Balkans and Western Balkans - EU accession process: fatigue, problems, delays, and results.
There are two important pillars of stability and development in the Balkans, These are the two accession processes with different rhythms taking place in the region: 1) NATO integration and 2) EU accession. The first process was much more successful and faster for the Balkans. Actually, there are nine NATO members in the region, viz. Greece, Turkey (1952), Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia (2004), Albania, Croatia (2009), Montenegro (2017) and North Macedonia (2020). Three other cases involve Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) and Kosovo. Since 2006, the cooperation of Serbia and BiH with NATO commenced, under the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program. BiH was invited to join the Membership Action plan in 2010, while in Kosovo, NATO is leading a peace-support operation Kosovo (KFOR), since June 1999. As we can see, in the part of the region referred as the Western Balkans (or WB6), composed of six countries (Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, BiH, Serbia and Kosovo), three are actually members of NATO. All this process has had a positive impact on the stability of the region. Also, in my view, in this accession process, the role and decision-making of the USA has been and is very important, even crucial.
The second process is EU membership. It was slow and with zigzags. Actually, there are 5 EU members in the region, viz. Greece (1981), Slovenia (2004) Romania (2007), Bulgaria (2007), Croatia (2013) and seven countries waiting for EU membership. One of them is Turkey (Turkey has an Association Agreement since 1964, opened official EU membership negotiations on 2005, but which are now at a standstill); the six others are the WB6 countries. From the WB6, four (Montenegro, Albania, Serbia and North Macedonia) are candidate countries to enter the EU and two (BiH and Kosovo) are potential candidates.
It is clear that the EU accession process is in a state of fatigue. Without any doubt, it is delayed and full of hesitations. Also, one of the most serious problems is the refusal of Belgrade to recognize the independence of Kosovo. It constitutes a real obstacle to the accession of Serbia and Kosovo to the EU. Even today, Serbia is creating problems by making use of the Serbian minority in Kosovo, independently of the longtime dialogue Belgrade-Pristina on normalizing their relations. Frankly speaking, the Serbian-Albanian conflict never really ended. Many Serbians in Kosovo don’t accept the authority of Pristina and follow the continuous aggressive “orientation” from Belgrade, including the latest rejections of Kosovo’s institutions, as a contraposition to the France-Germany initiative (a Franco-German non-paper on the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, the existence of which has been confirmed by Belgrade and Pristina. According to different reports, the plan envisages Belgrade accepting, without formally recognizing, Kosovo’s independence, while receiving financial benefits and the prospect of EU membership in return). However, regarding recent events, without closing our eyes or following a “stabilitocratic” diplomacy, it is clear that the real source of the troubles and fragility, even the criminalization in Northern Kosovo, is Belgrade itself, with Moscow behind it. And, without any doubt, the Russian influence, in the region, reflects a serious question. Russia itself, based on its pan-Slavic ties with some of the Balkan countries, is trying to strengthen its influence and presence. From this viewpoint, Serbia has been and is one of the closest Balkan allies of Moscow, while North Macedonia is another target. In Albania, the influence of Russian is the most limited among the WB’s countries and it has been so since the breakup of Soviet Union-Albania relations, in 1961. In the last few months, in my view, the more probable places for Moscow to muddy the waters, besides the northern part of Kosovo, are the Republika Srpska (RS) and Montenegro. In both states, there are clear signs of Serbian-Russian interference, including efforts for political destabilization. Concretely, this malign influence is proving to have a political impact on Montenegro through the exploitation of the Orthodox faith, Pan-Slavic identity, and economic problems. Also, the coup attempt in October 2016 was a tentative in fomenting political chaos and preventing Montenegro from joining NATO. The goal of direct influence of Russia in Republika Srpska or through the Belgrade “directives” is to give a strong support to Dodik, currently a member of the state’s presidency, who, like Vucic, has vetoed any measures against Russia.
Viewed as a whole, the stalled EU accession process and broken promises are threatening democracy in the Western Balkans. Above all, the delayed process and different bureaucratic fabrications have fueled their Euroscepticism. Also, we have to accept that the EU’s approach to the Balkans has suffered from what is called stabilitocracy: in some cases, the EU and U.S., instead of taking a strong position against autocratic tendencies, are backing governments and politicians that promise stability.
