Bringing together high-level representatives of all Balkan countries, the Bled Strategic Forum in Slovenia discussed their future in European integrations. The panel, entitled “Western Balkans – is pretending the name of the game” set the scene for a discussion, which showed that the countries outside the EU are slowly losing hope to join the European family in the very near future. In spite of clear messages from the side of the European Commission, however, some of them remain optimistic and continue their everyday struggle of transforming the acquis into their national legislation, aiming to close chapter after chapter. Those are the ones that hope once they are done, the EU Member States will opt for an approach to enlargement considering each candidate individually, rather than waiting for the whole batch from the Balkans to reach a stage when they can become part of the European family.

A mosaic of expectations with a single goal

The high-level panel involved representatives of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia and Kosovo. While maintaining a diplomatic stance in their interventions, all of them clearly underlined two key aspects in regard to their path towards membership to the European Union: a need for clarity and certainty from the side of the Union, and need for commitment and seriousness about national reforms from the side of the candidates.

Some of the countries in the region have been on the path to EU accession for a long time now and feel that the road keeps leading nowhere. With a very a clear message of “no enlargement until 2020”, Juncker’s Commission might have created an atmosphere of demotivation. Nevertheless, the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, has recently announced that the future of the region lies in the European Union, adding that even though no new Member State is expected to join by the end of term of this Commission, everything should be done to make future accession of the Balkan states irreversible.

Such rhetoric of the European Commission has not discouraged candidates and potential candidates from the Western Balkans. All leaders on the panel clearly indicated their continuous commitment to join the European Union as soon as possible. Each individual country does, however, realize that the path to membership is one of hard work, technical issues and political questions. In this way, it seems that the Western Balkan countries are currently juggling between competition of who gets there first, and regional cooperation to show goodwill in neighborly relations. On the one hand, countries that are farther along the road to accession, like Montenegro, continue to underline the importance of the “regatta approach”, which would allow each individual state to join separately. On the other hand, Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ivica Dačić, stated that a success in the Western Balkans is something that the EU desperately needs in these trying times of Brexit, migration crisis and terrorism. A general call for a serious European perspective of the region was also echoed in statements related to the recent Western Balkans Summit in Trieste. Though it represented an important stepping stone towards closer regional cooperation, the countries of the region are afraid that such initiatives and processes will be considered as an alternative to a full membership in the European Union, as an eternal waiting room until further notice.

Lack of internal order and trust

All countries of the Western Balkans continue to believe in a strong transformative power of the European Union. They acknowledge the EU as an outside motivation that helps them work on internal affairs, putting in order the chaos created in the aftermath of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the fall of communist regime in Albania and of which many of them still feel serious consequences. In this way, Albania has most recently undertaken a reform of the justice system. Most importantly, the country has adopted new sets of rules and actions in the area of fighting corruption, which, according to their Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ditmir Bushati, would not have been possible without the motivation from the side of the EU. Similarly, Macedonia has, according to the Managing Director for Europe and Central Asia at EEAS, Thomas Mayr-Harting, taken an important political decision to continue actions that will bring the country closer to the EU. Finally, and maybe most remarkably, Serbia and Kosovo have recently showed willingness to engage in a dialogue.

Such seemingly small steps represent important strides for the countries of the Western Balkans, many of which are still struggling with internal political instabilities, inter-ethnic disagreements and the burden of recent history.

A common challenge to many of the countries in the region remains the lack of trust in state institutions. Even though this issue was highlighted in particular by the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Igor Crnadak, the phenomenon is not limited to this multi-ethnic country. Young people are leaving their homes and trust is fragile due to the region’s political history. Western Balkans countries are therefore counting on the European Union to help them strengthen their own institutions and thereby bring back the optimism for the future inside the European family. In this context, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Macedonia, Nikola Dimitrov, underlined the need for seriousness of such internal reforms. He called to end the bluff and start engaging in real changes that would also allow the candidates to expect the same from the European Union – clarity and seriousness about new memberships.

A call for more clarity in the enlargement process

As timelines for accession of each individual candidate and potential candidate country stretch over time, the youngest member of the Western Balkan family, Kosovo, remains optimistic. Its Minister of Foreign Affairs, Valon Murtezaj, believes that the accession process, even though long and complex, is very doable. While Kosovo remains full of starting energy, its neighbors take a less enthusiastic stance, calling for the accession process to be less technical and clearer, less about closing chapters and more about assessing democratic advances in individual countries. Macedonia has recently served as an example of what happens when there is no perspective or when EU’s progress reports are softened. This is when reforms slow down or stop and the population gets disillusioned.

The main concern about the process remains its unpredictability and lack of clear timelines. This leads some countries to fear for public support to reforms that are being undertaken in the name of accession talks. Some others are concerned about general geopolitics in the region and call on the European Union to help them believe that accession talks are not only a road, but also a destination as a reward for hard work and dedication.

Western Balkans as integral part of the continent of peace

Since the 1980s, enlargement has been branded as the most successful foreign policy of the European Union. This was due to its positive transformative effect on the establishment and development of democratic institutions in candidate countries, support to their market economies and rule of law. While countries of the Western Balkans have unfortunately missed the train of the Big Bang accession in 2004, they have been continuously doing their best to join the European family in the nearest future. The European family has been putting them on hold, citing internal reasons. While this is understandable from the viewpoint of ensuring stability of European institutions, a clear perspective for the countries of the only blank spot on the map of Europe, should nevertheless be communicated in a clear and consistent way.

The European Commission has introduced the White Paper on the Future of the Union, which foresees five scenarios for the future of European integrations. However, little is said about enlargement and new Member States. An open discussion about the future of the Western Balkans in the European Union is therefore crucial. Only by opening the doors to the countries of the last left-out region, can Europe really become a continent of peace and prosperity.

Špela Majcen Marušič

Editor at EU360