By the adoption of the strategy for ‘A credible enlargement perspective for an enhanced EU engagement with the Western Balkans’, European future of Western Balkans has been confirmed. It is recognised as a geostrategic investment in a stable, strong and united Europe based on common values. This perspective also lists the priorities and the areas in which the cooperation should be strengthened, the specific challenges the Western Balkans faces, in particular, the need for fundamental reforms and good neighbourly relations.
On the other hand, we, the EU, also need to prepare our self for the new members, in the financial and institutional context. We need to be stronger, more solid and more efficient before we can become bigger.
There is no doubt that the EU is now faced with an unprecedented set of the crisis on the external borders, as well as in open issues concerning its internal functioning. In this condition, the EU needs evidence that it is capable of solving major problems of our continent in the 21st century, as it was capable in the second half of the 20th century. Everything contributing that image of the EU will have to be supported by Brussels.
In January, Bulgaria took over a six-month EU presidency during which it will try to strengthen the European perspective of the Western Balkans. Bulgaria wants to arrange, with each of the countries in the region, a clear action plan with concrete steps that need to be taken to accelerate the EU’s approach. Without giving any fake hopes, Bulgaria will focus on strengthening regional co-operation and good relations with neighbours, and on issues such as cooperation in the development of transport and energy infrastructure, communication and education. Regarding the European future of the Western Balkans, Bulgaria could be a precious mediator. Bulgaria will be strongly committed to the Western Balkans and to the policy of enlargement and integration. Sofia emphasizes support for an individual approach, which implies that the progress of each country depends on fulfilling its membership requirements. Before becoming a part of the EU family, they must implement reforms, suppress corruption and establish the rule of law. Sofia hopes that specific agreements on strengthening the transport, energy and digital links between the countries of the region and the EU will be reached at the upcoming EU-WB summit in May. Peace, stability and the future of Europe depend on the Western Balkans, so the European project won’t be completed without these countries.
However, there is a stagnation in the Balkans which produces problems rather than stability. It affects political conflicts within the states, whereas it also impacts relationships between the states, due to the newly raised issues.
There are numerous vetoes of groups that are not keen on changes, especially when it comes to adopting European standards. They do not want to excel and become a society with a low level of corruption. They do not want to become states where freedom of media and expression prevails, where justice is functional and where the strong parliamentary system exists. The Western Balkans still have not reached the previously mentioned goals.
The situation in Kosovo has shown how important it is for EU to respond and tries to prevent taking place of such tragic events in the region.
Everyone in the EU agreed that the issue of the Western Balkans is an important topic by giving their support to Sofia. It is therefore obvious that the whole EU stands behind Bulgaria’s plan. What also gives hope is a whole series of the presidencies of the member states, that in one way or another show sensitivity towards the Western Balkans. Above all, there are presidencies of Austria and Romania, and the Croatian one is not that far away. Croatia will take over presidency role in the first half of 2020. Due to that, I hope these policies will have more explicit content, rather than just being a reaction to incidents.
Montenegro is among the six countries of the Western Balkans that has, so far, made the biggest progress towards the European family. However, it must provide us with a positive argumentation for the enlargement policies, by solving their internal problems. It must not happen that the Balkans become an object of concern for European politicians. After the financial and the refugee crisis, the EU does not need a new trouble on the South-East, which would overburden fragile architecture of its internal relationships. Despite the limits that most of the countries in Western Balkans have in the negotiation process, Montenegro has no restrictions in that context.
On the other hand, the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is quite different because of the very complicated constitutionalism in the country and the tense relations between the three constitutional nations. The question is whether the country is able to carry out all necessary reforms that are required of it and which are necessary for it. In addition to this, there is also the question of the very will of the representatives. It is difficult to reach the consensus of the representatives of all three nations, and political establishment looks to keep the status quo. I can substantiate that from personal experience, due to being a chair of the delegation of the European Parliament for relations with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. Therefore, I advocate that the optimal way which will endorse the effort of each country in the process of negotiations for access to the EU is rewarding its performance and giving the chance to complete the process.
The Balkans is very sensitive and fragile, and if it starts to shake, Europe will start shaking too. So if the EU doesn’t help the Balkans, other countries like Russia, China or Saudi Arabia will, and that isn’t in our best interest.
Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States