Time for a new approach to the Western Balkans

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

European Council President Charles Michel walks alongside the leaders of the Western Balkans nations following an informal summit at the EC headquarters in Brussels on16 February 2020. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

The EU’s relationship with the Western Balkans appears to have turned a positive corner in recent months, with the decision to start the much-delayed accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, and the provision of substantial COVID-19 related medical and financial support. Nonetheless, fundamental issues remain, warns Vladimir Krulj.

Vladimir Krulj is a Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London and was formerly Chief Economist for the Serbian EU Negotiating Team.

Successfully addressing these issues will require honesty and real leadership at the upcoming EU-Western Balkans Summit on 6 May.

Whilst the removal of the French veto and the opening of accession talks suggests progress on rule of law and media freedoms, the reality is quite different.

Just as the EU has seen an erosion of democracy from within – look no further than Hungary and Poland – so is this trend being replicated in the Balkans. The COVID crisis is providing an opportunity for governments to accelerate this negative trend.

The issue of corruption is as problematic as ever. The EU has poured billions of Euros into the region and has announced over €3.3 billion of COVID-related financial support. Both sides privately recognise EU funds continue to be misspent.

For too many governments in the Western Balkans, EU accession is a game to be played, but not one they want to win or win quickly. Far better to continue playing the EU off against its geopolitical rivals and allow the funding to keep flowing whilst avoiding the inconvenient checks and balances that are inherent to EU membership.

Just as it did with Turkey in the past, the EU is also happy to play the game. Doing just enough to maintain the pretence of a real commitment to accession and regional stability, while mitigating the ambitions of Russia, China and Turkey in the region.

The real victims in this situation are the citizens of the Western Balkans, whose desire for political and economic progress are frustrated or, in some cases, going backwards, and the taxpayers of Europe who continue to foot the bill.

The absence of effective EU leadership has created an opening for others, China, Russia and Turkey, all of whom have a better understanding of the mentality of the region, and few of the scruples or constraints of the EU, which allows them to turn the situation to their advantage.

EU companies are not, for example, the winners from the privatisation of state-owned industries and publicly funded infrastructure programmes.

It is also telling that certain Balkan states may turn down the offer of COVID-related financial support. Why take it from the EU when you can get the same from its geo-political rivals without the same strings attached?

Many analysts argue the EU has too much on its plate already and simply does not have the resources or energy to reassert its leadership and drive real change in the Western Balkans. They even suggest it may be time to cede leadership of Western efforts to the US.

These arguments fail to recognise the importance of the Western Balkans for the EU and the dangers it currently faces, dangers compounded by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. They ignore the considerable energy and resources already being committed.

What tends to be forgotten is the region’s potential. Get things right, and the EU can tap into this economic potential whilst sending a powerful message about the strength of the European project and values.

The EU needs a more honest and assertive strategy if it is to convince the leaders of the region to stop playing it off against geostrategic rivals.

The message that must be delivered to the people of the Western Balkans, who are increasingly sceptical about the possibilities of membership, is that the EU is fully committed to the accession process and it is their own governments which stand in the way of progress.

The EU’s new enlargement methodology and plan for Western Balkans cannot be business as usual. It must recognise that EU funds continue to be used inappropriately. A new and genuinely independent mechanism for controlling the distribution and use of EU funds should be created.

The EU must also take the politics out of its ‘rose-tinted’ progress assessments. There needs to be much greater rigour and transparency in how progress, or lack thereof, is measured. And there ought to be an even greater focus on ensuring the independence of democratic institutions.

The post-COVID environment creates increased risks, but also allows us to challenge the old ways of doing things. The EU-Western Balkans Summit provides a real opportunity for the EU to reinvigorate its approach to the Western Balkans. For the citizens of the region, let’s hope it will not be wasted.

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