The unfinished EU: integrating the Western Balkans as a geostrategic imperative

  • Slika
Tanja Fajon, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of Slovenia,
Alexander Schallenberg, Minister of European and International Affairs of Austria,
Gordan Grlić Radman, Minister of Foreign and European Affairs of Croatia

The 20 years of an EU promise

This year, twenty years have passed since the historic Thessaloniki Summit, where the EU declared that the future of the Western Balkans lies in the EU – a promise the President of the European Commission reiterated in her 2023 State of the Union Address. At that time, the devastating so-called Yugoslav wars were over and the borders had changed with the independence of Montenegro and later Kosovo. The EU enlargement with ten Central and Eastern European countries took place in 2004, Bulgaria and Romania joined in 2007 and Croatia in 2013. The driving force behind this process was a powerful vision to re-unite the European continent as well as a strong political will in the Central, Eastern and South-Eastern European countries to become members of the European family. For similar reasons, the Western Balkans countries were just as motivated to join the EU.

Twenty years later, the Western Balkans have still not joined the European Union. Sometimes it even seems that EU membership has become less attractive for the region than it was two decades ago. As the world and the EU went through a number of crises during that period, the Union's appetite for enlargement has diminished. At the same time, some Western Balkans countries showed limited political will to implement much needed EU reforms, giving the enlargement sceptics in the Union arguments against their integration. To sum up, the enlargement process has proceeded at a slower pace and with less visible and tangible results than expected, leading to disappointment and alienation from the EU. The Union and the Western Balkans – intentionally or unintentionally – found an unsatisfactory modus vivendi.

The window of opportunity for a geostrategic enlargement

Since the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, EU membership has become an even more attractive goal for the Eastern partnership countries - Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.  Countries of the Western Balkans, at the same time, are facing unprecedented challenges to their stability as well as amplified foreign policy dilemmas. The awareness about a new window of opportunity for enlargement has increased, also raising powerful expectations vis-à-vis the EU.

We welcome that the EU is now approaching enlargement from a more geostrategic and less bureaucratic perspective than previously. Last year's decision to grant Bosnia and Herzegovina candidate status was grounded in strategic considerations. Awareness that enlargement policy is the EU’s most powerful stabilization instrument is growing further. This said, EU enlargement standards will not be lowered because of such a strategic approach. Full reform implementation is still of the essence.

The current situation is an opportunity for both the European Union and the Western Balkans to show more strategic foresight, to fully re-gain their enlargement credibility and to re-inforce mutual trust, some of which had been lost over the years. In fact, there are a few concrete steps to be taken without any delay.

First, the European Union must open the EU accession negotiations with Bosnia and Herzegovina by the end of this year. Second, Montenegro must continue on its EU reform path, which depends on the formation of a new government in the country. Third, the negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia should advance. In North Macedonia, the next steps are related to the country's ability to pass the required constitutional changes. The latter case is a reminder that EU member states and Western Balkan countries need to play a responsible role and refrain from inserting bilateral problems and disputes, which are unrelated with the accession process.
For a gradual, accelerated EU integration of the Western Balkans

On the EU side, the discussion on institutional and financial preparations to be able to integrate new members is gaining momentum. This should not become a pretext to delay the enlargement process for our Western Balkans partners. Therefore, we need to start implementing already existing proposals to accelerate the enlargement process now.  

In order to accelerate the process, the EU institutions should use more imagination to make it fit for today's needs. The process should be less complex and more result-oriented, we must find ways to make it more tangible for citizens and tie reform progress to concrete benefits. We also need to engage more dynamically with the Western Balkans countries so that they can really feel the heartbeat of Brussels. Since June 2022, there is a clear tasking by the European Council to further advance the gradual integration already during the enlargement process. In June 2023, as the “Friends of the Western Balkans” together with our colleagues from Czechia, Greece, Italy and Slovakia, we called on the EU institutions to present a clear agenda for gradual and accelerated integration with concrete implementation steps until 2024 and beyond, based on fair and rigorous conditionality and the principle of own merits. We see many possibilities, from inviting our Western Balkans colleagues more often to the Foreign Affairs Council to opening up additional policy areas such as education, science, transport or trade for their gradual involvement.

To conclude, the EU must keep in sight the true value of EU enlargement including its ability to transform countries into a better place to live for its citizens and to create prosperous environments for young people to be able to fulfil their dreams. Our Western Balkans and our Eastern partners deserve this opportunity, as much as the EU citizens deserve a wider space of stability and prosperity around the current EU borders. EU enlargement is not one political option among others; it is the geostrategic imperative of the day.

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