2017 has been a good year for the Western Balkans. The task ahead of the European Commission is to translate the political declarations into concrete policy. EU Strategy for the successful integration of the Western Balkans, due on 6 February 2018 will be a key document in this process. It is very important that the EU member states fully endorse this document and support the implementation of the recommendations.
In my view there are 5 essential elements that must find themselves in the strategy in order the make the EU “carrot” more appealing and thus the “stick” used to assure a successful reform process in the candidate and potential candidate countries successful.
1. Transparency, predictability of the process
Candidate countries need a clear timeline, a best case scenario, to open or finalise the negotiations process and join the EU. This goes first and foremost for the front-runner in the process Montenegro and Serbia having in mind 2025 as a possible date for accession, but also 2018 for the beginning of the negotiations for Albania and Macedonia and a credible accession process for BiH and Kosovo. However, the timeline would be counterproductive if not accompanied by a clear roadmap (like it was the case with the visa liberalisation) linking this progress with tangible progress especially in the field of rule of law, fighting corruption, organised crime, and Copenhagen criteria for EU accession. The process should be less process oriented and more Impact oriented. Structuring the process in this way would render ruling elites more accountable for the progress towards EU membership before the population of the WB countries. The real goal here is to Europeanise the countries of the region not for the sake of EU membership per se but in order to create orderly and decent societies to live in.
2. New mechanisms to monitor progress
In order to assure that a successful process is put in place in order to monitor the implementation of reforms, the European Commission should increase its capacity to perform the task. What we need for this is first and foremost to create a new Directorate General dealing with the countries having a credible membership perspective (a DG Membership). Second new EC mechanics to monitor progress involving EU member states and civil society in the WB need to put in place. Public Peer review mission reports, such as the Priebe reports in Macedonia, should be used as a rule rather than as an exception.
3. More funds for the Western Balkan countries
This would require progressively opening the EU funds reserved for the member states to the WB conditional upon reforms. Making the EU fund the construction of infrastructure, railroads, bridges, motorways, instead of Chinese, for example, would send a powerful message to the population in the region. Forward Investments in fields such as health, education, Culture need to go hand in hand with the funding of infrastructural projects.
4. Socialisation of the political elites of the Western Balkans
Allowing the heads of state and government of the WB countries to participate in the quality of observers at the European Council and allowing ministers of the WB governments to participate at the Council of Ministers meetings in different formations, from the general affairs council, foreign affairs council etc.
5. Integration of the Western Balkan citizens into the European Union
This includes small symbolic measures such as the abolishment of roaming fees between the EU and the WB countries but also allowing circular migration through temporary work permits for the WB citizens in the EU Member states. WB citizens already work in the grey market in some of the largest member states, recognising and legalising the reality is a necessary step forward.