European Western Balkans: Different enlargement scenarios are discussed among scholars and experts when it comes to the Western Balkans. Some suggest “the Balkans Big Bang”, which would presume the acceleration of the integration process and a single entry date for all the countries, while others advocate the continuation of the gradual and slow “business as usual” approach. What do you consider to be the best approach for the EU enlargement towards the Balkans?
Péter Balázs: There are two objectives the EU tries to follow at the same time: reconciliation of states and good regional treatment – similar to the Eastern Partnership. In this way the Western Balkans group would be moving simultaneously towards the same goal and there would be no preferred treatment for anyone, which often sparks tensions in the region. The best approach for the Western Balkans would be a single entry date for all the countries and “the Western Balkans Big Bang”.
Furthermore, the Western Balkans is in a special situation as an enclave composed of small countries completely surrounded by the EU. What we miss in the region is a more regional approach. However, we also cannot forget that the EU calls for functional, finished and recognized states which can qualify as future members (recognition of Kosovo, complicated internal structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina, name issue of Macedonia).
EWB: Citizens of United Kingdom have voted to leave the European Union on the referendum held on June 24th. This decision will certainly have far-reaching consequences on both the UK and EU. Furthermore, many experts claim that Brexit will also impede and slow down the enlargement process. In your opinion, how will Brexit vote affect the European integration process and democratic reforms in the Western Balkans countries?
PB: Even though the UK has been active in the Western Balkans over the years, BREXIT per se will not slow down the enlargement process. The main issue is whether the EU member states are ready to take new members in. The Western Balkans should have a clear path in which direction they want to strive to – the EU seems the only plausible long-term solution.
EWB: After the Croatian blockade of Serbia in opening the negotiating Chapter 23, it is obvious that bilateral issues can impede the European integration process. Considering there are many current bilateral disputes among the Western Balkans countries that can freeze the accession process, what can be done within the EU to overcome such problems?
PB: Taking new members is a matter of unanimity among the actual member states. The EU has to demand settling all open bilateral issues between and among states before they join the EU family. The progress in the area of regional cooperation in the Western Balkans is visible since the 1990s until today. However, there are several open issues that are still unresolved and we have to be particularly worried about the declining relations between Serbia and Croatia. I want to believe that these came to the surface only due to political election campaigns on both sides. Such games, however, are always dangerous and can delay the EU integration and distract the attention from domestic reforms. The EU also has to play a more active role in the region and be committed to the prosperity and stability of the Western Balkans.
EWB: The past year was marked by internal divisions and tensions in the Western Balkans countries. Mass protests have been organized in Macedonia since May 2015, in Montenegro last fall, and most recently in Serbia’s capital. Belgrade rallies have gathered more than 15,000 citizens multiple times around the issue of nocturnal demolition in the Savamala district, which represents a serious violation of the rule of law and fundamental human rights. However, negotiating Chapters 23 and 24, based precisely on the rule of law, human rights and security, have been opened in the preceding period. In your opinion, what can be expected upon the opening of these chapters? What are the next steps?
PB: There are clear benchmarks prior to opening new chapters. This is a standard procedure since the negotiations with Croatia and Turkey, which applies to Serbia as well. There is also a set of benchmarks for closing Chapters 23 and 24 and Serbia will have to meet them. The time will tell if Serbia is ready to close these two crucial chapters. It is up to the country how long this process will last.
EWB: Montenegro is often marked as the frontrunner on the European path among Western Balkans countries. However, country is still deeply divided along political and ethnic lines and constantly shaken by internal frictions and conflicts. How would you assess Montenegro’s progress so far and what could be its biggest challenge in the European integration process in the future?
PB: Montenegro is a small country with big challenges, some of which are electoral law reforms, freedom of the media and the fight against corruption. At the same time, the progress in some other areas is visible. The positive sign is an invitation to Montenegro to join NATO, which will probably take place next year. Currently, the EU is not insisting on taking the whole region in the EU at the same time. However, it would be more realistic from the EU not to put emphasis on one country as these states are interrelated in many ways (transport, environment, common Yugoslav heritage). The EU could handle the situation in the Western Balkans in a better way and avoid more problems on its agenda.
EWB: Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue and the “comprehensive normalization of relations” is of crucial importance, both formally and practically, for Serbia and Kosovo in the EU integration process. The implementation of the Brussels agreement, EU-mediated deal on the normalization of relations, is too slow, without any substantial improvements. How can this “comprehensive normalization” be achieved? What can the EU do to accelerate the process?
PB: The Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue is crucial for the stability of the Western Balkans internally. At the same time, the dialogue is a test of cooperation, reconciliation and good neighborly relations the EU is based on. The most realistic way to improve and accelerate the normalization of relations is understanding that there is no going back and that all the efforts have to be projected towards the future.
EWB: Western Balkans countries are facing a serious decline in the level of media freedom, and the very freedom of expression and the media are at the core of the EU integration process. How does this continuous deterioration in media freedom affect the progress of Western Balkans countries on the European path? What is the role of EU in resolving this issue and creating an enabling environment for the independent media?
PB: It is a pity that the level of media freedom is decreasing not only in the Western Balkan countries, but in the Visegrad countries, too. Media freedom is also an important test of democracy for a country regardless of its position in the EU. This element is a clear precondition for the candidate countries and it is much better to handle this issue in the pre-accession than in the post-accession period.
Authors: Marija IGNJATIJEVIĆ and Nikola BURAZER