ISSN 2330-717X

The European Union’s Foreign Policy Towards Balkan Countries – OpEd


It seems that for the Balkan countries a “happy ending” is something that does not seem to belong to the history or culture of these troubled lands. To understand the Balkan region it’s mandatory to trace back the history of this region. Primarily, the former Yugoslavia was a Socialist state created after German occupation in World War II. It was the federation of six republics and it brought together ethnic communities like Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Albanians, Slovenes and Slavs under a communist regime.

Tensions between these groups were always there but suppressed under the leadership of President Tito. After General Tito’s death in 1980, tensions re-emerged. Every nationalist group started demanding for more autonomy and at the result of this wave, conflict erupted between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. This led to the killing of thousands of people and in the history, these events are named as “Bosnian Genocide and Srebrenica massacre 1992-95”. These brutal inter-ethnic conflicts since 1991-2001, caused more than 200,000 causalities and 2.2million people had been displaced.

After WWII, it was the greatest atrocity committed by Serbs on the European Soil. At the end, all the contracting parties have signed Dayton peace accords which paved the way for ceasefire. Similarly, in current European discourse, the consternation and sense of horror caused in the early 1990s by these conflicts are still vivid in Europe’s collective memory. Later on, the EU began to draw up a wide-ranging strategy known as “a European perspective” for all the countries in this area. The EU initiative has gradually changed the underlying political order of Balkans. The “European perspective” triggered a new way of thinking in Balkan people to integrate them in Europe. Here, we will focus that what were EU policies in this region since 1990s and what EU commitments to this region.

The EU has developed a policy to support the gradual integration of Balkan countries with the European Union. The substantial objective of this EU’s policy is to pro promote peace, stability and economic development in the Balkans and open up the prospect of EU integration. On 1st July 2013, Croatia became the first of the seven Balkan countries to join EU, and Montenegro, Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania are official candidates. Similarly, Accession negotiations have been other potential candidates like Bosnia and Kosovo etc. The commitments of the European Union, particularly since 1996, were very positive and decisive and have a great impact on the Balkans, especially with regard to the political stabilization of the area, European integration and the transformation of these countries. However, EU policies were based on certain criteria like;Balkan rapprochement with Brussels, EU investment in Southern Europe and EU integration or European perspective.

The response towards EU by Balkan states remained very positive because countries like; Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia who were embroiled into savage fighting are now candidates for EU membership. They have established good neighborhood relations and improved regional cooperation like; formulation of free trade area and the South Eastern Europe Regional Energy Market. There are various flaws in the policies of local governments like: political, economic, and administrative weaknesses, insufficient human and financial resources, and the prevailing ethnic and nationalistic interests made them unable and unwilling to carry out the reforms needed. These agreements helped them evolve and increase economic growth. We can also gauge the EU progress in this region by two key instruments; the European perspective and Conditionality. The fair and balanced incentives were offered by EU on certain conditions to facilitate the progress in these countries.

In 1990s, the regional approach towards Balkans was misunderstood and timid political commitments lead to European political failure in late nineties because the security dynamics of western and southern Europe were completely different. But after 1999, the post-conflict climate and authoritarian governments were removed to envisage/predict a more advanced European integration and they have succeeded very well. In June 1999, the Stability Pact for south Eastern Europe was launched for stabilization process and associate agreements with Balkan states. In this way, the European Union had managed to establish a more balanced relationship to become effective for the integration of Balkan countries. Later on, EU granted different developmental projects to Balkan states like; Community Assistance for Reconstruction, Development and Stabilization, financial assistance instrument and autonomous preferential commercial measures etc. The crux of EU’ policies and developments toward Balkans are mentioned here:

  1. In 1999, the EU launched the Stabilization and Association Process (SAP), a framework for relations between the EU and countries in the region. It was based on bilateral contractual relations, financial assistance, political dialogue, trade relations and regional cooperation.
  2. Launching the Stability Pact, a broader initiative involving all key international players to main holistic neighborhood relations. The Stability Pact was then replaced by the Regional Cooperation Council in 2008. 
  3. Stabilization and Association Agreements: SAAs were signed to provide the political, economic cooperation and for the establishment of free trade areas with the countries concerned. These agreements were based on common democratic principles, human rights and the rule of law, each SAA establishes permanent cooperation structures between EU and Balkan states.
  4. The accession process: Applicants for EU membership must fulfil the Copenhagen political criteria. Once a country has been recognized as a candidate, it moves through the various stages of the process at a rate largely dependent on its own merits and progress. These steps were followed by EU to integrate and give candidacy to Balkan countries.
  5. Regional Cooperation: European integration and regional cooperation are closely intertwined. One of the key aims of the SAP is to encourage countries of the region to cooperate among themselves across a wide range of area. All the Balkans were remained part of Central European free trade agreements.

In 2003, the EU policies substantially improved and the agenda was formulated which included; sharing democratic values, rule of law, respect for humanity and minority rights, solidarity and open market economy, respect for international law, equal support to all member states etc. for the first time, it had established a consistent and well-articulated Balkan policy which almost covers every single aspect. This strategy gets successful due to its well-structured framework. Though, there were clash between certain member states about EU enlargement policies and giving candidacy to Balkan countries. So, EU policy toward this region once again became timid and ambiguous after 2005-06. The results of debate on the future of enlargement in December 2006 reiterated the “European perspective” for the Balkans. At one side, EU have formalized the awareness to get access to Brussels but contrarily, it had lengthened and made more difficult procedure to join EU.

After 2006, the slowdown of reforms and progress took place due to internal factors of EU and the European perspective couldn’t be proved successful and remained opaque for a particular time. For a specific period of time, the future of EU perspective for Balkans depend on the outcome of enlargement debate in 2010 at Brussels conference. EU had also confirmed an extreme imbalance between its commitments with Balkans but the countries of this region remained committed to community agenda. A rift was there and the questions were raised that how the long term stagnation of development will be avoided as the region moves at the path toward Europe? EU had primarily provided a beacon of hope to transform the Balkans but realistically it got stuck. Later on, different ideas were proposed to establish custom unions, demanding visa liberalization, drafting policies for socio-economic sectors and putting a regional mechanism for direct investments etc. In short, EU played important role to integrate Balkans and had taken various initiatives but within EU, some factional forces strived to avoid any further membership from Balkans. Croatia had successfully get membership in 2013 and rest of the countries are still under candidature process.  

*Zakir Ullah and an Independent Researcher, based in Islamabad, Pakistan and holds graduate degree in international relations and has a keen interest in International Political Economy, Geopolitics, Defence and Strategic Studies and Foreign affairs. [email protected]

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