018, was indeed already supposed to lead to a renewed interest of the EU in the western Balkans, with several key events such as the settling of the dispute on the name “North Macedonia” with Greece, and the dialogue created by the Bulgarian presidency. However, following this renewed interest, the question has shifted away from the priorities.
The consequences of this scenarios are decisive. Indeed, as the EU may consider it as a status quo, territories and regional dynamics are too important to ignore the effects of a “No real Membership” policy on the candidate countries.
The first consequence and impact of this scenario would be an increased security challenge: this security challenge being already acknowledged as a decisive element by the EU leaders. Indeed, the fact to lock out the candidate countries outside of the Union, would make it more difficult to reach agreements and cooperation with each individual country on the control of migrations, human trafficking, and the fight against radicalization.
The second important impact of a postponed/blocked enlargement process would be the negative perceptions created among the population, a possible outburst of tensions, and the weakening of the public institutions and leaders in the countries which may appeared to have “failed” the membership negotiation process. Indeed, polls show that although most than half of the population in the Western Balkans is strongly in favour of the EU accession, the population in the Western Balkans has partly lost hope in a forthcoming enlargement despite a renewed interest (Source Balkan Opinion Barometer 2018 and 2019). A blocked or postponed enlargement process may create tensions, frictions and even resentment towards EU leaders. In countries which have experienced violence (Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania), tensions, or conflicts, the instability factor is also a concern, as the countries may witness waves of radicalization, renewed nationalism and/or conflicts. It is additionally interesting to highlight the question of “shrinking territories”. While I was doing research on the post conflict in Bosnia, some of the interviewees mentioned this “shrinking space” created by the split of the former Yugoslavia. They experienced it as a loss of freedom and horizons.
A third important anticipated impact or consequence, which may be underestimated by the EU leaders, is the current geopolitical battles for influence. It goes without doubts that countries like Serbia and Montenegro have developed strong relationships with Russia, in a tensed context. In a medium-term future, these countries may be considered as important “strategic places” to gain influence. Even China has started a cooperation influence with the 16+ 1 initiative : The 16+1 format is an initiative by the People’s Republic of China aimed at intensifying and expanding cooperation with 11 EU Member States and 5 Balkan countries (in the fields of investments, transport, finance, science, education, infrastructure, high technologies, and green technologies). Although the EU may remain an important trade partner, it is not to be excluded that the former candidate countries would turn towards other strategic partners.
Case scenario 2: Differentiated enlargement creates a gap between the acceding members and the left out countries.
The differentiated scenario is the one which has been adopted for the previous enlargements and is the one induced by the opening of membership chapters’ negotiations with both Serbia and Montenegro. Indeed, until now, the European successive enlargements occurred by bilateral negotiations with the candidate countries. In addition, there is a set of conditions, known as the “Copenhagen criteria” which sets up conditions in terms of politics, economy and rule of law. In most of the cases, the EU decision-makers have to picked up the most stable and performant economic country (Croatia in 2013). And it would be logical that Montenegro would naturally follow, while the membership process with Serbia had known difficulties until recently.
One negative impact of the differentiated scenario is however that it is strongly divisive for the countries which would remain outside of the Union. In particular, some countries like Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo experienced conflicts, which resulted in ethnic cleansing, partition and borders’ disputes. In the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the logic tells that after the Dayton Agreement in 1995, the country would experience problems in governance. These governance problems were a direct consequence of the peace agreement, which imposed on them a system where the different communities (and former belligerents) needed to cooperate to reach agreements. This represented from the start, a clear obstacle to reach the necessary conditions to join the EU.
