European Western Balkans

With fear returning to the Western Balkans, the EU should not lose momentum to reform enlargement

The Politics of Enlargement: How to seize the new momentum?; Photo: X / @csf_wb

TIRANA – Many deficiencies of the current EU enlargement process, including the loss of transformative power and the inability of the EU to set its priorities, were pointed out during the panel discussion on the process at today’s Civil Society Forum in Tirana. Recommendations of the civil society on how to reform the process were also presented, ranging from providing a specific target to the candidates to simplifying the decision-making.

Ditmir Bushati, former Foreign Minister of Albania, said that formal progress in enlargement does not mean progress in democracy anymore and that the gap between the Western Balkans and the countries of the region that entered the EU is growing, not shrinking.

He was also critical of the foreign policy approach of the EU towards the Western Balkans.

“It is very hard for me to understand why the EU has a special envoy for Kosovo-Serbia, why would you subdelegate the foreign policy towards a region that is not far away, but at your front gates? It is sending mixed signals”, Bushati said.

He added that the appeasement of Serbia will not succeed in bringing Belgrade closer to the EU, for example in terms of imposing sanctions on Russia.

“We are seeing very little geopolitics. The EU accession is supposed to be a process during which the enemies should be transformed into neighbors, and this is not happening with Kosovo and Serbia”, Bushati said.

He, however, added that he was not in favor of sanctioning Serbia, because that would probably only cement those in power. Instead, he said, Serbia and Kosovo should be incentivized by a unified approach of the EU.

Nikola Dimitrov, another former Foreign Minister on the panel, assessed that his country, North Macedonia, was much readier for EU accession negotiations in 2019, when it was blocked by France, than it is now in 2023.

“The enlargement has become, from an ambition to transform, a management tool. There is momentum when it comes to debate, because of the Ukraine, but we do not have the result yet, we do not have an offer from the EU. There is a lot of lip service”, Dimitrov said.

He, however, added that the region can do so much better, even if the EU continues to treat it this way, with what he described as a “virtual process of enlargement”, but the citizens need to push their leaders.

“Miracles are possible, but somebody needs to make them happen”, Dimitrov said.

Adnan Ćerimagić, Senior Analyst for the Western Balkans at the European Stability Initiative, stressed that the current politics of EU enlargement does not affect the everyday life of the citizens, for example in Mitrovica in northern Kosovo.

“The result of the current politics of enlargement is that politicians and the citizens are cynical towards the EU. The point is that the EU is always late. I am afraid, if we look at the debates in the EU at the momentum, we are at the brink of losing the momentum created by Ukraine”, Ćerimagić said.

He warned that fear of violence is back in the region.

“The leaders who will be meeting in the coming months need to understand that they will be talking about the peace, and not the technicalities of the accession”, Ćerimagić said.

Ana Kristinovska, Research Fellow at ELIAMEP’s Southeast Europe Programme, presented the recommendations of the Thematic Working Group for the Politics of the Enlargement, one of the seven working groups of the Civil Society Forum.

For more details on the Thematic Working Group, read CSF 2023: The 2030 target for enlargement will be a difficult, but not impossible task.

According to the recommendations, the EU accession should be accelerated and decision-making in the Council of the EU simplified so that the Member States would not be able to veto intermediary steps in the process.

Kristinovska also said that the process should return to the practice of Accession Action Plans that would be designed for each country and contain the areas they should focus on, as well as rewards and incentives.

“The accession process should not be open-ended and the countries should be informed what the best-case target year will be if they fulfill all goals”, Kristinovska said.

She also added bilateral relations are currently a burden that should not be present in the accession process and that, at least, there is now a pool of cases of bilateral disputes that the EU should study and change its approach to them.

“Our message to the WB governments is to be more serious, take more ownership and be the partner for the EU to deliver the necessary results – rule of law and public administration reform”, Kristinovska concluded.

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