Europe’s worsening migration crisis has changed the dynamic between the EU and the Western Balkans. As recently as a year ago, enlargement fatigue had firmly set in following the Juncker Commission’s de facto accession freeze and its downgrading of the enlargement portfolio to a neighbourhood policy offshoot. But since last summer, a growing wave of refugees – largely from Syria – has been moving into the EU, using the Western Balkans as their main transit route.
At Friends of Europe’s 15th Balkans summit, a shift in tone on enlargement was evident, with many seeing the migration crisis as an opportunity for the Western Balkans. “I believe this crisis has opened the window, in the way that much more people, politicians, are looking to the Western Balkans,” said Johannes Hahn, EU Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations. “There is a better understanding among European leaders that the Western Balkans are already surrounded by EU member states, and it is quite clear at a certain moment that they should also join the family,” he added.
But before using their newfound leverage to press their respective membership bids, the consensus is that the Western Balkan Six need to integrate locally and press ahead with further reforms. “We need to be transformed into a region first,” said Ditmir Bushati, Albanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, pointing to the need for EU funding to encourage reforms. “We are transforming ourselves bit by bit from enemies into neighbours, although we are not yet real neighbours.” But for Fatmir Besimi, Deputy Prime Minister of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the biggest incentive for reform is the prospect of EU membership itself. “This EU promise brought peace in the Western Balkans,” he said. “If you do not deliver on time, then the credibility of this promise is affected and this is what we face now in the region.”
Balkan nations face an array of domestic and external challenges as they grapple with the sudden arrival of refugees using the region to head northwards. The crisis in Ukraine and the return of Cold War rivalries cast a dark shadow over nations even as the EU pushes the pause button on Balkan membership aspirations. There is, however, a new – but fragile – mood of cooperation in the region as countries step up their transport and energy connections and foreign investors seek out business opportunities despite continuing economic uncertainties.
In the framework of this European Policy Summit, Friends of Europe and the European Office of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung have been addressing issues affecting the Balkans for over a decade, enabling senior policymakers from the region to share their concerns and ideas with EU and member state policymakers.
The governments of the Western Balkan nations are facing a range of common yet potentially divisive threats. The most immediate is the unprecedented flood of refugees and economic migrants heading northwards and imposing severe strains on Balkan transit countries. These tensions would be more damaging still were it not for a sense of greater political maturity in the region, along with a shared commitment to eventual EU accession. There are also other external difficulties piling on top of familiar internal ones like poor governance, weak rule of law and faltering economic progress. The Ukraine crisis and the return of Cold War animosities is reviving centuries-old loyalties, and, perhaps endangering conflict resolution mechanisms in Kosovo¹ and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Overlaying all these challenges there is Brussels’ “enlargement standstill” until 2019 at earliest, and the risk that this may see a slowing of reform efforts in the candidate countries.
Managing Director at New Horizons Project
Member of European Parliament and former Director of the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) European Office
Deputy Prime Minister of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Chair in International Migration at Coventry University
European Commissioner for Budget
Slovak State Secretary for Foreign and European Affairs and Plenipotentiary of Slovakia’s Presidency of the Council of the EU
The severe flooding that hit the Danube Basin countries in 2014 triggered a wave of intra-Balkan cooperation as governments, local authorities and communities joined forces with the EU and agencies like the UNDP to strengthen defences against future disasters. This has since been followed by a new mood of partnerships and policy collaborations between the six Western Balkan nations grouped within the Regional Cooperation Council. Heavy emphasis was laid at the Western Balkans summit in Vienna at the end of August on transport and energy inter-connections that will create powerful economic synergies as well as badly needed new jobs. The global recession has reportedly doubled the average unemployment rate in the region to around 40%, and with incomes still at only a third of Western European levels the pressures for cross-border partnerships are more insistent than ever.
Managing Director at New Horizons Project
Kosovar Minister of Labour and Social Welfare
Albanian Minister of Foreign Affairs
Bosnian Minister of Foreign Affairs
Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council (RCC)
Manager of the Istanbul Regional Hub for Europe and the CIS, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
The word is that attractive business opportunities now await foreign investors in the Balkans. Turkey’s private sector has in recent years expanded its trade and investments in the region sixfold to $17bn, and the major steelmaker ArcelorMittal is championing its own involvement there. IMF analysts have paid tribute to what they say is the region’s “major economic transformation over the past 15 years.” But the other side of the coin has been the economic damage wreaked by the worldwide slowdown, with the result that foreign direct investment (FDI) has in fact been running at only two-thirds of 2007 levels. The challenge for Balkan countries is now to help would-be investors to identify opportunities ranging from niche markets to infrastructural necessities and then smooth their way through their uncertain business and legal environments. Their shared target of raising added-value in manufacturing from today’s 12% to 29% by the end of this decade may look highly ambitious, but attaining it will depend on creating a truly Balkan marketplace.
Managing Director at New Horizons Project
Chair of the European Parliament's Delegation to the EU-Serbia Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee
Montenegrin Minister of Economy
Chief Executive of NIS
Head of the OECD Investment Compact for South East Europe
Heaven Crawley leads Coventry University’s UKRI GCRF South-South Migration, Inequality and Development Hub (MIDEQ), a global consortium aiming to transform knowledge and understanding of the relationships between migration, inequality and development in the context of the Global South. Crawley has published extensively on a wide range of asylum and immigration issues including the drivers of migration and migrant decision-making, gender issues in forced migration, refugee and migrant rights, the experiences of children and young people on the move, attitudes towards migration and migrants, and the politics of migration policymaking. From 2015-18 her work focused primarily on the experiences of those crossing the Mediterranean during Europe’s so-called ‘migration crisis’ and the failures of politicians, policymakers and the media to accurately reflect and respond to evidence on its causes and consequences.
Johannes Hahn is an Austrian politician at the forefront of Europe’s recovery and the Next Generation EU policy instrument. Under his watch, the EU will kickstart its green bond sales in October 2021, transforming the EU into the largest issuer of environmentally-friendly debt in the world. Hahn is the former European commissioner for European neighbourhood policy and enlargement negotiations and the former European commissioner for regional policy, prior to which he served as the Austrian minster for science and research. As a member of the Austrian People’s Party youth movement, he drafted the party’s first European manifesto and adopted a resolutely pro-European stance.
A Serbian diplomat and politician, Goran Svilanović plays a leading role in the promotion and enhancement of regional cooperation in the Western Balkans. He previously served as Coordinator of the Economic and Environmental Activities at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and as Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (2000-2004). Furthermore, Svilanović has worked in numerous organisations and committees, such as the International Commission on the Balkans and the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights.
Giles Merritt is the Founder of Friends of Europe, and was its Secretary General between 1999 and 2015, and its Chairman between 2016 and 2020.
A former Financial Times Brussels Correspondent, Giles Merritt is a journalist, author and broadcaster who has for over four decades specialised in European public policy questions. In 2010 he was named by the Financial Times as one of its 30 most influential “Eurostars”, together with the European Commission’s President and NATO’s Secretary General.
Giles Merritt joined the Financial Times in 1968, and from 1972 until 1983 he was successively FT correspondent in Paris, Dublin/Belfast, and Brussels. From 1984 to 2010 he was a columnist for the International Herald Tribune (IHT), where his Op-Ed page articles ranged widely across EU political and economic issues.
In 1982 he published “World Out of Work”, an award-winning study of unemployment in industrialised countries. In 1991, his second book “The Challenge of Freedom” about the difficulties facing post-communist Eastern Europe was published in four languages. His book “Slippery Slope: Europe’s Troubled Future” (Oxford University Press 2016), was shortlisted for the European Book Prize.
A politician and journalist, Tanja Fajon is currently serving as Member of the European Parliament. A passionate advocate for freedom of movement and its economic benefits, Fajon previously served as the European Parliament rapporteur on the visa liberalisation process for the Western Balkans. In this position, she was instrumental in helping Albania as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina win the right to visa-free travel to Europe. In 2016, Slovenian opinion polls ranked her as one of the most popular political figures in the country.
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