A glance at a map of Europe shows that the European Union is strangely absent in one corner, known as the Western Balkans.
And though the nations of Serbia, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have been promised they will one day join the bloc, they appear to be growing steadily further away from the EU, rather than closer, with each passing year.
A recent study by IAI – Instituto Affari Internazionali – shows that the amount of funding allocated under the EU’s Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) was actually reduced in the new seven-year budget.
Moreover, the Western Balkans’ trade deficit (the repatriation of profits by EU companies active in the region) is larger than the amount of this assistance, not counting the massive loss of human capital through migration.
What’s more, the wealth gap between the region and its EU-member neighbours, Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Hungary, is widening.
Additional EU post-pandemic recovery funds will see these EU countries receive up to 11 times more funds per capita than the six Western Balkan states.
In the Western Balkans, states will receive on average €500 per capita for the 2021-2027 period, compared with around €5,100 per capita for Croatia and €5,700 for Greece.
These figures speak for themselves. While the EU is preaching cohesion, it is practising ghettoisation.
In such conditions, any promises of keeping the doors open to new members sound hypocritical because the goalposts are being moved and the distance to the elusive finish line is increasing.
An old joke that actually explains the collapse of communism goes: “They pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.” In the context of the Western Balkans, one might say: “They pretend to want us to join, we pretend to be getting ready.”
This situation seems to fit the agenda of Serbia, where the local autocrat does not want to join the EU because his loyalties are elsewhere.
It also plays in the hands of some circles in several countries playing geopolitical games, from bringing foreign state actors to the region to the hypothetical redrawing of borders and building a Greater Albania.
You break it, you own it.
The Western Balkans have a potential for destabilisation that exceeds the region. Under President Joe Biden, whose mind is on the standoff with China, it is unlikely that the United States would once again act as a gendarme in the region.
The EU doesn’t have much choice. It should either make adequate use of its main tool – its soft power – or it will need to police the continent’s underbelly the hard way.
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Views are the author’s
[Edited by Josie Le Blond]