Balkan candidates hope to reinvigorate EU bids with new strategy

It is remarkable that a region that was torn apart by war within the last two decades is now ready to work together towards a common goal: EU membership. [Shutterstock]

Enlargement has fallen off the EU’s list of priorities and the Union is more than likely to shrink before it grows again. But the Western Balkans are still aspiring EU members and a new strategy has been developed that hopes to put them back on Brussels’ immediate agenda.

The prospect of any European countries joining the EU in the immediate future is almost non-existent. But that hasn’t stopped the Western Balkans knocking on the bloc’s front door, by preparing for accession regardless.

Now, a new strategy calling for Balkan enlargement to be reprioritised has been put together by the European Movement International, a federalist grassroots organisation, and a number of think tanks.

The new guidelines, presented in Brussels yesterday (29 November), call for the region to come together and encourage the European Commission and the EU member states to speed up  the region’s accession.

But the ultimate goal of seeing Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Kosovo, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), Montenegro and Serbia join the EU faces a number of significant hurdles.

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Winning Europeans’ hearts

When European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn were appointed in 2014, both said that there would be no welcoming of new members before 2019.

Other global issues like the financial and refugee crises, free trade agreements, Brexit and climate change have shifted the prospect of welcoming new members far down the EU’s agenda.

This is closely tied to another challenge identified by the strategy’s authors, who see dwindling support in the existing member states as a major hurdle to overcome.

Rising populism and a negative perception of the region, a remnant of the Yugoslav wars, mean that many already in the EU would rather pull the drawbridge up. Juncker said as much when he insisted that the bloc first needed to “consolidate what has been achieved among the 28” in his 2014 priorities.

Goran Svilanović, Secretary-General of the Regional Cooperation Council, said that the Western Balkans face the challenge of “working with EU citizens to win their hearts”, with the hope of then influencing national leaders and policymakers.

However, the strategy itself does mention a 2015 paper by the European Public Centre that concluded “public opinion is not the dominant factor for official national positions” when it comes to enlargement, meaning a hearts and minds approach will not work by itself.

Moreover, Slovak MEP Eduard Kukan (EPP) said that further enlargement is now more difficult, not just because of internal EU crises, but because of the integration that has already happened. His own country, whose accession the Balkans want to mimic, was lucky enough to get to the party early enough, it seems.

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Negative image

The guidelines hope to readdress the region’s negative image and forward enlargement as a panacea for many of the EU’s major challenges. This includes targeting influential member state think tanks and EU states that are particularly opposed to welcoming new members. Another focus would be to “advocate assets” and restore confidence among the Balkan candidates.

However, there are also internal divisions to be faced, as there is not 100% support for EU membership in the Western Balkans. Satisfying the criteria set out by the EU’s complex accession chapters is no mean feat and the process is a huge drain on resources, both financial and human, and time.

The regional advocacy strategy highlights the fact that its proposal would cut costs, an especially attractive boon, given the hit the Balkans took during the financial crisis. Moreover, the plan is to reemphasise to the general public the positives and benefits EU membership brings.

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Role models

Lessons will have to be learned from the lead-up to the UK’s Brexit vote, as many observers have criticised the Leave camp’s failure to convey to the pros of the Union to the electorate.

German MEP Jo Leinen (S&D), who sits on the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, which yesterday debated the Commission’s progress reports on BiH and Albania’s accession said, “Civil society should be empowered to follow the negotiations process more closely.”

On the issue of Turkey’s membership bid, the German politician said that the process is “frozen, not given up totally”. In a veiled swipe at the United Kingdom, Leinen insisted that “the 27-and-a-half member states don’t look like they are going to renege on their accession promises”.

In terms of role models, the advocacy strategy makes particular mention of the Visegrád Group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia), which was formed in the early 1990s to further the four countries European integration. All four joined the EU on 1 May 2004.

It is clearly a path that the Western Balkans Six (WB6) wants to replicate. It is telling that in the strategy that the newest member state and fellow Balkan country, Croatia, is barely mentioned. This is because the WB6 wants to take advantage of the V4’s post-accession experience; the four countries have been in the EU for over a decade now, while Croatia is only in its fourth year and is still experiencing teething problems.

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Advocacy push

European Movement Serbia’s Jelica Minić, who chaired the Brussels event, also said that the WB6 should aim to replicate other group approaches like the Benelux countries. The strategy suggests deepening economic and cultural cooperation with the V4 and Benelux groups, respectively.

The advocacy strategy, the first of its kind in the region and which took a year to put together, is 160 pages-long, urging the Western Balkans to unite and reenergise its dialogue with Brussels and the member states through one voice. The text also provides in-depth steps on how to best mobilise under-used and unofficial regional initiatives and organisations.

The Commission’s Catherine Wendt, head of the Serbian unit at the executive’s enlargement directorate (DG NEAR) gave the region reason to be hopeful by insisting that “enlargement and integration are more relevant now than in 2009”.

While the guidelines are certainly not a guaranteed way of speeding up their individual bids, the fact that the text calls for national strategies to address domestic challenges unique to certain Balkan nations and for a regional strategy to complement them and lend the region one powerful voice, will certainly give Brussels food for thought.

Given that the last of the Yugoslav civil wars ended only in 2001, it is arguably nothing short of remarkable that the region is now at a stage where initiatives like this are not only plausible, but desirable among the Balkan countries.

The current state-of-play for the Western Balkans is that two countries, Montenegro and Serbia, have started negotiations and accession chapters have been opened.

Albania and FYROM are both official candidate countries, while BiH and Kosovo are both listed as potential candidates; BiH hopes to secure official status early next year, after the EU accepted its membership application back in September. Kosovo retains EU membership aspirations, but as five of the EU28 still do not recognise its sovereignty, there is much work still left to be done.

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