Also, the delay in the EU accession process reflects the European fear of populism or even that which is fed by populist, euro-skeptic and xenophobic politicians. This rise of populism in Europe is becoming problematic and, in one way or another, has opened the door to increased Russian influence. From this viewpoint, the Russian military move in Ukraine could be considered not only as a war against this country and an attempt to wipe out the Ukrainian sense of nationhood, but also a war against the West and NATO expansion, notably in Eastern Europe.
In my view, it is also the first global crisis in which China might have a greater impact, because Russia has become, now, more dependent on China. I think, also, that at the end of the Ukraine-Russia war, the world will be divided into sharp opposite camps, and we will be back to a bi-polar world, with even a tri-polar tendency. Such a world will not be so pleasant. Probably, this will be a sad end in the process of building a better international order. In some sense, it seems to me that the evilness and malignancy of the new order will be determined by the extent to which Russia has to pay a price. However, I don’t think that the post-Russian-Ukraine war will be another Cold War compared to the first Cold War. On the contrary, it will be to a large extent determined by a display of force, perhaps at the beginning or at least for a period of time. Also, in this new global order, it will no longer be possible, for Serbia, to ride two horses (the EU and Russia).
After the longest period of immobility, the EU is now expanding. However, the accession of the WB to the EU was a slow process and not always straight and fair. The accelerated pace, with which Ukraine and Moldova gained candidate status, left the Western Balkans, long stuck in the EU waiting room, feeling sidelined and frustrated. Ironically, Kosovo, not being recognized by five EU member states, is suffering more from its isolation: it is the only country of the WB6 not to have visa liberalization, despite having fulfilled more than twice as many criteria as many other countries. It demonstrates how politicization, disunity and member-state interests have undermined any EU’s merit-based process. Also, the divergent standards applied to several WB countries have led to criticisms of the EU’s double standards or claims about the revival of historical prejudgments and superiorities. On the other hand, the stalled EU integration process may encourage countries in the WB to seek out alternative partners, whose authoritarian influence will damage the democratic process in the region.
These are the main reasons why the European Commission is trying to mobilize up to ten billion Euros of funding for investment in the areas of transport, energy, environment, and the green and digital transition, to create long-term growth and jobs. What is needed is a Western Balkans better connected by road or rail between capitals or with the EU or through ultra-fast broadband internet. This would help to create solid market economies and investments, thereby avoiding the brain drain, making it turn into a brain circulation.
The Commission also aims to reinforce the regional dimension of co-operation. In this sense, the Berlin process among the six partners, which was set up in 2014, is not a detour on the European path, but an opportunity for cooperation. It involves the EU institutions, international financial institutions and the region’s civil society, the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) and businesses.
Compared to that, I don’t think that the Open Balkans initiative (with only three states) could play this role. Particularly, it is obvious that it can’t succeed without three of the six Western Balkan countries joining up! In fact, politically, Montenegro and BiH do not want to join anything that looks like it’s being dominated by Serbia, while Kosovo wants to be treated equally, as a sovereign state, which is not currently the case (Montenegro, BiH and Kosovo have unresolved bilateral issues with Serbia: BiH has problems with Republika Srpska, Montenegro with the role of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and Kosovo with Serbia’s non-recognition of its independence). Also, Serbia’s domination in that initiative is clear and, meanwhile, all three countries run significant trade deficits with Serbia; In that sense, the Open Balkans initiative is still a political initiative with an evolving name and objectives, and no road map, no budget, no benchmarks, no staff – all the components that define a workable cooperation initiative. It should be highlighted that whereas, without any doubt, regional cooperation is a pillar of the EU integration process, the Open Balkans initiative can’t play this role or achieve the main goal, especially considering the fact when one country (Serbia) does not recognize another (Kosovo). It can’t substitute for a real initiative such as the Berlin process (with all six states included) under the guidance of a powerful state. Particularly, this year, the Berlin Process is coming back to Berlin. Thus, this year’s meetings are: • 20th October 2022 – Internal Affairs Ministers’ meeting; • 21st October 2022 – Foreign Ministers’ meeting; • 24th October 2022 – Energy Ministers’ meeting; • 3rd November 2022 – Western Balkans Summit. In the last summit, the six countries reached agreements that will facilitate citizens’ free movement throughout the region and mutual recognition of the professional qualifications of doctors, dentists and architects. All this is not only considered a breakthrough for regional integration, but also carries particular weight in the context of the ongoing tensions between Belgrade and Pristina.