So close to the rest of Europe and yet so far away from its economic, political and institutional standards, the Western Balkans have been experiencing difficult times since the day their path to a full EU integration seemed to have come to a halt.

The ongoing series of ‘Stop-and-Go’ in the EU enlargement process towards the Balkans more and more resembles a road leading nowhere[1] and this is both the reason and the consequence of what happens within these countries. And if it is true that each of these countries has its own specific characteristics, it is also true that a regional approach is the one made (and preferred) by scholars, political leaders and business when it comes to Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

The EU is still working to a Western Balkans Strategy within its Neighborhood Policy and invited these countries to promote their regional cooperation. For the same reason, in 2014 Germany launched a broad political platform aiming to scale up such integration by setting annual summits between them, the EU, a selected number of EU Member States (France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, and Germany itself) and International Financial Institutions. The goal is the same one pursued by the European Union, trying to have the parties involved sit around a smaller table with a shared agenda going from investments to exchanges of institutional best practices and goods; from fundamental rights to economic development and competitiveness; from migration to terrorism. The last summit of that diplomatic initiative, so-called ‘Berlin process’, was held in July 2017 in Trieste.

 

The keywords

Connection and connectivity resulted to be the keywords of the meeting. There is no doubt, in fact, that the Western Balkans would like to reach greater integration with the EU. Few months before the meeting, the six Prime Ministers released a joint declaration[2] to reaffirm that the Balkans’ accession to the EU would mean a free and prosperous future for the region, and underlined their willingness to meet the standards set by Brussels to realize this political project. They did so to the extent that the statement clearly mentions a “sincere devotion to the process of reconciliation” and to the resolution of pending bilateral issues, defined essential for the stability of the area as a whole. This declaration can be easily considered an example of the soft power exerted by the European Union through its external relations.

The ‘Connectivity Agenda’ means connecting people, economies and infrastructures. It is in the common interest of EU Member States and the Western Balkans to ensure that efficient anti-corruption policies are put in place and working, and have a strong political backing. Rule of law, and prevention and fight against corruption are right at the center of several training programs dedicated to administration officers, supported by Member States and implemented by national authorities.

Then Western Balkans leaders’ took initiative to accelerate regional economic cooperation and developing a Regional Economic Area, based on CEFTA and EU rules and principles[3]. It is believed that a dynamic business environment is essential for the diversification and modernization of the economy and the creation of job opportunities and growth. Financial instruments like the Western Balkans Investment Framework[4] or the Western Balkans Enterprise Development and Innovation Facility (EDIF[5]), partnerships between the public and private sector in order to join the EU Digital Single Market, aim to set up the necessary IT infrastructure and give SMEs access to platforms providing financing tools.

There is obviously space for physical connections between the Balkans and the rest of Europe according to an old but always true idea that working infrastructure networks drive economic growth. Therefore, financial institutions like the EIB and the EBRD[6] will work to fund strategic transport and energy infrastructure. That is why Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are allowed to be funded by Connectivity Europe Facility (CEF) built under the so-called Juncker Plan for infrastructure, energy and telecommunication. Electricity corridors and gas pipelines are planned to link the region to Central and South-Eastern Europe.

 

Migration and security

In 2015 refugees began to flow through the Balkan Peninsula until the route was shut down about one year later[7]. For that one year the Western Balkans seemed to constitute a problem once again, and not because of war. The wave of immigrants coming from Greece and trying to reach Central and Northern Europe seemed to put at risk the security of the EU and its citizens, jeopardizing the relationships within the Union (e.g. the Visegrad Group). The European Union and NATO began to manage the situation with concern once they realized the number of foreign fighters coming from the region and joining Daesh or Al-Nusra in Syria and Iraq, as well as either side of the conflict in Ukraine. In addition to this, investigations proving that the weapons used to carry out terrorist attacks in Western Europe were coming from the Balkans, and reports of Islamic fundamentalism on the rise in the area led to the expansion and strengthening of EU anti-terrorist initiatives in the region and increased intelligence cooperation[8]. The Western Balkans became a sort of playground of a match between EU and Turkey until these two players eventually found a quid pro quo agreement.

