The fact that the European Union did not give the green light to start talks with Albania and North Macedonia this October, as well as the recent French proposal to reform the accession methodology for candidate countries, raised the question of to what extent does the European Union really want the Western Balkans closer to the rest of the continent. On the other hand, the new European Commission has set the enlargement policy high on the priority list, stressing that the door of the EU should remain open for the Western Balkans. We spoke about the problems of the current model of cooperation between the Western Balkan countries and the EU and the key to solving them with Dušan Reljić, the head of the Brussels office of the German Institute for International Relations and Security (SWP) in Berlin. Last Friday, Reljić was one of the guests at the conference “Bringing the Balkans back to the EU fore”, organized by Istituto Affari International (IAI) in cooperation with the European Western Balkans portal, with the support of the EU Delegation to the Republic of Serbia.

European Western Balkans: France has recently offered a proposal to reform the methodology for accession to the EU. How do you evaluate the French proposal and in what direction do you think the European Union should focus its efforts on the integration of the Western Balkan countries?

Dušan Reljić: I do not think that the European Union (EU) needs to produce a new pile of papers. It would be good for the EU to have half a page which would state that countries that have not yet joined the EU must be supported to catch up with Europe economically and socially. This can be achieved by opening up the possibility for EU candidate countries to receive financial assistance to the extent that, for example, Croatia and other countries already receive as EU member states.

This is important due to the fact that the biggest propel for economic development in countries like Croatia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania is based on EU grants. According to the current multiannual EU budget, Croatia is to receive a grant of €8 billion. However, these funds are not something that the EU gives out just like that. What we should also bear in mind is that six countries of Southeast Europe, the so-called Western Balkans, have recorded a deficit of around €100 billion over the last 10 years through trade with the EU alone. If you also take loans into account, you can easily see that more money goes to the EU from the Western Balkans than it comes in any format aimed at supporting development.

In order to attract foreign investments to the Western Balkans, the states subsidize them through various types of financial support financed by the citizens of this region. This is especially the case in Serbia and North Macedonia. Thus, citizens in Serbia and North Macedonia are paying to receive foreign investments that do not actually support development that the citizens could benefit from in the long run, whereas it supports development based on cheap labor. This is the essence of the problem when it comes to relations between the EU and the Western Balkans. I believe that this should be at the forefront of any further discussion of further EU-Western Balkans relations rather than new bureaucratic inventions and the development of a new enlargement strategy. Do you know how many such strategies there have been in the last 15 years? The debate that would only produce a new pile of paper is a waste of time.

Serbia has an economic growth of 3-3.5 percent. If it had twice the growth, it would take 30 years for the countries in the region to achieve the current average growth in the EU. In given circumstances, the gap between the EU and the Western Balkans is widening instead of narrowing. Since the model on which the relations between the Western Balkan countries and the EU core are based is a product of divergence rather than rapprochement, Southeast European countries are turning to Asia, which is the center of global development, hoping to attract new capital and new investments. This is not only the case in the Western Balkans – the whole of Europe is turning towards Asia. Therefore, it is important to talk about what to do with the structure of economic and political relations between regions and EU countries, and not about new rules of EU integration that these countries will not be able to live up to simply because they are not able to achieve such requirements for socio-economical reasons.

EWB: So why is it that socio-economic development is not in focus of the European Union?

DR: Because if it was, the EU would have to acknowledge that the transition model, which was established after the fall of socialism, is very slow in producing results. With the exception of the Czech Republic, which is at about 85 percent of the European average and Slovenia, which was able to draw on old Yugoslav resources, other countries are slow to catch up. That makes people in this region very angry because they were expecting an average quality of life, and they have not been able to get any of it. We also see this in the European periphery: an industrial worker in the Audi factory in Györ (Hungary) receives a salary of 600-700 euros a month and has no prospect of earning as much as a German industrial worker. A third of the Romanian population left to work in Western Europe. Since there is no prosperity in this region, people migrate towards countries where there is prosperity.

EWB: In your opinion, what are the key preconditions for establishing the rule of law in the region, which is the basic postulate of the European integration negotiations?

DR: In order to have the rule of law, every country needs to have a social group that is respectively stable in economic terms, which is not directly dependent on the state or the government. That is the middle class – teachers and professors who earn enough money so that they do not have to engage in corrupt practices. If there is no middle class, society is divided into a large group of people who are poor and live in a so-called precariat and a small group of oligarchs. The state collects money from both groups in different ways. Without the middle class, which is not a guarantee of the rule of law, but a prerequisite, states are captured by authoritarians and populists. Today we can see that from Turkey to Poland, where the government has taken up the role of a protector while constantly inventing dangers, world conspiracies and things like that, while on the other hand, it plays the role of the supplier of privileges, jobs, PhD titles; whatever it takes to stay in power. This is not a specific Serbian or Montenegrin model, it is a product of a transition model in Eastern Europe that has disappointed people in many ways because it did not meet their basic expectation after the fall of communism, which were that those citizens as equally European as the French, Germans and others.

EWB: Do you see any way to reverse this situation?

DR: The prospects could improve if the Western Balkan countries could rely on EU grants to a greater extent, maybe in a model where countries themselves would not have that many directly on their disposal but would be able to use it, for example, through the World Bank. In Yugoslavia, there was a bank for international economic cooperation, which was very successful in using the World Bank funds. Such a joint money monitoring model would ensure that at least one part of the grant is invested in education, research, and development. However, we are talking about a completely different model than anything the European Union is prepared to even consider in the first place. It is even more important to keep in mind that it is the member states that have the final say on EU accession and not the European Commission. The answers lie in Berlin, and to a lesser extent in Paris, which now vetoes.

EWB: At the program presentation of the new European Commission, its new president, Ursula von der Leyen, said that EU doors should remain open to the Western Balkans. Do you expect more EU involvement in the Western Balkans integration in the following period?

DR: I think the so-called Western Balkan countries have already been integrated a long time ago. They are surrounded by the EU and NATO member states, their trade with the EU is 75 percent, many people from this region live and work in the EU and sending money back to their families… Some countries in this region have higher levels of trade with the EU than certain EU countries. For example, Germany has 40 percent of trade with the EU, 60 percent with the rest of the world. Macedonia exports to Germany more than Croatia because of investments in the metalworking industry. This region is not out, it is deep in the belly of the European Union, which still needs to digest it politically and that is not quite so simple. Shall the leading member states feel the need to prove that they represent a geopolitical force, which is the reason why Ursula von der Leyen is now constantly stressing the EU openness towards the Western Balkans, we may eventually see an accelerated approach to European integration. However, for now this remains only speculation.