The approach the EU should take to the Western Balkans

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

The Prime Minister of Montenegro, Dusko Markovic visits NATO and meets with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. [NATO]

The European Union’s approach to the Western Balkans is much the same as its approach to North Africa and the Middle East: prioritising stability. As a result, the Union risks aligning itself with increasingly illiberal and authoritarian regimes and mistaking their power for stability, argues Arlind Puka.

Arlind Puka is an administrative assistant at the European Parliamentary Financial Services Forum.

The soft power capabilities of the EU are weakening for a number of reasons, including institutional confusion, Brexit, the Refugee crisis, terrorism, the rise of populism, resistance among member states to further enlargement given the Union’s economic problems. There has also been disappointment with the performance of recent members Romania and Bulgaria, as well as with older states such as Greece, Italy and Spain, which are encumbered by massive sovereign debts, and the unfulfilled commitments of several Western Balkan aspirants in their quest for EU accession. Given this situation, political developments in the Western Balkans that have a direct impact on regional security must be closely monitored.

Competition between the ‘great powers’ has returned to the region, and the European Union, absorbed by other crises, has failed to respond. With Europe distracted, Russia and Turkey are increasing their influence in the Balkans. Russia, in particular is taking the opportunity to undermine the Western influence, fanning the flames of underlying conflicts and promoting an anti-EU message. There is a rising tide of illiberalism as local elites have wavered in their commitment to democratic reform, encouraged by the Putin and Erdoğan models, and the sense that EU accession is no longer a realistic prospect.

I fear the European Union’s approach to the Western Balkans is much the same as its approach to North Africa and the Middle East – with stability being the priority. As a result, the Union risks aligning itself with increasingly illiberal and authoritarian regimes and mistaking their power for stability. There are two situations in which a country finds the EU will open its eyes: firstly, when people get killed, and secondly, when the state is close to obtaining EU membership, and the Union worries whether it is capable of implementing EU legislation. The Western Balkans region has a history of proliferation regarding national and territorial self-determination, autonomy and secession that could be adapted by current or aspiring ethno-national leaders. Moreover, renewed conflicts over territory will be generated if domestic ethnic turmoil becomes increasingly interconnected among neighbouring countries. The recent political developments, such as the arrest of Kosovo’s ex-prime minister in France on a Serbian warrant, could easily increase the tensions in the region. Not to mention the blatant Russian provocation in the form of a Serbian train claiming ‘ownership’ of Kosovo; the state failed coup in Montenegro after the October elections with the aim of destabilising the country, the possibility of the new government in Macedonia since no party secured the majority needed to govern alone, and the possibility of a separatist movement in Bosnia.

What strategy should the European Union follow in 2017 for the Western Balkans?

Firstly, Albania deserves to receive a date for the accession talks to begin later this year, also as a signal for its neighbours. (The Commission has recommended that EU member states consider opening accession negotiations with Albania, but this seems unlikely to happen this year as well, as there will be no annual progress report for 2017).

Secondly, the EU should stop viewing Kosovo as an adjunct to its Serbian policy. The way the Union has handled the visa liberalisation process for Kosovo has been disgraceful. The EU countries are being more cautious amid immigration fears, but this is not a reason not to give Kosovo the green light.

Thirdly, to open new chapters with Montenegro and Serbia, in order to encourage both countries on their road to the EU. So far, Montenegro has opened 26 chapters and provisionally closed 2, and Serbia for its part has opened 6 chapters and provisionally closed 1. However, the Serbian government has been playing a game balancing between the West and Russia. Despite its EU candidacy, Serbia has founded a strategic partnership with Russia and the country did not align with EU sanctions against Russia. To counter this trend, the EU should show that it is serious about enlargement. Europe should demand strategic alignment from candidate countries and impose sanctions on local leaders who undermine stability in the region. The EU should make it clear to candidate countries that strategic alignment is not optional but mandatory for joining the Union.

The US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution on 11 January supporting Montenegro’s membership of NATO, and putting it to a Senate vote. NATO endorsed the accession bid at its summit in Warsaw in 2016. So far, 22 out of 28 NATO member states have approved the accession protocol and the country can expect to become a NATO member by summer 2017. Russia strongly opposes NATO expansion in the region, however if the President of the USA fails to support Montenegro’s accession to NATO, there a real possibility of Montenegro falling into Russian hands.

Furthermore, in Macedonia, the EU should focus on the dispute with Greece over the recognition of their name, and the long political crisis that will hopefully end with the formation of a new government. A decade ago, the country was a front-runner in the reform process, but today, it suffers from every Balkan ill: paralysis, a devastated economy, polarisation, fear of conflict and a complete lack of perspective.

Western Balkans countries are unlikely to join the European Union until 2025. The economic problems, high levels of corruption and organised crime, political influence over the judiciary system, high levels of youth unemployment ranging from 34% to 62%, make this impossible. But EU enlargement in the region should continue, because the contrary would have dire consequences. Blocking EU integration would destabilise the region and could reawaken its tempestuous past.

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