Italy waiting on the sideline

Italy is a pivotal partner in the Berlin Process and a traditional supporter of EU enlargement towards the Balkans. Truth be told, Italy has always considered the Western Balkans as an area of political, economic and even cultural projection[9]. For this reason, a full integration would better safeguard the national interests at stake in the region, in particular trade, investment and soft and hard security concerns. To give just few data: Italy is the second supplier and also the second customer of the six Western Balkan countries. Between 2010 and 2016, the value of the interchange increased by 47.9%, from 5.1 billion to almost 7.5 billion. In the last two years Italy’s exports to the 6 countries have risen again and now reach 4 billion[10]. Moreover, Rome could take advantage from the Western Balkans’ accession if followed by a rebalancing of the current European geopolitical equilibrium. Both Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni have been seeking concessions on migration and fiscal policy but failed in finding allies in Brussels to influence the agenda set by the European Commission. No chance to count on Western Balkans to do so, given that a full integration does not seem so close to come, but a deeper and stronger engagement is needed to be effective and reliable in the north Mediterranean region. But cyclic drops in the attention paid to the region by Italy’s political elites, also due to the citizens’ growing euroscepticism, pave the way to the above mentioned ‘Stop-and-Go’ process, so that even the one who should be the Western Balkans’ best ally moves reluctantly.

 

Conclusions

In his State of the Union speech in September 2017, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called for keeping a credible European Union membership perspective for Western Balkan countries[11]. Enduring problems such as slow progress on reform, weak rule of law and corruption, at the moment do not worry Brussels. Was Juncker sincere? The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The economic growth of the region is a fact reassuring the Commission and the Member States but doubts related to security issues persist. It is true that few countries really lobby for a rapid integration but it is also true that Juncker’s words were somehow aimed at Ankara, where Erdogan sees the door to Brussels shut.

What Brussels has to take seriously into account is that if the Western Balkans are deprived of a credible hope to access the EU and of the resulting incentives to fulfill democratic conditionality[12], the current state of affairs could turn into a new phase of instability. The maintenance of the status quo, often justified in the name of the EU integration process or externally supported to contain Russian intrusions could otherwise result unsustainable. At that point the EU would prove once again its incapacity to deliver.

 


Notes

[1] Špela Majcen Marušič (2017), Western Balkans, getting tired of the accession process, Mediterranean Affairs, 4 October, http://mediterraneanaffairs.com/western-balkans-getting-tired-of-the-accession-process/.

[2] Joint Statement – Western Balkans Six Prime Ministers meeting (2017), 16 March, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/commissioners/2014-2019/hahn/announcements/joint-statement-western-balkans-six-prime-ministers-meeting_en.

[3] Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2017), Summit di Trieste dei Balcani Occidentali. Dichiarazione della Presidenza italiana, 13 July, http://www.esteri.it/mae/it/sala_stampa/archivionotizie/approfondimenti/trieste-western-balkan-summit-declaration.html.

[4] See: https://www.wbif.eu/.

[5] See: http://www.wbedif.eu/.

[6] Olga Rosca (2017), EBRD, EU and partners support energy efficiency investments in Western Balkans, EBRD, 9 February, http://www.ebrd.com/news/2017/ebrd-eu-and-partners-support-energy-efficiency-investments-in-western-balkans.html.

[7] Patrick Kingsley (2016), Tens of thousands migrate through Balkans since route declared shut, The Guardian, 30 August, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/30/tens-of-thousands-migrate-through-balkans-since-route-declared-shut.

[8] Sabina Lange (2017), Tackling common challenges at 2017 Western Balkans Summit: security, migration, terrorism, ISPI, 10 July, http://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/tackling-common-challenges-2017-western-balkans-summit-security-migration-terrorism-17178.

[9] Andrea Frontini (2017), A view from Italy: Back to the Balkans?, ISPI, 10 July, http://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/view-italy-back-balkans-17194.

[10] Marzio Bartoloni (2017), Balcani occidentali, Italia partner strategico: +50% di interscambio in 5 anni, Il Sole 24 Ore, 12 July, http://www.ilsole24ore.com/art/notizie/2017-07-12/balcani-italia-partner-strategico-50percento-interscambio-5-anni-124349.shtml?uuid=AEgDI9vB.

[11] Marcin Cesluk-Grajevski (2017), EU enlargement, Western Balkans and Turkey, EPRS, 20 October, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2017/608783/EPRS_BRI(2017)608783_EN.pdf.

[12] Marzia Bona, Francesco Martino (2017), Political instability in the Balkans: the remedies are long-term, ISPI, 11 July, http://www.ispionline.it/it/pubblicazione/political-instability-balkans-remedies-are-long-term-17167.