October comes again: Western Balkans’ chance to join the EU

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

As the Commission prepares its October progress reports, the prospect of European accession has taken on quasi-religious status in the Western Balkans: it offers hope but, in some cases, sounds mildly utopian. This is a good time to speed up the pace and put words into action for the Balkans' accession, Shenoll Muharremi writes.

Shenoll Muharremi is the executive director of the Development Group LLC in Pristina, Kosovo, and has served in various positions as senior expert and adviser for international organisations and governments on European integration.

Here’s an overview: Kosovo citizens and businesses are not enjoying the benefits of an area of free movement; Macedonia hasn’t been offered the start of accession talks for the last eight years; to say nothing of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina. To top it off, Turkey's accession drama is dragging on for decades now.

There is an upside, though. Montenegro is negotiating accession chapters with the EU; Serbia gained EU candidacy status; and Kosovo will start SAA talks that would help this new state to start climbing the accession stairway. Croatia joined the EU in July 2013 – it let everyone in the region know that hard work and reforms pay off.  

It is exactly this enlargement framework that has worked out well for East European countries who like Lithuania: they lead EU presidencies, lead various missions and operations and their citizens and businesses enjoy choice and opportunity, higher standards of living and more competitiveness in business.

Clearly, the enlargement framework is a success story that would work well for the Western Balkans. Now, Western Balkan leaders should show willingness and work harder. Reforms are needed that will bring the region closer to the EU and address joint problems like unemployment, lack of foreign investment or changing the region’s (negative) reputation.

Both the EU and Western Balkans should be more ambitions about the transformation process and accession timeframe – the main catalyser for reforms.

As a second step, the EU should separate enlargement and neighborhood policy. The enlargement framework’s success entitles it to the full focus of a European commissioner and its DG. Commissioner Stefan Füle should persist in his focus and not start travelling half of the time in, for or with the neighborhood policy countries. It would send a signal that the Western Balkans is indeed beyond technical process, and the enlargement path a geopolitical and strategic choice for Europe too. 

In addition, the EU should extend its criteria for cohesion and structural policies and use these in its Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) as well: at the moment, one enlargement country with an economic footprint similar to large EU member states’ economies receive 25 times more assistance than a country in a desperate need of the help.

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