It would be logical that a real differentiated scenario considers not only the performances and results but also the needs and difficulties of each candidate country. While I was doing research to Bosnia, you could already sense a feeling of disappointment, that despite the resilience of a city like Sarajevo to the conflict/war seat, other former neighbouring Yugoslavian territories has already joined the EU, whereas this would be difficult to achieve for Bosnia. The enlargement to Croatia, had indeed direct impacts on the Croatian community in Bosnia as there had been movements across the border. In the same idea, we can foresee that an accession of Serbia would probably be beneficial to the population in the Respublika Srpska (part of Bosnia-Herzegovina), but would further lock in the Bosnian Muslim community, without paying tribute to the peace efforts and achievements. Bosnia may be an easy example, but a differentiated enlargement would, surely would surely lead equally to negative perceptions in Kosovo, and in the Republic of North Macedonia if the country does not join, whereas the efforts to reach an agreement on the name (with Greece) could have relaunched the process.
Therefore, above all scenarios, the differentiated scenario is not exempted from negative consequences. Indeed, as stated in the introduction, the enlargement decisions of the EU have impacts on the lives but also on the perceptions of the local populations. Letting outside of the Union, the countries experiencing the most challenges may bring wrong signals to the Youth in this country, and lead to negative perceptions of democracy, and even of the values promoted by the EU.
Case scenario 3: The Western Balkans join the EU in a new wave of enlargement. Despite remaining theoretical, this scenario would undeniably have positive impacts on the stabilization of the region, and for the dialogue with the civil societies in the Western Balkans.
According to the 2019 barometer, more than half of the population in the Western Balkans, is explicitly in favour of EU membership. The belonging to the EU has had positive impacts in the stabilization of other former territories (Cyprus, Northern Ireland…) by opening up the borders, territories, horizons and by replacing the local concerned areas in a larger stable territory.
This scenario would equally be relevant by renewing with the values of fraternity and peace which are underpinning the European Union. This may also be a timely scenario after the Brexit (expected to occur at the end of October 2019), and in a time of growing geopolitical tensions with several regional powers. A swift enlargement to the Balkans could be a new opportunity for the EU, a “revenge on back luck”. It would help the EU bicycle to keep going’
However, this scenario may remain very unlikely and this for several reasons: firstly, the public opinion in the different EU member states seems reluctant to open new borders. What has been called the refugee crisis, has stigmatized the “Balkans route”, by which refugees were entering to Europe. The current leaders and head of states seem to respect the opinion of their population very much in this area. Even the decision makers in Germany would struggle internally to promote a new EU enlargement within the German population. Other head of states mentioned the necessity to first reform the EU institutions, before any new enlargement could effectively take place. These concerns about the reform of EU institution are strengthened by the difficulties to reach consensus among the 28 and soon 27 member states. The idea to have complex rotating presidencies with 34 member states, as much as the adaptation of the EU Commission and Parliament will hamper a swift decision. But as we could not have imagined that a simple referendum in the UK would have led to the Brexit, we could as well imagine that referendums in the Western Balkans could lead to secured accessions.
The question of the EU enlargement to the Western Balkans seems like an intractable situation. Whatever will happen in the future, the Western Balkans should become neither a relegated periphery, nor a simple recipient of aid, in the view of an enlargement which would be continuously postponed. The decisions to be inclusive for the Western Balkans, or further divisive will be extremely strategic and will have impacts on the future of the populations as well as on the future shape of Europe. Whatever decision will be taken, it should consider the different impacts induced by these decisions, including the ones on the perceptions of the countries’ populations. The opinions of the young generation need to be reflected and taken into account, while any decision should be relayed by positive communication and media strategies. Future decisions should also enhance trust-building in the larger region, as well as well as confidence in a more global context. This means, that for instance an absence of enlargement would strongly benefit from a recognition that the decision does not lay “only” in the fact that the candidate country did not reach enough progress. On the contrary decisions for future enlargement should make sure that this is not interpreted by global actors “de facto, as a strategy to extend the strategic area of the core countries of the European Union… but rather an opportunity for cohesion, stability and prosperity in the larger region.
 Council of the EU 2019
 Source the European Parliament fact sheet 2019
 Anna Nadibaidze, Can EU enlargement in the western Balkans revive?
 Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia)