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.
Despite promising changes of government in the Western Balkan countries, profound reforms are still missing. Meanwhile, political tensions in the region are further exacerbated by the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and overall insecurity of the wider region. Can the Western Balkans 6 escape the vicious cycle of ‘stabilitocracy’ without sacrificing democratic standards?
The EU must get serious about the Western Balkans. If it wants any part in signalling an escape route for its close neighbourhood, it needs to become a credible force for good. To this end, the EU has long advocated for fair, equal and diligent implementation of the ‘stick and carrot’ principle. What that means, primarily, is that the countries that achieve progress must receive incentives. Opening accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania has been long-overdue, as well as visa liberalisation for Kosovo.
The challenges to EU credibility are multifaceted. Allowing countries the power to unilaterally veto a single state’s membership, as in the case of the Bulgarian veto of North Macedonia’s bid, is indeed detrimental to the EU’s overall credibility. Unless the EU steps up efforts to help Sofia and Skopje bridge their divides, it risks losing the region to other actors who are already present there. The same goes for Kosovo, which has met all the conditions for visa liberalisation, but the French veto is still preventing the country – the only one from Portugal to Georgia – from access to visa-free travel.
Now that the geopolitical rulebook is being rewritten, strong definitive action needs to be delivered immediately
Credibility is, however, a two-way street. Besides incentives, the EU – a union of values – must become credible as an entity unafraid to use the ‘stick’ when it is needed. This applies to the democratic backslidings and rule of law deficiencies witnessed in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). The EU must show its readiness to use power, not just words, and hit uncooperating countries where it hurts the most – through financial aid. Once these governments are out of EU money and foreign direct investments, they will face a consequential choice: reform or further alienation.
Stick and carrot schemes, however, are the least the Union can do. Now that the geopolitical rulebook is being rewritten, strong definitive action needs to be delivered immediately.
Discussions around the so-called ‘fast-track’ accession have taken place around Ukraine’s formal EU application. Therefore, it is important to reiterate that conditions remain and must be met, irrespective of political urgency.
The Copenhagen criteria are not only mandatory, but also a bare minimum condition for what aspiring EU candidates must accomplish before entering the Union. As formulated by Chapters 23 and 24 of the negotiation framework, stability, rule of law, respect for human rights and the existence of a functioning market system are enshrined in the accession criteria for any candidate country. We cannot negotiate on these criteria in any significant way, nor downplay them. Rule of law means that one must respect the rules commonly agreed upon. Simply put, one must either take the rule of law package as imposed by the Union or leave it.
There won’t be any sustainable peace unless the comprehensive 2013 Brussels Agreement on normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo is reached
That said, improvements need to be enacted in several of the Western Balkan countries before serious consideration can be paid to accession. Montenegro still needs to improve the fight against organised crime and corruption, as well as ensure merit-based employment in the public sector. Serbia, on the other hand, must show the results of judicial reforms in practice, the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms, and institution building. BiH must continue working on the implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights judgments to ensure the non-discrimination of all its citizens, while Kosovo and Albania must demonstrate that the results of judicial reforms and minority protection are implemented fully and yield concrete results.
Finally, the elephant in the room, or in this case – the region, is peace. There won’t be any sustainable peace unless the comprehensive 2013 Brussels Agreement on normalising relations between Serbia and Kosovo is reached, followed by sustained peacemaking attention in BiH, the second Western Balkan flashpoint.
These are the most vulnerable hotspots, which may be critically important for European strategic aims. Therefore, the EU must support all efforts to reach a long-lasting solution that will advance these countries’ accession to the Union and establish fully-fledged bilateral relations.
It would be a concrete move forward for the establishment of sustainable peace in the Western Balkans
In addition, the Regional Commission Tasked with Establishing the Facts about All Victims of War Crimes and Other Serious Human Rights Violations Committed on the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia (RECOM), which explores the scope for an institutionalised approach towards reconciliation, must be achieved. An ambitious and expansive programme, it would be a concrete move forward for the establishment of sustainable peace in the Western Balkans.
This is the wake-up call that the EU and Western Balkans need. The lack of delivery appears as a chronic excuse for the Western Balkan countries’ delay in the path to EU accession. Notwithstanding all initiatives, the desired result can be easily missed unless these countries do their homework.
Building strong, resilient societies, with robust democracy, human rights, good governance, jobs and education – everything which the EU has been promoting through its enlargement process – are the crucial tasks for the Western Balkans 6.