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European Western Balkans
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Von der Leyen’s four-pillar plan for the Western Balkans hints at EU’s resolve to introduce staged accession

Ursula von der Leyen at the State of the Union 2021; Photo: European Union

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently announced a new growth plan for the Western Balkan countries at the GLOBSEC Forum in Bratislava. The plan aims to bring Western Balkans closer to the EU and build on what she labelled as “progress achieved in the recent months”.

The plan is built on 4 crucial pillars – bringing the Western Balkans closer to the EU single market, deepening regional economic integration, accelerating fundamental reforms, and increasing pre-accession funds in the Western Balkans. Von der Leyen emphasized that the goal is to bring some of the benefits of EU membership to the people of the Western Balkans.

This appears to be a new approach by the EU, as von der Leyen explained “we do not only ask our partners to take new steps towards us, but we also take a big step towards them”.

Since Von der Leyen’s remarks were only an announcement of the plan without further details, the question remains whether this plan is going to solve the problems of slow accession of Western Balkan countries, and whether this concept will bring something new to the table.

“I assume that this plan is coming now because gradual accession is probably considered as the best way to move the enlargement process forward while considering the very different situations in the Western Balkans and Eastern Europe”, explains Pierre Mirel, former Director General in the European Commission.

Mirel, who has significant experience in working on enlargement in the Western Balkans and who has himself advocated for reform of the process, added that “novelties (that the plan is bringing) would be gradual accessions based on each country’s pace and an increase of funding much bigger than considered until now“.

“In my view, should this plan be accepted, it would be much easier for Brussels indeed to implement it as it would overcome several of the current obstacles”, concludes Pierre Mirel.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 appears to have woken up the enlargement process but also created new challenges with a larger list of candidate and potential candidate countries.

“The war in Ukraine and the fact that the list of candidates for membership in the European Union has expanded certainly requires an adjustment of the approach to the Western Balkans”, says Milena Muk, Public Policy Researcher for the Alternativa Institute in Montenegro.

She also added that the EU has been “searching” for new strategies for a long time, and to some extent, it has been “buying time” since most of them haven’t been materialized – from the 2018 strategy to the new enlargement methodology, proposed back in 2020, the elements of which coincide with the presented new plan for the region.

Moreover, Muk notes that this plan needs to be worked out through a very clear roadmap in order to bring something new and significant and not just stay on the level of purpose without action.

“The fact is that some elements are already present in the discussions about the reform of the enlargement policy, which is necessary because the current approach requires very complex and partly painful reforms and, in return, offers an increasingly unclear perspective of accession which is not bringing results”, she claims.

Muk believes that, in some cases, it can lead to “unwanted negative consequences or the establishment of hybrid regimes” and that the main “culprits” for this are the political elites in the region.

“On the other side, the position of the President of the European Commission that the EU cannot sit and wait only for the countries of the region to take new steps towards the EU, but the EU itself must initiate big steps towards Western Balkan countries is encouraging”, says Muk.

Strahinja Subotić, Program Manager and Senior Researcher at the European Policy Centre believes that in addition to von der Leyen’s and Macron’s speech, the speech of French State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Laurence Boone, and the speech of Minister of State for Europe and Climate to the Federal Foreign Office of Germany Anna Lührmann, should be analyzed as well.

“I think that Ursula von der Leyen’s speech is very significant, but again it should not be seen as an isolated event, but everything that was said in Bratislava in those days should be taken into account”, says Subotić.

He explains that the message of all these actors is that, indeed, the policy of enlargement is again on the agenda of the EU, more than it was the case in the previous period. He also emphasizes that Macron stated that the current method no longer works and that it is necessary to engage in a theoretical and practical reconsideration of the current methods.

“In this regard, he sets the broadest perspective and vision with an incentive to work on the enlargement policy, while on the other level, we have Ursula von der Leyen who stated similarly – that the enlargement policy will be prioritized”, says Subotić.

He emphasizes that Boone and Lührmann both talked continuously about staged accession, which is something that the European Policy Centre developed formally in 2021, but the ideas were first created in 2018. Moreover, he explained that they pointed out that the current Franco-German working group is developing a White Paper that should operationalize this idea in response to the invitation of the European Council from June 2022, which supported gradual accession.

„So we see that the highest level of the EU listens to what the think-tanks from Serbia and the Western Balkans are saying and all these speeches are going in the same direction. It is best to consider them as one broader package. I think that this year is crucial because there will be elections next year and everyone’s goal is to put something on the table by the end of the year, something that could improve and determine the work of key EU institutions during the next institutional cycle“, explains Subotić.

Muk agreed that the staged approach model could be part of the solution, especially since the key elements of this model are largely complementary to the principles of the new accession methodology.

“Considering that most of the ideas are not essentially new and that some processes have already started, through the Berlin process, but also “from the bottom up” through civil society initiatives both in the region and in the European Union, further reform of the enlargement policy is less of a capacity issue and presents more the determination and a harmonized approach at the level of all EU members”, explains Muk.

Something that Boone and Lührmann mention is the necessity of a gradual approach and therefore possibility of opening the doors of the EU institutions to the Western Balkan countries during the pre-accession process, explained Subotić, mentioning that there is a goal of reducing the gap between benefits and reforms and showing that there are additional institutional and financial benefits for implementing further reforms in an attempt to revive the perspective of membership.

“Of course, all these speeches did not manage to specify how the “more for more – less for less” principle could work. We will continue to insist on the connection of these benefits with progress in standards because otherwise, any additional benefits without tying them to the level of progress only strengthens the stabilocracy in the region”, concluded Subotić.

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