After years of neglect, in February the European Commission presented a new strategy for the western Balkans. This renewed commitment came at the right moment: for too long, economic stagnation, nationalism, populism, organised crime, corruption, state capture and external drivers of instability have put pressure on western Balkan societies as they wait to join the European Union. The new strategy is an ambitious step in the right direction, as it acknowledges the need for an enhanced process that will bring the western Balkans closer to the EU, even during the pre-accession process.
Still, the EU must make bolder moves on this track. We strongly believe it is the time to do more. We need new ideas that can complement and reinvigorate the strategy, offering new impetus for the integration of the region into the EU structures. Our strongest enemy in the region is people’s frustration because of complicated processes and lengthy timetables, something which may eventually lead to a sense of resignation on the part of local populations.
Since the Thessaloniki Agenda of 2003, the only tangible result for the citizens of the western Balkans has been the visa-free regime. That is no longer enough. We have to act now and develop a permanent and coherent network that links the region to the EU and creates stronger institutional ties between the EU and the western Balkans, even before accession. Connectivity at all levels between EU and the western Balkans but also within the region itself should be our main objective for the pre-accession period.
What we propose is a three-step approach as a framework for a rapprochement between the EU and the countries of the western Balkans on a “more for more” basis – parallel to the ongoing bilateral accession negotiations, which will continue to be merit-based.
Step 1: Create a security union. It is beyond doubt that the region faces serious challenges at the security level: organised crime, trafficking, drugs, religious extremism, illegal migration. What is needed is an effective institutional cooperation framework on security issues in the form of an EU-Balkans security community. This should eventually lead to a security union. Even if this initiative is not supposed to tackle purely military issues, the change in the nature of threats and the blurred dividing line between internal and external security, linked to the new idea of indivisibility of security, will eventually lead to deeper cooperation at the level of Common Security and Defence Policy and, more concretely, in more integrated participation in missions and operations. Until the final settlement of the status issue, Kosovo could have observer status. Participation in this security community could start immediately. Meeting the security concerns of the citizens of many EU member and western Balkan countries is imperative.
Step 2: Participation in the structural funds. The first move would be to turn the Berlin Process into an EU process, a community process of the Union, and integrate it into the pre-accession strategy, with a special role for the European Commission. This would be an approach seeking to address economic issues in the western Balkan countries and could be a driver of regional economic cooperation, growth, and sustainability. The structural funds – currently reserved to member states only – should be opened to candidate countries in this framework. The enabling of such access from the very start of negotiations must be integrated in the next EU Multiannual Financial Framework, especially for sectors such as education, social policy, health care, and infrastructure.
The opening of negotiations should be the basic precondition, but participation in the structural funds should also be conditional on making tangible progress on the rule of law and in other specific areas particularly where such progress results in deepening regional cooperation. This could be a real game-changer, as long as countries do not perceive simply as a substitute for the EU accession.
Step 3: Observer status in Council meetings. After closing chapters 23 and 24, the candidate countries could obtain observer status in formal and informal Council meetings, especially in the areas of justice and home affairs, foreign policy and defence, energy, and social policy.
Current lengthy procedures risk creating renewed frustration as they offer no real perspective or tangible results to the candidate countries. The EU should couple the individual accession track – where requirements are given and cannot be changed – with multilateral ties and participation rights that last until full accession.
This renewed determination should focus on a new narrative that inspires the people in the western Balkans, offering them a concrete and tangible path that leads to the EU. The real challenge is to avoid the derailment of the reform and integration process in the region and avoid allowing space for external or internal drivers of instability to open up.
The road is not obstacle-free. Major member states like France and Netherlands have exhibited real reluctance to pursue enlargement while deep reforms are needed in the EU structures. Other issues intrude: Spain, for example, does not recognise Kosovo and did not participate in the EU-Western Balkans Sofia summit in May of this year. Financial constraints due to Brexit, structural problems, and entrenched, deep-rooted mentalities in the western Balkans are all present. Still, we should not miss this window of opportunity and fail the people of the region again.
Our proposal aims to produce results for the wester Balkans from day one, by offering tangible advantages to the countries of the region, throughout the period of their negotiation processes, thereby promoting regional stability and cooperation. It is in the interest of the region, but it is in the interest of the European project as well.