Rethinking Europe

A European Future for the Balkans? Detoured Yet Again?

The upcoming European Council Summit may well focus on migration — rather than the enlargement issue.

Credit: Nicolas Raymond www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • The upcoming European Council Summit may well focus on migration -- rather than the enlargement issue.
  • All the Western Balkan countries have many problems to solve. However, keeping the EU allure in the region is critical.
  • Given the region’s entrenched political and ethnic divisions, leaving the Balkans outside the Euro-Atlantic structures could pose real threats to European security.
  • Only the EU integration process will keep the Western Balkans on track, dealing seriously with questions of transparency, rule of law and accountability.

The upcoming European Council Summit will be crucial for the European future of the Western Balkans. The plan was — and still is — that European leaders will hold a debate on enlargement for the first time since 2014.

But there is a big risk that the migration issues that have captured the German government of late, as well as the divide that is visible among EU countries on migration, will divert political attention again away from the enlargement issue.

This would be unfortunate. For the last few years, the EU has made no political and strategic commitment towards the Western Balkans, keeping the enlargement process mainly at technical levels.

The involvement of the Western Balkans countries in EU discussions has mainly centered on two main policy areas: Counter-terrorism and the external dimension of migration.

Implications for European security

Given the region’s entrenched political and ethnic divisions, leaving the Balkans outside the Euro-Atlantic structures could pose real threats to European security.

Old ethnic enmities and challenges of a never-ending transition, when coupled with new worrying trends undermining democracy and increased malign influence in the region, could make a perfect recipe for renewed conflicts in the Balkans.

This vacuum of power created by the absence of a clear political commitment to the region has led to “reform fatigue” and backsliding in the region. This, in turn, further widens the institutional and economic gap with Western European countries.

Next week, two countries — Albania, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia — are expecting the opening of the EU negotiations, following the positive recommendation of the EU Commission in its progress reports last April.

More needs to be done

This reflects that progress has been made in the region, but the need to continue reforms is stronger than ever.

For Albania, the opening of negotiations, after quite a few years of lining up in the EU’s waiting room, will send the right message to continue with the much-needed institutional reforms. It will also help to calm the toxic political climate, a distinct feature of Albanian politics since the start of the transition.

For the former Republic of Macedonia, right after the historic agreement with Greece ending the 25 years-old name dispute, EU support and a “green light” in the integration process is more needed than ever. In increasingly polarized and pessimistic societies, if people feel that they are not getting anything in return from the West, there is a palpable risk of failure.

To be clear, opening negotiations does not mean setting any target date for accession, but they are important to send a strong political message to the region.

This is all the more important at this juncture as a window of opportunity seemed to be opening up with the new EU Commission’s strategy for “a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans.” It was perhaps the most optimistic document since the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit. But, against all expectations, the Interim EU-Western Balkans Sofia Summit was anything but a “Thessaloniki 2.”

All the Western Balkan countries have many problems to solve. However, keeping the EU allure in the region is critical. To be sure, other players — Russia, Turkey and China — are working hard to fill in the gaps. Acting as opportunistic spoilers, they are keen on using existing internal institutional weaknesses.

EU concerns

Some EU countries have also understandably expressed concerns with high levels of corruption and transnational organized crime, as well as with migration from the region.

The opening of EU negotiations would not mean that standards are decreasing. But it would be a strong signal of solidarity with the region – and a real shot in the arm for the reformers.

Only the EU integration process will keep the Western Balkans on track, dealing seriously with questions of transparency, rule of law and accountability.

The danger is that the EU’s lack of political commitment will be misused by some Western Balkan leaders to stop pressing forward with reforms.

The EU Summit next week could well be a make-or-break deal for the European future of the Western Balkans. It is also a real litmus test for the EU, the erstwhile winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

With regional income levels as low as $5,000, equal to only 13% of the EU average incomes, prospects for any rapid convergence with the West are grim. In this situation, every other citizen is considering leaving the country. Persistent brain drain could soon become a new security challenge. That should matter to a Nobel Prize winner.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the Valbona Zeneli’s institutional affiliations.

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About Valbona Zeneli

Valbona Zeneli is a professor of national security studies, and director of the Black Sea-Eurasia Program at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

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