At its June 2003 summit in Thessaloniki the EU’s Heads of State and Government promised a “European perspective” to the countries of the Western Balkans and clearly stated that “the future of the Balkans is within the European Union”.
Today, almost twelve years later, EU public opinion is however largely sceptical towards further EU enlargement. This so-called “enlargement fatigue” cannot be understood properly without taking into account the effects of the economic and financial crisis in the EU Member States starting from 2008. Unemployment rates and public debt have risen in many EU Member States, painful economic reforms and their effects have put under strain intra-EU solidarity.
The economic and financial crisis in the EU has badly affected its Western Balkan neighbours, too. This is no particular surprise given that the latters’ economies are closely tied to the economies of their EU neighbours. Indeed, the EU is the largest trading partner for the Western Balkan countries and accounts for over two-thirds of their total trade.
Economic and social prosperity is essential to long-term stability and democracy, not only in the Western Balkans. Unfortunately, the difficult economic situation in the Western Balkan countries has visibly reduced their capacity to implement ambitious economic and also political reforms. In turn, economic recession and difficulties to conduct political reforms make it also more difficult to fulfil the EU’s accession criteria.
However, it is crucial that the countries of the Western Balkans fully implement the reforms as agreed in the pre-accession and accession process, do their “homework” in order to progress towards EU accession and are ready to act and perform adequately at the moment of EU accession. Without the reforms they will not be able to benefit from EU membership.
Joint efforts for lasting political and economic stability in the Western Balkans should not be put at stake. The fight against corruption and organised crime require an independent and effective judiciary as well as well-functioning mechanisms for regional cooperation. Despite pressing economic and social challenges the promotion of democracy and rule of law and the strengthening of democratic institutions must continue. Otherwise political stability is at stake. This is illustrated by the enduring stalemate in Bosnia-Herzegovina that led to social unrest in February 2014.
Croatia’s EU accession on 1 July 2013 has given a positive and encouraging signal to its Western Balkan neighbours. As EU member states, Croatia and Slovenia continue to promote both a further EU enlargement to the region and further European reforms in their neighbouring countries.
The EU as a whole also needs to invest into actively supporting reform processes on the way towards accession. The European integration of the Western Balkan countries will only be successful if EU accession and the related political and economic reforms will be perceived as political, economic and social progress by the citizens and will thus meet their support. This requires responsible and result-oriented policies as well as active and transparent communication.
The prospect of EU accession remains an important incentive for comprehensive political and economic reforms. However, it is not enough to prepare the Western Balkan countries individually for EU accession. As future EU Members they will have to cooperate together on a daily basis inside and outside the EU institutions. Good neighbourly relations have been the cornerstone of European integration since its very beginning in the 1950’s. Already today the candidate and potential candidate countries can only benefit from an even stronger focus on regional cooperation.
Given the importance of the Western Balkans for the very foundation of the EU’s foreign policy, disengagement by the EU from the enlargement perspective for the remaining Western Balkan countries is not an option. The EU cannot and will not opt out from its responsibilities for its immediate European neighbours. Its enlargement policy has to take into account the on-going efforts to strengthen good neighbourly relations and regional cooperation in the Western Balkans.
European integration should lead to political, economic and social progress and should be expressed through the will of those in government to cooperate in advancing the EU’s political integration project, to share economic prosperity and solidarity with neighbouring countries and to speak together with one voice on the international scene.
These are important tasks for all political parties committed to European reforms, EU accession and continuing European integration. The integration of the Western Balkans into the EU can only be successful if the at times painful reforms will be perceived by the citizens as being necessary and as bringing political, economic and social progress in the mid- to long run. It is the duty of political parties to act as intermediaries between the people and the state. It is therefore also their responsibility to explain the reforms and to anchor the idea and values of the EU among political leaders, in the country’s administrations as well as in broader society.
EU accession is not a purely technical process that is conducted by the European Commission together with relevant state authorities in the candidate countries alone. EU membership is the realisation of a long-term political objective. It is the final point of a comprehensive political process and at the same time it is the starting point of a much more complex process in which the Western Balkans will contribute to the yet continuing European integration project between 28 and more EU Member States.
An active enlargement strategy is important in order to keep the enlargement countries firmly engaged and in order to promote and strengthen the accession process in the Western Balkans. Western Balkans’ governments and societies must be convinced of the political and economic benefit of European integration. It is the EU’s duty to actively support the reform processes on the way towards EU accession and it is the duty of the region’s political leaders to not lose momentum in their ambitious reform efforts.
Authors: Knut Fleckenstein and Julia Wanninger
Featured photo: ¬© European Union 2014 – source:EP