European Western Balkans
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Western Balkans overwhelmingly in favour of EU membership, but EU needs to show more commitment

EU flag; Photo: Markus Spiske for Unsplash

BELGRADE – The public opinion in the region continues to be overwhelmingly in favour of membership to the European Union (82.5% on average), and even in Serbia – the region’s biggest sceptic – a majority of 64.1% of respondents support their country’s goal of joining the EU, according to a recent Ipsos survey, commissioned by the European Fund for the Balkans in October 2020.

The findings were presented at the online policy dialogue “Public opinion on European integration in the Balkans: Still a story of passive consensus?”, organized by the European Policy Centre in cooperation with the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) on Friday, 11 December.

The survey was conducted on a nationally representative sample of citizens who were interviewed to find out their views on issues that range from European integration and elections to civic initiatives and conspiracy theories.

The main questions posed by this survey were – are the people from the Balkans still supportive of European integration, are they content with the progress made by their countries in the process of joining the Union, what are the reasons mentioned for popular (dis)/satisfaction, and how do they perceive the role of the EU in their domestic economic and political reforms.

“Citizens of countries in the Western Balkans are still, overall, positive about the prospects of their countries joining the European Union. However, the path to EU membership is a long one and at the moment the EU accession process seems endless and current member states are doing little to improve that,” reads the BiEPAG policy analysis.

Nikolaos Tzifakis, Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Peloponnese and BiEPAG member, explains that the results seem impressive. When asked are the citizens in favour of your country joining the EU, the highest approval rate have Kosovo and Albania, while the support for the accession to the EU is the lowest in Serbia, with only 60%.

“On average, 21% of the population in the Western Balkan countries believe that their countries will never join the EU,” points out Tzifakis.

He goes further in explaining that more than 33% of the citizens of Serbia believe that the country will never join the EU, which is the highest number in the region, while on the other hand, more than 50% of Montenegrins believe that the accession will happen in the next five years. A similar position is shared in Kosovo where a majority of citizens think that the country will become a member of the EU in the next five to ten years.

“When it comes to Serbia, and also some of the other countries of the region when the support for the accession is low, and where citizens do not believe in foreseeable accession to the EU, and those numbers may be worse, because the research was conducted in October, before the blockade of North Macedonia’s start of the accession negotiations,” says Tzifakis.

Speaking about the high support of the EU integration process in Montenegro, Božena Jelušić, a member of the Parliament of Montenegro explains that the election results and the change of the government certainly influence the survey results.

“These results of the survey reflect the atmosphere, since it was conducted after the election. The belief of the people in the election process is pretty high now, and the results would have been different if the research was conducted during summer,” says Jelušić.

As for the lengthy process of the EU integration of the Western Balkans, she notes that the citizens are convinced that the EU is facing severe problems and that by the time their country joins, it will fall apart.

However, she points out that Montenegro has provided an optimistic outlook in the region, and that the results of the election process showed that the citizens could make a change.

When commenting about the public opinion on European integration in the Balkans, Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, Member of the European Parliament, explains that the EU has not kept its promise, as it is not committed enough to support the countries.

 “The delay with North Macedonia is rather frustrating, and that is understandable. We have seen that Kosovo and Albania are the highest supporters of the integration process, even after we disappointed them so many times,” says Viola von Cramon-Taubadel.

She adds that the EU and the Western Balkans should have an honest debate on what is necessary to keep this process going.

“If you have a country that is committed, the EU should do the same. People in Kosovo are still waiting for visa liberalisation. The EU is not delivering,” says MEP.

She believes that it is necessary that the accession countries and potential candidate countries are aware of what they are going to sign at the end of the process, and that in addition to this, the EU needs to find ways on how to attract the governments and the CSOs to work on more on the enlargement agenda.

“We are more than happy to include all six countries, but there are criteria. We already have problems with some countries who are members, so we need to make sure that new members know what membership means and what obligations it entails,” says MEP.

Barbara Jesus-Gimeno, Deputy Head of the Montenegro Unit in the DG NEAR at the European Commission, acknowledges that there is a small but growing number of people who have frustration with the entire process. She adds that there certainly is a sense that the people are dissatisfied. However, she points out that the survey is conducted in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic and that everyone is facing challenging times.

“There is a sense of never seeing the end of the tunnel, especially in this dark period. The question is – How to reverse this sense of frustration? I believe that this European Commission has done and will continue doing a lot for the region. We want things moving faster, but it takes time. The Western Balkans is high on our agenda,” says Jesus-Gimeno.

Marko Kmezić, Lecturer and Senior Researcher at the University of Graz and BiEPAG Member, says that the main reason behind these results is the lack of trust in the national institutions and politicians.

“There is shared blame – of the EU and the Western Balkans. The focal point of dissatisfaction people is finding in their institutions. The other reason is the public discontent with the corruption,” he says, adding that all of this is providing a broader context for these results.

In addition to this, he says that the process is lasting more than two decades and the countries have not made progress, and some of them even regressed.

“The strategy of the EU should be assessed, and some improvements have to be made. The communication also has to be improved,” Kmezić says.

When speaking about the communication, he explains that the EU is providing a fresh wind for the autocrats in the Balkans. “The EU is allowing them to personalise the EU accession process. The autocrats are calling some of the EU leaders friends,” he points out.

When speaking about backsliding, Barbara Jesus-Gimeno notes that progressing on democratic principles is one of the key focus of the accession negotiation.

 “There is a conditionality that the country can only progress if it respects the rule of law, and this has more emphasis in the new methodology,” she says, adding that this process is a merit-based and that there will be no shortcuts. “We will continue to monitor this strongly. Even the people believe that their government is not doing enough to fulfil this conditionality,” she says.

She agrees with Kmezić’s statement that communication from the EC is essential.

“We need to pay attention to how this process is communicated in the region. That is precisely the purpose of our annual reports. We believe in giving the credit where the credit is due,” she says.

Matteo Bonomi, Research Fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali and BiEPAG Member, says that one of the biggest issues is the unemployment rate in the Western Balkans.

“Despite the economic integration, in the Western Balkans there is a high level of immigration, due to the high level of unemployment,” says Bonomi, adding that the COVID-19 pandemic placed even higher pressure on the already weak economies.

Barbara Jesus-Gimeno emphasises that the economies of the region are already well below 50% of the EU average, in terms of GDP.

“The level of the Western Balkan economy is quite challenging. If we add to this the COVID-19, the EU needs to address this. At the beginning of October, we came out with the economic and investment. It would be a game-changer of the region. We will also put in place a system of guarantees to allow more confidence from the investors that could bring investments of 20 billion. This investment leverage could bring up the GDP by more than 3%,” she concludes.

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