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The EU and the Western Balkans: Where Next?

Written by Isabelle Ioannides and Velina Lilyanova,

The EU and the Western Balkans: Where next?

On 18 June, EPRS hosted a roundtable discussion on ‘The EU and the Western Balkans: Where Next?’ in the Library of the European Parliament. It took place the day after the prime ministers of Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Alexis Tsipras and Zoran Zaev respectively, signed a deal on the name issue that could potentially resolve the bilateral dispute that has run for over a quarter of a century. This only highlighted the timeliness of the question, ‘Where next?’, as Etienne Bassot, Director of EPRS’ Members’ Research Service, outlined in his introductory remarks.

2018 is a year of revived interest in the region. In February, the European Commission published a new EU enlargement strategy that aims to revitalise relations with the region. In April, it released its annual reports, taking stock of the situation in each of the candidate and potential candidate countries in the Western Balkans. In parallel, the European perspective and connectivity of the Western Balkans was at the top of the priorities of Bulgaria’s EU Council Presidency, which organised the first EU-WB summit in 15 years in Sofia. In July, when Bulgaria passes the baton on to Austria, the region will remain high on the agenda. Given this increased activity, the roundtable discussion aimed to revisit the state of play in the process of EU enlargement to the Western Balkans, assess achievements and challenges from the first half of 2018, and discuss how the EU can help support the transformation of the region in view of future enlargement.

The panellists were experts with varied and vast experience, both academic and political: Tonino Picula (S&D, Croatia), Member of the EP and Chair of the Delegation for relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina; Genoveva Ruiz Calavera, Director for the Western Balkans in the European Commission’s DG NEAR; Ivan Vejvoda, Permanent Fellow at the Vienna Institute for Human Sciences; Erwan Fouéré, Senior Associate Research fellow at CEPS; and Isabelle Ioannides, policy analyst in EPRS’ Ex-Post Evaluation Unit. The debate was moderated by Monika Nogaj, acting Head of the External Policies Unit in EPRS.

The EU and the Western Balkans: Where next?

Tonino Picula, who spoke first, framed the debate, drawing on his long experience on the region, having been Croatia’s Foreign Affairs Minister in the early 2000s. Tonino Picula stressed the strategic importance of the Western Balkans and pointed to the pertinence of the EU examining the prospects of its relations with the region. He emphasised in particular the present context: a unique situation, in which the EU is negotiating the exit of a Member State, faces growing criticism from the inside, is surrounded by multiple external crises, and is confronted by the need to rethink the EU project as a whole. In such a context, achieving EU membership is an ever-more demanding task for the Western Balkans. Nevertheless, Tonino Picula asserted that, for a plethora of reasons, the EU needed to keep up the pace of its work in the region despite existing scepticism. He concluded by saying that he expected the political manifestos of political parties in next year’s European Parliament elections to reflect this topic, and the EU to continue to serve as a good mediator and facilitator. ‘EU membership, after all, remains the best way to promote reform and cooperation within the Western Balkans, as well as an insurance policy for the EU itself’, he said.

Genoveva Ruiz Calavera presented the new European Commission strategy and highlighted its two major achievements: on the one hand, its clear message that there would be no shortcuts to accession and that EU values would need to be abided by; and, on the other, the renewed EU commitment through six new flagship initiatives on key issues. Enlargement is a two-way process: just as the countries have to prepare for accession, so the EU has to prepare to absorb them and support them on their accession path. According to Ms Ruiz Calavera, it is crucial for the EU to ensure capacity to actually implement these flagships. To that end, the European Commission has put forward a proposal for increased funding for pre-accession in the new multiannual financial framework (MFF). She agreed with Tonino Picula on the need for political parties in the European Parliament to embrace the region in their agendas and have a clear vision on the issue of EU enlargement. Commenting on the name deal signed by Prime Ministers Tsipras and Zaev, she considered it a positive example for the region. Precisely for that reason, the upcoming June European Council decisions would be crucial for keeping momentum.

