Ordinary citizens from the Western Balkans often look at their future ex negativo, claiming that “without war, our country would be more developed than Switzerland”. In actual fact, the present is one where many in the region trade for a life abroad and a more promising future. The time has come for the Western Balkans to imagine a future they can daringly pursue as a region in Europe that contributes to the on-going grands débats on the future of Europe.

An opportunity for the Western Balkans

In the past ten years, the European Union (EU) has faced a long list of serious challenges, both internal and external: the international and European debt crisis, the outbreak of war in its neighbourhoods, the refugee and migration crisis, the growth of Euroscepticism and populism, the British vote to exit the EU, the election of Donald Trump, the rise of China’s economic diplomacy, the return of Russia on the European stage, etc. These challenges have now been topped off with the outburst of the pandemic, and the fear that “tomorrow’s world might look like yesterday’s – only worse” (to quote French Foreign Minister Le Drian).

Understandably, the need to swiftly react to a changing environment, to improvise contingency plans and mitigate tensions among the member states has strained the advancement of a more robust strategic vision. While a new reflection on the future of Europe has been initiated with the publication of the EU’s White Paper on the Future of Europe in March 2017, followed by President Macron’s speeches in Athens, La Sorbonne, Strasbourg and Aix-la-Chapelle, much remains to be done to rediscover the reasons underlying the European integration process in the first place, to rejuvenate the European project, and make it again a higher source of inspiration for the citizens of the Continent.

There could not be better timing for this reflection to be intensified. The first steps in that direction had been made before the outbreak/onset of the pandemic: last year, a new Strategic Agenda 2019-2024 has been adopted by the European Council; a two-year “Conference on the Future of Europe” will be launched next September to overhaul the general functioning of the EU; key Member States have already put forward several proposals, in particular France; and the new Commission has presented its vision.

The pandemic will not obliterate this need for strategic thinking about Europe’s future. On the contrary. The pandemic has exposed Europe’s strategic vulnerability in unprecedented ways. And its implications, which will be massive, will further put Europe’s solidarity to the test.

Strategic thinking will be essential to make a virtue out of necessity. To “make Europe strong again” as Berlin’s EU Presidency motto reads. To imagine how to boost European sovereignty in all dimensions. But the EU will not alone be writing the future of Europe. And it has no monopoly over thinking strategically about its contours.

Why the Western Balkans should get to join the grands débats on the future of Europe

That are the reasons the Western Balkans, both, the civil society and regional governments, should participate in, and contribute to, this reflection on the future of Europe. This reflection, after all, is about a Union, which more than half of the people in the region are still striving to join.

But beyond the need to contemplate their future in the same light as the future of the EU, their participation in this reflection is essential to build a shared sense of belonging across the region; to profile the Western Balkans as a contributor in the making of Europe; to increase the joint ownership of the European integration project and allow Western Balkans citizens to mobilise and engage in discussions transcending ethnonational lines. This deliberation process, which is broader than discussions typically dominated by national politics and EU enlargement policy alone, is crucial to strengthen a community of purpose connecting the EU and the Western Balkans in the making of a stronger Europe.

Also, the challenges undermining the Western Balkans’ transformation today are in many respects comparable to those faced by the EU. The growing socioeconomic disparities, demographic decline, erosion of democratic values, rise of populism, lack of solidarity, the persistence of bilateral tensions, rising insecurity and geopolitical interferences are by no means peculiarities affecting the countries of the region alone.

Rather than considering themselves as essentially different from the EU, for want of membership status, and focusing exclusively on accommodating EU visions, models, norms and standards, the Western Balkans need to profile themselves as “a region (already) in Europe”, i.e. as a region that can and should contribute to the grands débats on the future of Europe. Their ambition cannot and should not be circumscribed to “EU accession no matter what”. It should reflect the EU’s strategic claim to shape the future of the Continent and urge them to think about the Europe they want to join, regardless of existing templates.

Their involvement in such debates can only be borne on the regional level; their vision can only be voiced from a regional perspective, that is currently lacking. As a region, the Western Balkans matter more than the sum of its parts. It is a region of unfinished businesses for the EU, and it can as such become the incubator of its rejuvenation. The Western Balkans do not need to ask for the EU’s permission. As a region in Europe, they are entitled to create imaginaries, design visions and voice strategic preferences.

The potential contribution of the region remains untapped -and largely unexplored. Just think about the region’s experience with federalism or multiculturalism – not as a model for tomorrow’s Europe but as parts of European history to reflect upon. This experience, whether inspirational or dissuasive, whether deemed unique or flawed, opens windows of their own onto Europe’s futures. It is, as such, an undeniable source of enrichment.

Joining which debates?

To make a contribution, the Western Balkans need first and foremost to stop thinking as a (fragmented) periphery in Europe, begging (or pretending to beg) for accession. They need to join the grands débats that agitate the very “core” of Europe, to think as actual parts of Europe, to position themselves as contributors in the advancement of the European project. What is needed, in other terms, is a strategic vision from the Western Balkan region of the future of Europe. This vision should bring together a variety of elements of reflection and allow the Western Balkans to position themselves in the on-going grands débats.

On the Finality of European Integration first: what is their reading of Europe’ destiny? Do they support the fulfilment of Robert Schuman’s vision of a “European Federation”? How much national sovereignty are they ready to give up? Do they support the constitutionalisation of political integration and an “ever-closer” Union? Do they accept more differentiated integration?

On Democracy, Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law: do they that the EU should seek to establish itself as supranational/transnational militant democracy? Would they be ready to commit themselves to a supranational Charter or Convention as a cornerstone of a more constitutional engagement in favour of democracy? How would they recommend the EU to empower its institutions politically and legally to address generalised deficiencies and with what kind of sanctions? What is their stance on transnational lists?

