POLITICO: The Enlargement Strategy as a historic opportunity for the Western Balkans

European Commission; Photo: European Union 2014

The European Commission’s strategy titled “A credible enlargement perspective for an enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans” that is going to be presented today in Strasbourg, makes clear to politicians in all six Western Balkan countries that they will have to get much more serious about susceptible values such as rule of law, but also cutting out corruption and organized crime, settling bilateral disputes and undertaking a range of other democratic changes, learns Politico.

The new strategy says that this is a historic opportunity for Western Balkans to bind their future to the European Union. Also, the strategy underlines that joining the EU is a generational choice based on fundamental rights, which is far more than a technical process.

After a while, the EU has taken a fresh interest in the Western Balkans partly because of the increased Russian, Turkish and Chinese influence. On the flip side, the refugee crisis that started in 2015 showed how important is the region of Western Balkans when it comes to the EU stability and safety.

In accordance with the fresh wind by the Commission to deepen ties with the region, Bulgaria has put Western Balkans as a top priority of the EU’s rotating presidency. In May, Bulgaria will host a summit of EU and Western Balkan leaders that will be the first EU-Western Balkans summit after 15 years. Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zakharieva suggested that an interval of two years between summits in future would be much better than this case of 15 years between two summits.

Moreover, Zakharieva noticed that putting the Western Balkans so high on the EU agenda carries risk if citizens’ hopes of EU membership were not realized. Additionally, Minister of Foreign Affairs said that some of the reasons why Western Balkans had not joined the EU was because of its own crisis and regional government that failed to undertake the necessary reforms, writes Politico.

The strategy that will be presented by the EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn and the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, declares that the levers of power in all Western Balkan countries are often in the hands of criminal networks and political clans.

“Today, the countries show clear elements of state capture, including links with organised crime and corruption at all levels of government and administration, as well as a strong entanglement of public and private interests,” the document says.

Even though the strategy identified Serbia and Montenegro as frontrunners for the EU membership, it is obvious that leaders in Belgrade will have to swallow some bitter pills on their future trip to Brussels, learns Politico. Specifically, before joining the EU, Serbia will have to conclude and implement a legally binding agreement on normalizing relations with Kosovo.

Furthermore, Belgrade could not be able to continue to pursue such close relations with its traditional ally Russia as it is the case today. The strategy says that so-called would-be members will have to demonstrate “fill alignment” with EU foreign policy.

Speaking about the other Western Balkan countries, under this strategy Kosovo, which is not recognized by five EU members, is not mentioned as a possible candidate for EU membership. On the other hand, Macedonia and Albania might be granted accession talks if they meet certain conditions, writes in the document. Also, Bosnia and Herzegovina could become a candidate for membership, obtained Politico.

Lastly, the document could be read as laying down the law to political leaders as liberal democracy activists in the Balkans have accused the EU of being too soft on regional leaders, writes Politico.

“Governments must ensure more inclusive reform processes that bring all stakeholders and society at large on board. Most fundamentally, leaders in the region must leave no doubt as to their strategic orientation and commitment. It is they that ultimately must assume responsibility for making this historical opportunity a reality,”the document says.