Europe and the Balkans: What’s to be done?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The EU must “show that it can act decisively and effectively” in the Western Balkans as the progress the bloc makes in the region tests its “credibility on the international scene,” writes Graham Avery for the European Policy Centre. What’s more, he calls on all countries in the region to apply for EU membership “sooner rather than later” and on the bloc “to reaffirm its membership promise” to them.

[The following is reproduced with the permission of the EPC.] 

“Throughout history, the Balkan region has been a meeting point of cultures: between Western and Eastern Roman Empire, between Orthodox and Catholic churches and between Islam and Christianity. It has been a destination for invaders and conquerors: Slavs, Turks, Austrians and many others. This legacy of intercultural conflict and external domination poses a huge challenge for the EU. Can its much-vaunted ‘transformative power’ bring peace, prosperity and stability to the Balkans? 

In 2003, the countries of the Western Balkans received the promise of EU membership. Surrounded by other EU members – a kind of ‘enclave’ within the enlarged Union – these countries effectively constitute the EU’s ‘next frontier’. 

But can the ‘leverage’ of future membership, which worked so well in Central and Eastern Europe, be equally effective in the Balkans? Why are political leaders reluctant to make necessary reforms, despite their European rhetoric? What if democratically elected parties lose confidence in the ‘European project’? And should the EU follow a ‘protectorate’ or ‘enlargement’ model? 

Since the wars that followed Yugoslavia’s break-up, the EU and the international community have sought to contain risks of further conflict through imposed reforms and more or less direct rule in Bosnia-Herzogovina and Kosovo. But this sits uneasily with the aim of transformation through ‘conditionality’. What is needed now is a clearer ‘exit strategy’ from protectorate status, so the countries concerned can pursue an ‘entry strategy’ towards the EU. 

The biggest country in the region, Serbia, could make rapid progress towards membership. But the Kosovo experience has created a perception among some Serbians that the ‘European perspective’ conflicts with their national interest. To outsiders, it seems unrealistic for Serbia to hope for a satisfactory future outside the EU, but it may take time for its people to make up their own minds. 

In the meantime, the Union should be patient with Belgrade while maintaining a principled approach: applying the same criteria as to the other Balkan countries, not making unjustified concessions. It should also avoid one country’s problems delaying others on their path to EU membership. 

Incentives should be targeted better and offered sooner. Travel is important for the younger generation and the business community, making visa liberalisation a key ‘carrot’ for Balkan citizens. Visa restrictions should therefore be lifted once a country meets the benchmarks. The EU should also communicate directly with peoples and societies, bypassing state and political structures if necessary. 

Countries in the region which have not yet done so should start preparing to apply for EU membership sooner rather later. The EU should respond by reaffirming its membership promise and follow this with a rapid start to the ‘screening’ process, in which national officials and European Commission experts examine the EU’s rules and policies. Past experience has shown that this is a highly effective learning process which motivates national administrations. 

Before signing the next Treaty of Accession (probably with Croatia), the EU should define a general framework for the institutional changes required to admit all the Balkan countries, deciding on the number of votes in the Council, seats in the European Parliament, etc. This would confirm the prospect of membership and make it more visible. 

Progress in the Balkans is a test of the EU’s credibility on the international scene. With the present confusion over the fate of the Lisbon Treaty, the Union needs to show that it can act decisively and effectively on one of its priority policies. If the EU cannot succeed in the Balkans region, in its own backyard, how can it expect to be taken seriously by other international actors?” 

Graham Avery chaired a European Policy Centre Task Force which has produced a Working Paper entitled “The Balkans in Europe: containment or transformation? Twelve ideas for action,” published on June 17 ( This article reflects the publication’s main conclusions. 

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