The EU and Western Balkans: a friendship through thick and thin

Frankly Speaking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Alesia Alldervishi
Alesia Alldervishi

LLM – International and European Law Student at the Europa Institut, Saarland University

Introduction and conclusion by

Dharmendra Kanani

Chief Operating Officer and Chief Spokesperson of Friends of Europe

Over half (57.4%) of young people in Western Balkan countries support EU accession, according to the recently published UNICEF U-Report, but only 9.4% think that their country will join the EU within the next five years.

It’s time to shift our narrative and approach to the Balkans. It’s always been about joining the EU, but the process drags on, frustrations grow and steps falter. Perhaps it’s time that both sides focused on strengthening and developing the Balkan region and closing the gap to the EU by taking a new people-centred approach to the Balkans. Robust democracy, stable economy and social evolution should be goals in themselves. It’s time to recalibrate the talking points.

A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women, young people and alternative leadership in the region is one clear path forward, and so we turn to one of the youth delegates of our annual Balkans Summit for her insights on the region’s future.

Western Balkan countries have faced complicated disputes throughout history but always shared one common aim: becoming member states of the European Union, a supranational organisation characterised by dynamism.

This goal is not only shared among countries in the Western Balkans, but the EU as well. The EU is the region’s largest funding partner, with the aim of improving monitoring mechanisms and guiding the EU accession process. This relationship is one based on shared principles, collaboration, and above all, the rule of law.

Now is the time for more concrete steps in the EU accession process, with a greater focus on labour migration, career opportunities, social policy and education for young generations.

Articles 3, 4 and 6 of the Treaty of Functioning of the European Union do not mention these areas as exclusive or shared competences of the EU. As interpreted by the European Court of Justice, unwritten competences fall under the purview of member states and a binding common policy or regulation is not possible. However, nonbinding recommendations are a legal tool that can be used by the EU when member states have exclusive competences. The ability to nudge states to take certain actions into account could be used when it comes to EU integration.

The young generation is the engine of every country

Moreover, Western Balkan countries need to continue to show their commitment to the accession process and must prove that they can work and grow with each other. The Open Balkan initiative is a big step forward in proving that the region can create and operate within a customs union, which is one of the most fundamental principles of the EU.

Another step to move Balkan countries closer to the EU would be creating an institution, based on competition and merit, that will have certain exclusive and shared competences. Under the guidance and supervision of such an institution, the Open Balkan initiative could go even further and create an internal market. This will build trust among the younger generation that everyone will have access to opportunities.

The young generation is the engine of every country, and their trust is crucial for any political representative. Yet, 24.4% think that their country will never get into the EU, and 60.5% strongly disagree that political representatives heard their voice, according to 2021 data collected by UNICEF’s U-Report.

These two statistics show the immediate need for Western Balkan countries and their governments to recognise the youth perspective and reconsider how the youth is involved in decision-making processes.

Loyalty, trust and commitment to change are key attributes of the Western Balkans but must be enhanced in order to make integration into the European Union not just a wished dream but a living reality.

For the EU, it should remember its origin as a peace project bound by the values of human and universal rights underscored by a common economic area. Its enlargement is too often mired in processes that often miss the reality of the circumstances, experiences and feelings of people and communities. For too long, communities have been left out of the equation in the accession process of Western Balkan states. Improving public governance can’t be a tick box exercise and producing slews of policies and legislation that have no meaning or effect on the ground won’t cut it.

The EU should adopt a different mindset to accession which moves from a focus solely on political structures to one of community dividend. Investing more heavily in strengthening civil society, connecting more directly with younger generations, women and alternative voices that share the principles of the world’s most successful peace project would achieve this goal.

Photo of This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.
This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.

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Show more information on This article is a part of our Balkan Journey series.

Friends of Europe’s Balkan Journey seeks to circumvent stagnant debates on enlargement in order to focus on moving the region forward in practical terms through political imagination and forward-looking solutions.

Reframing the narrative to focus people-centred priorities rather than political objectives can bring a fresh policy perspective to overwrought discussions on how to strengthen and develop the Balkan region and close the gap to the EU.

A greater focus on inclusion and amplifying the voices of women and youth is one clear path forward. Other priorities include digital transition, green transformation, increased regional cooperation and the strengthening of democracy and rule of law.

Our articles and the Balkan Journey as a whole will engage with these overlapping and interlinking themes, promote new and progressive voices, and foster pathways to regional cooperation, resilience and inclusion, informing the content and recommendations for our annual EU-Western Balkans Summit.

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