Pre-occupied with its financial troubles, the EU is no longer paying attention to the Western Balkans. As a result it is losing credibility and influence in a region that may slide back towards instability.
Ten years is a long time to wait for an appointment -- especially one you may never get. But that is the time that the countries of the Western Balkans have sat in the EU's waiting-room. Unlike a client or a patient who knows that their appointment will eventually come, however, these states are asked to undertake difficult and ambitious reforms to prepare them for EU membership, without the certainty of ever being let into the club.
As a result doubts have been sown about the genuine nature of the EU's commitment to the region's European integration. This is having a direct impact on the bloc's ability to promote reforms. For without external pressure and incentives, leaders like Sali Berisha in Albania, Milorad Dodik in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Nikola Gruevski in Macedonia and Milo Djukanovic in Montenegro tend to lose their eagerness for administrative reform.
The challenge for the EU now is how to get back to a point where it is incentivising progress as it did until recently, rather than creating disillusionment and the possibility of regression. In other words, it is not a question of going slow or going fast; it is about moving in the right direction. The planned Sarajevo Summit on 2 June is an opportunity to articulate a re-launched EU strategy.
In a new ECFR briefing, Heather Grabbe, Gerald Knaus and I recommend that the EU announce at the summit that it intends to begin "screening" six of the region's countries - Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro - within the next year, and promise a similar process for Kosovo. Furthermore, in order to promote the kind of regional competition that worked for the recent process of visa liberalisation, the countries should begin the process of screening together, rather than each doing a separate exercise after starting negotiations, as has happened in the past.
These are difficult times for the Western Balkans. The economic crisis in Greece and in other EU member states is hurting the already weak economies of the region and deepening the mood of uncertainty. Doubts about the future of the European project in the wake of the euro crisis could push voters away from pro-European reformers, and towards nationalist and fringe politicians. Because of this, keeping the Balkan countries in the EU waiting-room indefinitely carries increasing risks.
However, mobilising interest in the Balkans within the EU at such a moment is also unrealistic. The best way forward is to use tools that the EU already has at its disposal, but to use them more fully and effectively. Those recent experiences with visa liberalisation show that the EU still has the power to motivate serious reforms in weak states by mobilising the right incentives. We now know what this requires: clear and objective conditions; close engagement at a technical level by Commission and member state experts; a clear timetable of opportunities; and transparent assessments that trigger positive competition between neighbouring countries.
Those same mechanisms that worked for visa liberalisation can be used to motivate serious reform in the Balkans. By the summer of 2011, screening should start for all countries of the region. The aim should be that by the end of Poland's first EU Presidency in the second half of 2011, all the countries will have completed screening and achieved candidate status. This is not about making concessions; it is about putting in place a rigorous but fair process that encourages Balkan countries to identify their shortcomings and devise plans to overcome them.
Download the full text of "Beyond wait-and-see: the way forward for EU Balkan policy" here.
Listen to an audio podcast with Heather Grabbe on this paper here.
Click here for our press release for the policy brief.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.