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Do the Western Balkan countries need a different model of EU accession?

Informal EU- Western Balkans meeting; Photo: EU

BERLIN – Proposals for new models of EU accession for the Western Balkans, which would include gradual integration of the countries before the full membership, were in the focus of the discussion “EU Integration of the Western Balkans: How to Revive a Stalling Process?”, organised by Aspen Institute Germany on Wednesday.

According to Gerald Knaus, Founding Chairman of the European Stability Initiative, the Western Balkans should be offered an attractive interim goal – single market membership – so that EU’s influence in the region can be restored. He reminded that, in the 1990s, counties like Austria and Finland were first allowed to join the single market through European Economic Area before becoming full members.

Knaus joined the discussion from Turkey, stressing that EU’s influence in that county was very limited, one of the reasons being that the citizens and the political elites had stopped believing that the EU accession was going to happen.

“Turkey has been negotiating the longest – we should have the most influence in Turkey, but we don’t”, Knaus said.

He added that the situation in the Western Balkans was similar and that EU’s influence in the region is not based on money received by the countries, but about the leaders believing in a realistic path to membership, which made even the difficult reforms worthwhile

Knaus argued that offering the region membership in the single market would restore EU’s influence on the rule of law, because the countries would have to show a track record in order to become members as well, and would not be able to enjoy the benefits anymore if there was backsliding.

“Turkey turned full circle, while negotiating with the EU, and there is a risk of this happening in the Western Balkans”, Knaus concluded, adding that the reason why, after the 1990s, there has not been another conflict in the Balkans, unlike the Caucasus, was the perspective of EU membership.

Simonida Kacarska, Director of the European Policy Institute in Skopje (EPI) and Member of the Think for Europe Network (TEN), agreed that there was a need to think outside of the box and that, while some proposals might sound drastic, the smaller adjustments, she assessed, had not worked.

“The feeling is that we are stuck. Twenty years in historical terms is not that much, but if you are actually living through it, it is a long process”, Kacarska said.

She and her colleagues from TEN network are proposing a phased membership, or a differentiated integration, of the Western Balkans in the EU.

“With our proposal, we are trying to deal with some of inner question marks that we know some of the Members to have, but for any proposal, the beginning step is political will”, Kacarska said.

Sabine Stöhr, Director for the EU Financial Framework and EU Policies at the German Federal Foreign Office, commented on the proposal of the Western Balkans entering the single market before becoming full members, assessing that it would not be attractive enough.

“If there needs to be a really big carrot, then I am not so sure that this interim goal does the job”, Stöhr said, later adding that it was an illusion that all six WB counties would be ready to join the EEA at the same time.

She, however, added that she was in favour of integrating Western Balkans in economic aspects of the Union where possible.

“So, I don’t have the answer – the stimulus for a real change must come from within the counties and then hopefully we can support it at channel it to the right directions”, Stöhr said.

She also pointed out the need to lead the more strategic dialogue in the EU about why it needed the Western Balkans, reformed and democratic, in the EU. On the other hand, she argued that it was not the opposition of Member States that was the primary cause for the stalling enlargement, but the lack of progress in the fundamentals in the region.

Michela Matuella, Acting Director Western Balkans, DG NEAR at the European Commission, also assessed that there is a risk that interim steps will be understood about lowering of the ambition and alternative to full membership.

She pointed out that the European Commission has been working to put the rule of law reforms front and centre in the past years, with the full EU membership as the goal, and while the pace was not satisfactory, some reforms have been implemented.

Matuella also said that a lot of what Knaus and Kacarska had proposed was in the new enlargement methodology, which provides the possibility of associating Western Balkans in some of the EU policies. The methodology, Matuella said, has not yet started to be implemented in full.

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