After the obvious lethargy with the European Union by the politicians from the Western Balkans, who were in the last decade justifiably asking for some signal that enlargement is possible in the foreseeable future, that sign finally arrived in the form of the new the new European Commission’s Strategy for the Western Balkans on 6 February. After the EU and the region were caught in a limbo for a decade in which the EU demanded to see improvement in the region first but the region also anticipated a clear sign that EU’s expansion is actually possible, the EU finally did its homework.
After years of the situation deteriorating in the Balkans, where many social parameters declined badly, the EU included the Western Balkans on the enlargement map again. The Strategy indicates a year of 2025 as a possible year for the frontrunners, Serbia and Montenegro, to join the EU. It is now the Western Balkans’ homework to start delivering. Realistically, ten years from now seem like a more convincing date, however and more importantly, there seems to be the light at the end of the tunnel. The Strategy seems to arrive in the last moment before being too late. The region witnessed numerous small scale events, which contributed to the deteriorating of the security situation and reconciliation, especially between Serbia and Kosovo as well as in Macedonia. They proved that leaving the Western Balkans outside of the EU with no clear signals by the EU adds to the serious risks of even further democratic decline in the region.
The Strategy should now present an orientation plan in the state administrations of the Western Balkans six in order to boost the reform processes since it clearly recognizes the most pertaining problems the region: state capture, bilateral disputes and serious political interference in the media. The Strategy also proposes some encouraging measures, the opening of the additional EU funds, Western Balkans six government members could be included in the decision making process before the EU membership and lifting the barriers for trade and travel. The new Strategy puts a lot of emphasis on the rule of law with cooperation in security and migration through joint investigating teams and the European Border and Coast Guard, however there is not much direction how to achieve it in a step by step manner. External monitoring will be of utmost importance through various initiatives that are already active in the Western Balkans, each contributing a little piece in the mosaic, mostly country reports but also additional new tools and ad hoc reports in the field of corruption and organised crime since those fields, together with the judicial reform can pave the ground for the stable security situation on which further economic progress can be built.
2018 is thus setting the tone of what to expect in the years to come from the countries of the Western Balkans. ‘They will have to act with determination. Accession is and will remain a merit-based process fully dependent on the objective progress achieved by each country,’ stressed Commissioner Hahn, underlining that the process looks like a regatta and countries may catch up or overtake each other depending on progress made. The most difficult issue seem to be bilateral disputes, namely over borders, independence of Kosovo and the facts of wars in the 90s. There is no recipe on how to solve the bilateral disputes in the enlargement strategy. The current process of resolving the bilateral dispute between Greece and Macedonia nicely shows that those processes should be supported also by EU member states. If Greece and Macedonia fail to find an agreement on the name issue very soon, this will be a very bad signal for the whole region.
Civil society and all other actors across the EU and Western Balkans involved in the processes of region’s accession should be now involved as much as possible, so they can be able to put pressure on their own governments and support them in the right directions.
Op-ed was written by Ivana Boštjančič Pulko, Project Manager and Researcher at the Centre for European Perspective since 2008. Her focus are mainly development assistance projects in the Western Balkans in the area of security sector and rule of law reform as well as research activities in the field of conflict prevention and crisis management.
The views expressed in CEP commentary are the views of the author alone.