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New enlargement strategy of the EU: a new chance for the Balkans

With a new enlargement strategy, the European Union gives itself more time while candidates and potential candidates claim a new chance to focus more seriously on upcoming reforms.

March 31, 2020 - Svjetlana Ramic Markovic - Articles and Commentary

Latina Bridge, Sarajevo. Photo: Jocelyn Erskine-Kellie (cc) flickr.com

It has been almost eighteen years since the Western Balkans became a priority of European Union expansion. These turned out to be eighteen years of ups and downs, marked by decades of uncertainty, delay, and various, sometimes meaningless, negotiations. Croatia’s entry into the European Union in July 2013 has given momentum to other countries in the region to start looking more realistically at the accession process. Kosovo is, as the youngest “candidate” on this road, together with Bosnia and Herzegovina, among the Western Balkan countries that still has the status of a potential candidate, while Montenegro and Serbia are negotiating accession to the Union, and Albania and North Macedonia are official candidates. Additionally, Kosovo, as well as other Western Balkan countries, is part of a diplomatic initiative called the Berlin process that is related to the future enlargement of the European Union.

Although the Western Balkans are closely related to Europe politically and economically, their turbulent past and constant social, economic and political challenges have had catastrophic consequences for the region, making it geopolitically unstable and economically unattractive for potential investors. Therefore, it is not surprising that European integration is seen as a key cure for the Balkan virus, and perhaps the only strategy of achieving peace and stability in the region. Integration represents a single hope in the eyes of a minority of young people that are barely discerning the light at the end of the tunnel.

Challenges for the region

Even though 2019 was a year of glorious expectations for many Western Balkan countries, it did not end in an encouraging way, having in mind that various political challenges such as refugee crises and Brexit have seriously damaged the foundations of the European Union. These crises have, in turn, negatively influenced the overall enlargement process.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has not been granted candidate status and Kosovo has also been deprived of its long-awaited visa liberalisation. During the October 2019 Summit, the European Union failed to open the accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia after France vetoed North Macedonia on the grounds that the union needed to put a stronger focus on the rule of law within the bloc and slow the enlargement process.

Enlargement fatigue has created significant political apathy in Western Balkan countries and frequent elections, as well as volatile power elites, have certainly contributed to the existing inconsistency. Additionally, many Western Balkan countries are still struggling with deeply rooted and systematic corruption and politicisation of civil servants, which has further slowed progress in the region.

Finally, besides existing legislative and policy frameworks that require a revolution of structural developments, many Western Balkan countries are lacking the political will to implement requested reforms as well. In order to improve the delivery of the reforms and ensure fulfillment of rule of law conditionalities, the region needs both a strong financial injection and a systemic assessment of the current legislative processes.

A chance that cannot be missed

The new Enlargement Strategy, presented at the beginning of February as a new political project of the European Union, creates a new comfort zone for the majority of Western Balkan countries. The essence of the strategy has not changed and the main objective continues to be the membership of Western Balkan countries in the Union. But relief comes from the end of a period of silence and ignorance. Candidates and potential candidates have claimed a new chance to focus more seriously on upcoming reforms, as well as to review their internal capacities and reinforce their structural dialogue with potential stakeholders like the private sector or civil society organisations.

The Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Oliver Várhelyi, has stated that the new accession process has to be more credible, dynamic, predictable and above all, guided by a stronger political steer. He has emphasised that the aim of the new strategy is to ‘re-establish a credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans.’ At the same time, negotiations will focus on six dynamic thematic clusters. Each cluster will have a timeframe preferably limited to one year, having in mind that the fundamental rights and the rule of law will take a central role. The role of Croatia’s current Presidency of the European Union in this process is still yet to be seen, but it is important to be aware of the effect of neighborhood relations in the region. Certainly, now more than ever, political leaders need to make further efforts to strengthen regional cooperation and practice good neighborly relations.

The European Union’s gates to the Balkans are open, and many of its leaders will get on board, especially in the countries where parliament and general elections are scheduled for the upcoming months (e.g. general elections in Serbia and early parliamentary elections in North Macedonia are both scheduled for April 2020). Euro-Atlantic negotiations are also a joker in the sleeve of many politicians to use if they feel no other meaningful progress is being made.

Yet, everyone eagerly awaits the upcoming revised set of reports on North Macedonia and Albania this month and the possible opening of accession negotiations, as well as the upcoming EU-Western Balkans Summit in May that will feature the European Union’s new major economic plan for the region.

It feels as though a new north wind is blowing in the direction of the Balkans. Having in mind the previous turbulent past of the region and constant political challenges, European integration remains a key strategy in achieving peace and sustainability for the Balkans. The new Enlargement Strategy is a chance that cannot be missed, and perhaps the only sailing ship that Balkan leaders can board.

The article is part of the wider research supported by the Kosovo Foundation for Open Society as part of the project “Building knowledge about Kosovo (3.0)”, whose findings will be published soon.

Svjetlana Ramic Markovic works as an independent researcher and a consultant for different national and international NGOs. Her research interests include EU enlargement process and civic participation in various democratisation processes in Western Balkans. Svjetlana holds an MA degree in International relations and a BA in Political Sciences from the University of Banja Luka.

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