European Western Balkans

Stability requires commitment from EU and WB leaders

Western Balkans Summit, Italy; Photo: European Commission

* The authors are Annemarie Peen Rodt, Associate Professor at Royal Danish Defence College and Johannes Tvilling, Project Officer at Royal Danish Defence College.

Since the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the Western Balkans have steadily progressed on their path towards European integration, in accordance with the EU’s overarching strategy for conflict prevention and peacebuilding in the region. However, progress has been hampered by frozen conflicts and internal issues within and between countries in the region, occasionally stirred up by opportunist political leaders. Moreover, politics, economics and security spheres each in their own way pose significant challenges to the region’s stability.

Firstly, the Western Balkan countries face increased authoritarianism, reflected in state capture by political parties in power, which systematically use informal clientelist networks to govern public goods and services, undermining the rule of law by weakening the independence of democratic institutions.

Secondly, slow and inconsistent reform processes, high youth unemployment (47,7 % in 2015) and large informal economies (up to 30-50 % of GDP) prevent the stabilisation of public finances and reduces tax revenues, challenges that have significant consequences for economic stability in the region.

Thirdly, illegal production and trade in arms and drugs remain problematic in the region. Adding to this challenge is a significant increase in the smuggling of human beings across the Balkans since 2015. Trafficking of irregular migrants is currently the second most prevalent organised criminal activity in the region. Connected is the issue of foreign fighters, 1,000 of which are estimated to have left the region to fight for various armed groups in Iraq and Syria. Their return is expected to have serious consequences for security within and beyond the Western Balkans.

These interconnected challenges require a committed and comprehensive regional approach to conflict prevention and peacebuilding in the Western Balkans. Historically, the EU has approached the countries in the region through its ‘Stabilisation and Association Process’ (SAP). However, research suggests that although the selection of tools developed has been appropriate, the implementation hereof has been inadequate, in particular in responding appropriately to dynamic local contexts and needs. Better coordination between the EU’s own initiatives, Member States and institutions is one necessary step on the path to progress. Likewise, the EU must acknowledge and as far as possible cooperate closely with national, regional and international actors involved in order to respond effectively to challenges on the ground.

As stability in the Western Balkans has remained a priority for the Union, it has complimented the SAP through the deployment of six Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and operations in the region, two of which are still ongoing. One of these, the European Rule of Law Mission (EULEX) in Kosovo, has as its overall objective to support Kosovo authorities in rule of law, specifically with regard to the judiciary, police and customs. Although the mission has made significant headway in the past, research suggests that that EULEX is currently struggling to fulfil its potential. This has inter alia been due to the lack of a clear mission mandate with concrete benchmarks and verifiable indicators of success. Further, there has not been clarity, consistency and predictability in political support for the mission from EU Member States. Finally, structures for recruiting and retaining appropriate human resources and proper procurement have proved lacking. Addressing these issues, as EULEX has sought to do, is key, if the mission is to continue successfully.

Regarding regional stability as a whole, the strong incentive to adopt the political, economic and structural reforms, which future stability and EU membership requires, has in recent years weakened as ‘enlargement fatigue’ within the Union has brought ‘reform fatigue’ outside it. To alleviate this, the Berlin Process has emerged. This German-led initiative aims at creating closer regional cooperation towards sustainable economic growth, democratic development and reconciliation across the Western Balkans. Its focus reflects the notion that long-term stabilisation is best achieved through economic growth and increased regional cooperation, but it does also underscore the EU’s continued commitment towards the region. Stability requires renewed commitment from political leaders in the Western Balkans and EU alike to work together for a common future.

For further information please see: Rodt, Annemarie Peen et al., 2017. EU-CIVCAP Deliverable 5.1 – Report on EU Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding in the Horn of Africa and Western Balkans. Available at: https://eucivcap.files.wordpress.com/2017/10/eu-civcap_deliverable_5-1.pdf

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