On the making of Social Europe: how do the Western Balkans think that the European Socio-Economic Model should look like, following the adoption of the European Pillar of Social Rights (EPSR) in 2017? How should the Social Dimension of Europe relate to economic policies primarily designed to maximise the performance of the Single Market and Monetary Union?

On European Culture, Religion & Identity: do they believe in a European culture connecting the idea of particular, and diverse, cultural identities with the idea of universal, cosmopolitan cultural values? Do they view Christianity and Islam as part of European culture? What about secularism, multiculturalism and open borders? Do they view globalisation a threat to European culture and identity? Or cultural and religious diversity as a threat to social cohesion?

On Climate Change: what is their stance on the European Green Deal? Do they see innovation as a panacea for achieving sustainable growth? How to advance a greener agenda in times of hyper-consumption, cultural consumerism and e-commerce? Or against the background of a post-pandemic recession? How to lessen tensions inevitably caused by Green Transition amongst the various sectors of the industry and how to connect the EU’s ambitions with the global agenda?

On the Economic and Monetary Union: what is their stance on financial vs. fiscal responsibility? Would they support the appointment of a Eurozone Finance Minister with stronger executive powers, integration through QMV, harmonisation of tax bases and introduction of a Digital Tax and Financial Transaction Tax? How to ensure that EMU reforms and the enlargement of the Eurozone go hand in hand with real economic and social convergence? How to increase democratic accountability on EMU issues?

On Migrations and mobility: what reform of the Dublin System should the EU strive for? How to balance (also financially) the calls for reinforcing internal security and impermeabilising external borders on the one side and promoting circular migration, international development and humanitarian rights on the other? How to strengthen solidarity and de-securitise migration within and beyond the EU?

On Europe in the world: should the EU only be able to speak with one voice or should it relax its unanimity requirement in CFSP matters? How should it accommodate the national sensibilities of its Member States? Should it launch a European Security Council to reinforce intergovernmental cooperation or boost Community actors? How can the EU step up its support for effective multilateralism against the backdrop of US disruption? What approach should it adopt towards key neighbours (Russia, Turkey) and China? Should it encourage the concentration of its industrial and technological assets for European commercial champions to challenge US and Chinese global businesses, even if it implies relaxing competition rules and consumer protection? Should it resort to a more protectionist approach in response to US-China trade wars? Should the EU offer European perspectives to its Eastern neighbours? What objective should it pursue in its Eastern and Southern neighbourhoods?

On Defence: does the EU need a “langue of power”? Should it boost differentiated integration? Should it establish a European Army and for what purpose? Should it seek to become an independent “Puissance Europe”, raise its level of ambition within NATO or merely support NATO through the membership of most of its Member States? Should PESCO projects protect the specificity of European capabilities or should it be open to third countries? How can it consolidate its variegated risk-perception?

On Digital Revolution and artificial intelligence: how to make sure that technological developments are not used to provide security at the expense of individual or collective freedoms (data and privacy protection)? That they will not make employment more precarious (platform economy, uberisation)? What strategy should the EU adopt to ensure its technological sovereignty? And what is their stance on the ethics of technology?

Forging a Western Balkan vision for the future of Europe starts now

The Western Balkans have what it takes to think strategically about the future of Europe -even if (or perhaps precisely because) they have failed to become more developed than Switzerland. What they need at this critical moment is to extract themselves from the navel-gazing, ethno-national distractions their leader so readily indulge in; unmute their aspirations for Europe and get their foot in the EU’s most important door: the one into its future.

This cannot be the sole prerogative of EU political elites. Thinking about the future of Europe should permeate Western Balkan societies in the broadest sense and serve as a source of inspiration for individuals and communities. “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan”, Robert Schuman wrote 70 years ago. So, what’s Western Balkans’ plan for Europe? This question is hardly raised in the region. Little is done to expose Western Balkan citizens to European affairs -beyond accession. Little is done to ensure that societies in the EU and the Western Balkans grow a shared understanding of European integration -beyond compliance with the acquis.

That is why including the Western Balkans in the Conference on the Future of Europe is so important. Not as passive observers, given present realities, but as a full-fledged part of this common Future. Their elites need to position themselves on the on-going debates, publicly; they need to express their preferences and specify their understanding of European integration. That would give depth to their (often rhetorical) support for EU integration, create constructive cleavages among political parties, expose voters to competitive visions for the future of Europe and thus create room for political forces opposing ethnopolitics.

Debates on the future of Europe can be encouraged on another level, through civic education, in the media, in the fabric of society and through non-governmental initiatives. One of them, the “Western Balkans Perspectives on the Future of Europe” initiative, has just been launched by the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung Dialogue Southeast Europe and the Austro-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe. It aims to empower key stakeholders from civil society in the region to think about the future of Europe beyond accession; to allow them to engage on this topic with Western Balkans’ forces vives and broader audiences through a regional series of focus group and public fishbowl discussions; to craft a comprehensive vision for the future of Europe that builds on these exchanges and interactions and specifies Western Balkans’ distinct contribution to the making of a stronger Europe.

This vision will be published in 2022 and subsequently presented in EU capitals through a series of conferences. It will answer the following questions: What should this European Union that they want to join be about? What should it seek to achieve for its citizens and beyond? And what distinct contributions can the Western Balkans make to bring the European project closer to this ideal? How could their membership strengthen the Union?

The authors of the article are Dr. Florent Marciacq, Deputy Secretary General and Research Fellow at the Austro-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe and Senior Fellow at the Centre international de formation européenne (CIFE) and Harun Cero, Project Manager/Research Fellow at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Regional Dialogue Southeast Europe.


The opinions contained are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Austro-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe .