The case for a joint ‘Western Balkans six’ accession to the EU

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

Kosovo's flag is seen during celebrations of the 10th anniversary of Kosovo Independence in Pristina, Kosovo, 17 February 2018. [Petrit Prenaj/EPA/EFE]

There could be no stronger incentive to overcome regional disputes and normalise relations than if the region would receive a clear message that all six countries will join the EU at the same time, writes Bekim Çollaku.

Bekim Çollaku is a former Minister of European Integration and currently Chief of Staff to the President of Kosovo.

With the impossibly complex set-up of the Council and the power held in the hands of every single member state to veto important decisions, there is no other option for EU enlargement towards the Western Balkans than to announce that all six countries will join together – in one go -, at the time when the worst performer fulfils the accession criteria.

This, if anything, has the potential to bring about regional cooperation and integration – based on EU rules – and to normalise bilateral relations in the region.

This year, everyone following the enlargement policy of the European Union was rather excited with the prospects of the new Commission strategy for the Western Balkans and the back to back presidencies of the EU of two enlargement friendly countries (Bulgaria and Austria).

However, as soon as the institutions in Brussels loosened the stance just a little bit by saying openly in the strategy that the whole region of the Western Balkans enjoys an EU perspective (something which had been established for nearly 20 years, but rarely mentioned explicitly), the backlash of reactions within the EU emerged.

In a month’s time the Bulgarian Presidency is hosting the first EU-Western Balkans six summit. It is the first time that all six countries of the Western Balkans and all of the EU28 will be sharing a table. This presents a golden opportunity to push the enlargement agenda significantly forward.

Sadly, fears fuelled by domestic political considerations have pushed some member states to limit the scope and profile of the event and thus limiting its potential to bring about real reforms in the region and power of symbolism. There are even reports that all 28 Heads of State and Government may not show up to the main event.

The only adequate response to this backlash is to forge ahead with even more resolve. It is clear that the EU institutions would like to enlarge the union further. The Commission and the Parliament are actively pushing each Western Balkan country closer to the EU, to the extent that is in their power.

However, among the member states there are several that do not have much appetite for the EU in general and certainly not further EU enlargement. As shown by the results in the Brexit referendum, the size of the appetite does not necessarily correspond to the benefits citizens experience from the EU or from EU enlargement.

But there is currently no reason to pursue self-censorship. The agenda in Europe is not dominated by any elections in major EU Member States or in the European Parliament.

The current Commission is at the end of its mandate. Now is the time to pursue enlargement vigorously, which the college adoption of the Strategy is proof of. The EU should simplify and straighten its communication on the Western Balkans.

Currently the communication is the product of a multitude of fora and formations and it is usually followed with a number of footnotes and disclaimers. Indeed, it serves nobody’s interest to remain muddled in the communication with the aim to on the one hand appease eager candidate and potential candidate countries, while on the other, comfort EU-sceptics that they need not worry about further South-Eastern expansion.

The result is simply confusion, which alienates EU citizens from the EU project and frustrates the Western Balkans. The situation is also gladly exploited by a long line of elements ready to exert their influence over this region.

The current cautious approach is not benefitting anyone. Confusion is not a powerful political message – and will not bring about any of the changes the Western Balkans and the EU need.

Indeed, neither of the parties – the EU or the Western Balkans – have any alternative to the Western Balkans being part of the EU eventually. The region is surrounded by the EU, every one of the Western Balkans six is in favour of membership and as they eventually will fulfil the Copenhagen criteria it will be very difficult for the EU to justify a veto.

Once this notion of the inevitability of EU enlargement to the Western Balkans is accepted and internalised in the EU and all its member states, it becomes very clear that any further stalling is counterproductive.

As was shown in previous enlargements, the political decision is the driving force behind the timing of accession. At the end of the day, the EU is a political organisation and makes decisions based on political considerations. Just as with the 2004 enlargement, what makes the most sense is to provide the same accession prospects and timelines for all six Western Balkan countries.

There could be no stronger incentive to overcome regional disputes and normalise relations than if the region would receive a clear message that all six countries will join at the same time and only when the worst performer meets the criteria.

Cooperation and regional economic integration would become a real regional priority and bilateral blockages would be removed swiftly.

Such an approach could immediately decide to make all six countries accession candidates and to open negotiations with all six, with the understanding that for the worst performer there may be more opening benchmarks under each chapter.

A common approach to all six countries would have the potential to change the narrative of Western Balkan EU accession. It could focus less on the threat of non-enlargement and concentrate more on the opportunity of the region’s accession – expansion of the single market and a more genuine spread of European values in the world.

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