Is Europe (once again) losing the Western Balkans?

Is Europe (once again) losing the Western Balkans?

This year’s Western Balkans Summit, taking place in London, failed to produce almost any meaningful results regarding the real integration of the region into the European Union. Even though the EU has decided to move forward with enlargement processes, general perception is that these efforts are half hearted and indecisive. At the same time, new players are gaining influence in the Western Balkans. Is the EU struggling to hold on to the Western Balkans?”

By Mirko Savković

This year’s Western Balkans Summit, taking place in London, failed to produce almost any meaningful results as far as real integration of the region into European Union (EU) is concerned. This fifth annual summit showed a clear lack of commitment, with the entire event being overshadowed by Boris Johnson’s hasty resignation just ahead of the Summit. German Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth summarized the negligent organization of the summit in his tweet “We’re still waiting for our host…” [1]. Still, one cannot place all the blame on British political turbulence. Even though the EU has decided to move forward with enlargement processes, general perception is that these efforts are half hearted and indecisive. At the same time, new players are gaining influence in the Western Balkans. Is the EU struggling to hold on to the Western Balkans?

One does not have to dig deep to find the presence of non-Western interests in the region. Flying to Belgrade, capital of Serbia, one will probably travel on the Air Serbia plane that is for 49% owned by the United Arab Emirates. On the exit lanes from the Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport you can see posters promoting the Strategic Partnership agreement between Russia and Serbia. Alternatively, local trains are commuting on the railways reconstructed by the China Communications Construction Company. Crucially needed foreign direct investments (FDI) which are primary motivation for the Western Balkans to continue the European integrations are more and more often provided by China, Turkey, Russia or Arab countries. This new stream of FDIs is decreasing the willingness in the region to follow the EU’s conditions, which are often perceived to be unrealistic and unjust.

Serbia’s direct neighbours are not much further in the negotiation process.  Kosovo* and Bosnia-Herzegovina are not even official candidates. In fact, the only two states in the region with the ambitious projected accession year of 2025 are Montenegro and Serbia, with Montenegro being slightly ahead of Serbia in the negotiation process. At the same time, the protracted European perspective has prompted governments in the region to open their markets and consequentially societies to the new non-western partners which are often providing what is wanted without EU’s conditions.

Historically, the Western Balkans was more closely interconnected with Western Europe than other East European countries which contrary to Yugoslavia were firmly under Soviet control. This is one of the main reasons why there is no automatic negative public perception of Russia in the region and the opposite is most often the case. During the Cold War the West Balkan region was relatively well integrated economically and socially with the rest of the European continent. Socialist Yugoslavia developed its relations with the European Economic Community from the early 1960’s. In 1969 country even opened its permanent mission in Brussels [2]. During the 1980s, while the borders of the Warsaw Pact countries were firmly closed off, more than 600,000 Yugoslavs found jobs in Western Europe and more than 70% of Yugoslav trade was done with the EEC countries [3]. In 1989 Yugoslavia even applied for the membership in the EEC with the Italian, French and Spanish support but was not offered an association agreement and 4.5 billion dollars aid packet until the May of 1991 when it was already too late to stop the Yugoslav Wars [4].

This serves to illustrate that the post-2008 crisis non-western involvements in the region are of relatively recent origin. Still, the alarm bells in the EU corridors only went on last year.  In 2017 Jean-Claude Juncker’s Commission moved away from the 2014 “There will be no new enlargement in the next five years,” [5] position to 2017 warning that if the Western Balkan countries lose their European perspective, “we will again experience what we experienced in the 1990s.” [6]. Subsequently, in 2018 he even stated that; “Investing in the stability and prosperity of the Western Balkans means investing in the security and future of our Union” [7].

Today, we may be witnessing the last realistic chance that the EU has to integrate its southeast to the European family of nations. Europe itself will have to invest much more time and resources if it wants this project to succeed, it will have to win the hearts and minds of the local population. This will prove a difficult task, with a past filled with missed opportunities, never ending negotiations and the shadow of Brexit, the Greek crisis, the example of partial success of Bulgarian membership and the rise of populism. At the same time people are witnessing real economic progress achieved through cooperation with non-Western powers. All of this shows us how challenging it will be to integrate the Western Balkans into the EU and how harmful a failure to do so may be. That is why committed Europeans, both in the EU and in the Western Balkans, cannot settle for the futile Summit that took place last July in London but need to take real steps.

*This designation is without prejudice to position on status, and in line with UNSCR 1244(1999) and the IJC Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.

 

References

[1] Roth, M. (2018). Twitter. [online] Twitter.com.
Available at: https://twitter.com/miro_spd/status/1016301264257372161?lang=en
[Accessed 23 Jul. 2018].

[2] Jakovina, T. (2013). TVRTKO JAKOVINA Hrvatska je mogla ući u Europu još1989.
[online] jutarnji.hr. Available at: https://www.jutarnji.hr/vijesti/hrvatska/tvrtko-jakovina-hrvatska-je-mogla-uci-u-europu-jos-1989./861259/
[Accessed 24 Jul. 2018].

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Eubusiness.com. (2014). Juncker to halt enlargement as EU Commission head 
EUbusiness.com | EU news, business and politics
[online] Available at: https://www.eubusiness.com/news-eu/politics-juncker.x29
[Accessed 23 Jul. 2018].

[6]  European Western Balkans. (2017). Juncker: Stability prerequisite for Balkans
not being at war - European Western Balkans.
[online] Available at: https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2017/08/03/juncker-stability-prerequisite-balkans-not-war/
[Accessed 23 Jul. 2018].

[7] Borzi, H. (2018). New strategy for Western Balkans.
[online] Brussels Diplomatic. Available at: https://brusselsdiplomatic.com/2018/02/06/new-strategy-for-western-balkans/
[Accessed 23 Jul. 2018].

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