According to Ivan Vejvoda, what is really at stake is the credibility of the EU project itself. He reminded the audience that the enlargement perspective was never officially put in doubt by the EU, but rather within individual Member States (known as ‘enlargement fatigue’). This is illustrated in French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent statements (that the EU has to reform first, and expand afterwards), but it is also a false debate since the countries in the region themselves are not ready to join the EU in the next 5 to 10 years. What is key, however, is that the process continues and that credibility works, backed up by action. In that sense, if the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania do not receive a green light to start negotiations in June, we will not really be ‘in the credibility business’, he pointed out. The June Council decision, he reminded the audience, might be a fleeting piece of news, quickly passed over elsewhere, but one that would be closely monitored in the candidate countries and would linger on. It would have a demotivating effect on EU supporters in times when third parties (Russia, Turkey, China, and others) are lurking around the corner. Referring to the Western Balkans as ‘the non-integrated core part of Europe’, Ivan Vejvoda said that Europe would be doing its job if it manages to ‘keep this train moving’. Referring to the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, he argued that both sides have realised that the issue cannot linger on forever and that the process is therefore imbued with a sense of realism. The economic links between the EU and the Western Balkans and the support of people in the region for the EU (even if at times this is silent) show that there is no alternative to EU enlargement. Last but not least, Ivan Vejvoda stressed the importance of education and the need for statesmanship and leadership in admitting to the young generation the darker side of the region’s history as a way to move towards reconciliation.

The EU and the Western Balkans: Where next?

Erwan Fouéré welcomed the fact that the Western Balkans were back on the EU radar after having been neglected in recent years. The positive developments in 2018 are praiseworthy, but in parallel the EU needs to adopt an approach other than ‘business as usual’. In view of the future, the EU also has the responsibility to demonstrate more clearly the successes of EU enlargement policy, as the benefits of enlargement have not been sufficiently explained to an increasingly sceptical public. Erwan Fouéré spoke of the 17 June signing of the name deal, which he considers a diplomatic success. He commented on the strengths and weaknesses of the Zaev-Tsipras deal, pointing out that the weaknesses would complicate its ratification and implementation. Still, he agreed with the other speakers on the importance of the June European Council: it presents an opportunity to reward the work done on the ground and to show EU commitment in practice. An important message was also that all bilateral issues should be addressed by all sectors of societies, not political elites alone. On a concluding note, he expressed hope for the coming years, recalling the need for permanent EU efforts in the region and proper follow-up on its commitments.

Isabelle Ioannides focused on the ‘where next?’ in the event’s title. She agreed with the other speakers that the key word in the debate was credibility: how does the EU build and retain its credibility in the region? In her view, the EU must provide manageable, understandable perspectives, combined with specific roadmaps. The EU needs to insist on the implementation of reforms, but also better spell out the monitoring instruments announced and clearly name the spoilers in the process. Isabelle Ioannides raised the need for increased EU support for economic development – one way to counter frustration among youths and the consequent brain drain from the region. The EU also needs to consider further investing in structural reforms to boost growth in the medium term, and to include candidate countries in sectoral policies and programmes. More generally, it is essential for the EU to move away from a vision of the Western Balkans as mere recipients of funding, but rather to see the countries as co-designers of EU policies, which need to be included in the debate on the future of Europe. In parallel, it is important, she noted, that there be more transparency in the process: that the public (in both the Western Balkans and the EU Member States) be kept informed of the different benchmarks and of the EU contribution in supporting transformation in the region. The best proof that EU intentions are credible is to include a provision for potential accession of one or more of the candidate countries in the new MFF, something that may become unavoidable with the potential resolution of the name issue. In conclusion, enlargement is a win-win situation, momentum is there, but ultimately, more responsibility lies with the political leaders in the region to commit to real reforms, implement them, and fully exploit the current opportunity.

A lively Q&A session followed, which brought to the fore the issues of reconciliation, outstanding border disputes, the need to invest in young people, and the role of civil society as a much needed actor in the accession process.

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