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European Western Balkans
In Focus

Unlocking Progress in the Western Balkans: A Call for Action

EU-Western Balkans ministerial meeting; Photo: EU

This article represents conclusions from an expert panel convened by the New Leaders for Stability and Trust (NL4ST) in Novi Sad, Serbia, to discuss geopolitical complexities, shifting priorities, and internal dynamics that have hampered progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans

The promise of European Union (EU) integration for the Western Balkans, made at the historic Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, has remained unfulfilled for over two decades. Despite pledges and assurances, progress towards EU membership has been sluggish, leaving the region mired in uncertainty. While NATO integration has seen some success, the pace of EU accession has lagged behind, hindering progress and perpetuating instability in this volatile region.

 In light of these challenges, the New Leaders for Stability and Trust (NL4ST) recently convened a panel of experts from across the Western Balkans and beyond to examine the root causes of the region’s integration stalemate. This gathering of prominent figures from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, and beyond sought to shed light on the geopolitical complexities, shifting priorities, and internal dynamics that have hampered progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration.

Understanding the Roots of the Issue

According to the conclusions of the panel, the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU and NATO represents a complex and multifaceted challenge, deeply rooted in historical, geopolitical, and institutional factors. Despite their geographical proximity to the EU and shared cultural heritage, tangible progress towards membership has been elusive for many countries in the region.

While NATO enlargement has provided a security umbrella for the Western Balkans, EU integration has been characterized by sluggishness and uncertainty. Since the landmark Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, where the EU pledged its commitment to the region’s integration, only one country, Croatia, has successfully joined the EU. This lack of progress has eroded public confidence and raised doubts about the feasibility of eventual EU membership for other countries in the region.

The geopolitical landscape further complicates the integration process, particularly in light of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. This conflict has underscored the region’s vulnerability to external threats and highlighted the urgent need for stability and cooperation. However, the EU’s shifting priorities and internal challenges have diverted attention away from Western Balkan integration, leaving the region in a state of limbo.

Navigating Open Issues

The path to EU and NATO integration is fraught with obstacles, both within the region and within the EU itself. Bilateral disputes, geopolitical tensions, and unresolved issues such as Kosovo’s statehood and Bosnia’s political complexities continue to hinder progress. These lingering challenges underscore the need for proactive and collaborative approaches to address deep-rooted issues and pave the way for sustainable integration.

Bilateral blockades by EU member states present another significant challenge, with some countries opposing the integration of Western Balkan countries and impeding progress for political reasons. This politicization of the enlargement process undermines the credibility of the EU’s commitment to integration and discourages reforms within the region. Overcoming these obstacles requires a concerted effort to foster dialogue, build consensus, and prioritize the common interests of all stakeholders involved.

The contrasting treatment of Western Balkan countries and other candidate states, such as Ukraine and Moldova, further complicates the integration process. While some candidate states receive swift recognition and support from the EU, Western Balkan countries face obstacles and delays despite making significant concessions and compromises. This inconsistency erodes trust and undermines the credibility of the EU’s enlargement policy, highlighting the need for a more coherent and equitable approach to integration.

Proposing a Way Forward

Unlocking progress in the Western Balkans and advancing the region’s integration into the EU and NATO demands a multifaceted strategy. Recommendations put forth by NL4ST and esteemed experts outline a path forward:

Clear Political Decision and Timeline: A decisive political commitment, accompanied by a well-defined timeline, is essential to accelerate the integration process. Similar to approaches taken with other candidate countries like Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, a clear roadmap ensures accountability and maintains momentum towards EU and NATO membership.

Conditional Engagement: Engagement with Western Balkan countries should be contingent upon their commitment to aligning with EU interests and refraining from engaging in conflicting relationships with external actors, particularly Russia. Establishing clear expectations fosters trust and ensures that integration efforts are mutually beneficial.

Narrative Shift: It is imperative to shift the narrative surrounding the Western Balkans from viewing it merely as a periphery to recognizing its significance as a vital component of Europe’s future. Emphasizing the region’s geopolitical importance and potential contributions can mobilize regional elites and instill a sense of ownership and responsibility.

Phased Integration Approach: Implementing a phased integration approach allows Western Balkan countries to reap some benefits of EU membership before full accession. This strategy not only incentivizes reforms but also demonstrates tangible advantages of European integration to citizens, fostering greater public support and buy-in.

Addressing Bilateral Blockades: Overcoming bilateral blockades between EU member states and Western Balkan countries is critical for progress. Parallel processes should be devised to address legitimate concerns without stalling integration efforts. Constructive dialogue and compromise are essential to overcoming entrenched obstacles.

By embracing these recommendations, policymakers can chart a course towards a more stable, prosperous, and integrated Western Balkans, bolstering the region’s security and contributing to broader Euro-Atlantic cooperation and cohesion.

The Vital Role of NGOs

In the midst of these complex challenges, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play a crucial role in fostering dialogue, promoting accountability, and driving change. Projects like NL4ST’s expert panel provide a platform for constructive discourse, bringing together diverse perspectives to identify solutions and drive progress. These NGOs serve as bridges between government entities, civil society, and international organizations, facilitating collaboration and collective action towards common goals.

As Albert Einstein famously said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” To break the cycle of stagnation in the Western Balkans, bold and innovative approaches are needed. NGOs serve as catalysts for change, injecting fresh ideas and perspectives into the discourse and pushing for meaningful reform. Their ability to mobilize resources, engage stakeholders, and advocate for marginalized voices amplifies the impact of their efforts, driving positive change and fostering a culture of accountability and transparency in the region. By empowering civil society and fostering a conducive environment for dialogue and cooperation, NGOs play an indispensable role in advancing the integration agenda and building a more resilient and prosperous Western Balkans for future generations.

In Conclusion

Unlocking progress in the Western Balkans requires collective action, political will, and sustained engagement from all stakeholders. By heeding the insights of experts and leveraging the expertise of NGOs, we can chart a path towards stability, prosperity, and European integration in the region. The time for action is now.

Participants of the panel were Miloš Savin, President of NL4ST, Istvan Gyarmati, President of the International Center of Development and Transition (ICDT) in Budapest, Jelena Todorović-Lazić, a Senior Research Associate at the Institute of Political Studies in Belgrade, Zsolt Rabai, Vice President of ICDT, Imre Varga, Former Ambassador of Hungary to Serbia, Igor Novaković, Research Director at the International and Security Affairs Centre (ISAC) in Belgrade, Selmo Cikotić, a faculty member at the Faculty of Political Science in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nikola Burazer, Program Director at the Center for Contemporary Politics (CSP) and Veljko Racković, Senior Advisor at the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia’s EU Integration Department.

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