Time for a Juncker re-set: The importance of a membership perspective for the Western Balkans

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A general view of the roundtable on the second day of the European Council meeting in Brussels, 23 March 2018. The Head of states and governments looked at pressing issues, including taxation, and the situation in the Western Balkans, Turkey and Russia. [EPA-EFE/JOHN THYS / POOL]

To ensure the security and stability of the Western Balkans, the perspective of membership may no longer be enough. The EU should push back against Russian propaganda and engage in smarter outreach. It needs a new, more confident approach, writes Sir Graham Watson.

Sir Graham Watson was an MEP from 1994 to 2014. He led the European Parliament’s Liberal Democrats from 2002 to 2009 and presided over the ALDE Party from 2011 to 2015. He is now a member of the European Economic and Social Committee and also advises the consultancy APCO Worldwide.

The remarkable persistence of the postwar peace in Western Europe, secured for three generations by the mortar of the European Union around the bricks of NATO, now faces ructions from within and predations from outwith. The thunderclouds on the political landscape are rejoined by the lightning flashes from geopolitics. The legacy of peace cannot be secured through seeking shelter in national silos.

Remarkably, in responding to external threats, the tendency of EU member states has been to pull together. The recent nerve gas poisoning of a Russian double agent in Salisbury highlights the importance of cooperation and diplomacy for the stability and security of the European Union. That it should be called for by a country leaving the EU simply highlights the need for the Union itself.

One needs to be neither a cold-warrior nor a conspiracy theorist to see how Russia has been more evident recently on our doorsteps. It has intervened militarily in Ukraine and through soft power in the Southern Caucasus.

Now it competes with the EU for a role in the Western Balkans, active even in the politics of EU member states in that region, building on close historical and cultural ties and taking advantage of political and economic difficulties to expand its influence. Indeed, Russia’s reach is registered from Tiraspol to Tirana.

Moscow’s meddling is working. Public support in the region for EU accession is in decline. As EU foreign policy suprema Federica Mogherini said in March of last year, political instabilities in Western Balkan countries run the risk of the region becoming a chessboard in the geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West.

It is fortunate, then, that the current Presidency of the EU is held by a Balkan country. Bulgaria has put the needs of Western Balkans firmly back on the EU agenda. And after a long period of “enlargement fatigue”, there is renewed political awareness in Brussels of the need to respond to the European ambitions of the victims of our continent’s most recent armed conflict.

In a moment which confirmed the decline of Christian democracy post-Kohl, Juncker in his 2014 acceptance speech ruled out further EU enlargement under his Commission, and emphasised the sentiment of “enlargement fatigue”.

Now, in its Presidency programme, Bulgaria insists on EU enlargement as a key priority. It committed to be a Balkan Presidency and to work on giving the Western Balkans a clear European perspective. There is an action plan for each of the countries, without creating unrealistic expectations, but with concrete steps.

Dialogue is a crucial element in this process, so Borissov’s Bulgarian Presidency is organising an informal Summit of the heads of state and government in May. Fifteen years after Thessaloniki, the six western Balkan leaders will meet their EU counterparts.

For Bulgarians, Balkan integration is very important – for investment opportunities, labour supply and connectivity – but also to honour promises of progress on the path to the EU. Bulgaria knows too its importance for European stability.

As the country-specific reports due for publication on 17 April will show, support for EU membership in the Western Balkans remains strong but is vulnerable to erosion. It is strongest of all in Albania, which is turning the corner on the past and developing a good track record in countering terrorism and organised crime.

Its “National Strategy on Countering Violent Extremism” is designed to dovetail with the EU’s Western Balkan Counter-Terrorism Initiative. Some question whether Albania should get approval to start negotiations from Commission and Council. Questioning the cost of denying such cooperation sheds more light on the challenge we face.

The perspective of membership may no longer be enough. The EU should push-back against Russian propaganda and engage in smarter outreach. It should better advertise the existing extent of EU engagement and impact of its presence.

It should recognise that all six countries together have a population of only 18 million. And that we cannot separate economic integration from the security agenda. A new, more confident approach is needed.

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