Why The Western Balkans Matter To The European Union? – Analysis
By Observer Research Foundation
By Rahul Kamath*
The European Union is juggling multiple issues at once and backtracks on most of them. The EU representatives conducted a summit with the Western Balkans to further accession and integration talks. The promises made at the Berlin Process by the EU remains unfulfilled despite marking seven years since its establishment in 2014, after the 2014 Berlin Conference. Jean-Claude Juncker, the then European Commission President, highlighted the importance of the region and aimed at consolidating and maintaining the EU’s stature in the region against growing right-wing rhetoric and Euroscepticism.
The Berlin Process provides the Western Balkans with an institutional and policy environment aimed at introducing reformatory policies that hold the potential to bring much needed economic development to the region. The EU–Western Balkans Summit held on October 6, under Slovenia’s Presidency agreed on the Brdo Declaration, which reiterates the EU’s desire towards the enlargement process and greater integration but fails to mandate a fixed timeline for the six Western Balkans countries.
The six states are at different levels of integration as the EU rejected Ljubljana’s proposal for enlargement citing concerns over migration policies in the region. The Western Balkan migration has contributed towards the urgency of enhanced relations between the EU and the Western Balkans as a large majority of the migrants transiting through the Western Balkans are from Syria, Afghanistan, and the Middle East. The fears of illegal migration have increased since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. The Western Balkan transit route is preferred by the irregular migrants to reach Western Europe either from Turkey or Croatia. The migrants transiting through the region use clandestine entry which not only possess a threat to their lives but also accounts for a large number of criminal activities such as drug smuggling, petty theft, and human trafficking.
The EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, underlined the importance of the region to the EU as she said the EU is not complete without the Western Balkans. However, the promises remain in limbo as several member states are of the opinion to avoid mistakes from the past, where the rushed accession of Romania and Bulgaria led to a poorly managed migration of Eastern European workers to Western Europe. Bulgaria stands to affirm its decision to prevent North Macedonia from joining the bloc due to a language dispute. The Serbia–Kosovo dispute remains at an impasse with Serbia increasing its military manoeuvres near the Kosovan border. Albania’s progress is tied to North Macedonia, thereby, halting its progress towards accession.
Pro-enlargement states such as Italy, Austria, Slovenia, and the three Baltic states—Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia—have pressured Germany and France to condemn Bulgaria’s veto towards North Macedonian integration. Bulgaria presses for recognition of Macedonian as a dialect of the Bulgarian language rather than identifying it as a separate language. Furthermore, the absence of a functioning government in Bulgaria has exacerbated the situation as Bulgaria has held two parliamentary elections in April and July with unsuccessful outcomes as the government was not formed on both occasions. The third election attempt has begun in Bulgaria and will go on till November 13. French President Emmanuel Macron expressed his concerns as he felt the EU was not in any condition to admit new members into the bloc after the Afghan debacle and the recent natural gas crisis.
On her final tour of the Western Balkans, German Chancellor Angela Merkel referred to the region’s integration to be of geostrategic importance. The EU is the Western Balkan’s largest trading partner and investor accounting for 70 percent of the region’s total trade at 55 billion Euros in 2019. Furthermore, the EU has pledged 30 billion Euros in the Economic and Investment Plan (EIP) for 2021-2027 to further cooperation in the region.
The lack of cohesion within the Western Balkans remains a major concern for the EU as despite two decades since the Yugoslav wars, the ethnic conflicts still prevail in the region, thereby, impeding the region’s growth and development. The infrastructure projects across the Western Balkans have suffered from an infrastructural deficit due to the wars in the 1990s as well as owing to the late introduction of railways and motorways in the region. The lack of connectivity along with weak public infrastructure has led to compounding economic developments in the Western Balkans, with growing unemployment and stagnant economy being at the forefront of economic impediments in the Western Balkans. The lack of infrastructural projects in the Western Balkans has been the chief concern due to unfavourable geography which restricts the free and easy movement of people.
Foreign presence in the Balkan region
Against this infrastructural backdrop, foreign powers such as China, Russia, and Turkey have made their inroads in the region and the lack of integrational policies by the EU has widened the scope for foreign powers to flex their mandate in this “geostrategic region”. The Chinese expansion in Central and Eastern Europe via its 16+1 initiative has already resulted in growing Chinese footprints at Europe’s doorstep. The significant Chinese presence in the region is accounted by Chinese infrastructure construction projects that amount up to US $9.1 billion in loans only. Moreover, China aims to build coal-powered plants in this region which deters the EU as their quest toward achieving carbon-neutrality remains countered by such dependency on fossil fuels.
Additionally, Serbia and China have signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership to foster their bilateral relations and cooperate on key issues such as energy and infrastructure development. Latvian Prime Minister, Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš, at the summit cautioned the bloc and necessitated for the EU urgency in the Western Balkans or else the region would drift towards a foreign and non-regional entity. The lack of integration efforts translates to democratic backsliding in the region as Moscow and Beijing remain ever ready to leap on any opportunity to deter EU’s enlargement progress. Both China and Russia are offering loans to the region without attaching any political conditionalities, which the leaders perceive as free money. However, external loans have already increased the government’s debt which could further exacerbate the economic condition in the Western Balkans. Beijing has made significant investments in the Western Balkans under the context of their ‘strategic concepts’.
A possible way forward
The EU needs to move beyond pre-integration promises and show the region prospects of accession into the bloc by promising economic growth, national development, and much-awaited harmony in the region. According to Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, the EU should extend the Schengen area membership to Western Balkans before attempting further accession talks, especially with Serbia as it persistently deals with illegal migration routes.
However, the EU has chosen silence over visa-free travel arrangements in the Brdo Declaration, neither does it mention the opening of accession talks with Montenegro and Serbia, despite submitting their application in 2008 and 2009 respectively. The biggest hurdle in Montenegro’s accession remains its corruption and organised crime units whereas, for Serbia, its growing proximity with China and Russia accompanied by tensions with Kosovo has deaccelerated its accession talks with the EU. The overall delay has now dwindled public interest in the region as locals remain uncertain about the EU’s commitment towards the region. The EU’s loss could ultimately result in triumph of Beijing and Moscow which would lure the region by enticing infrastructural growth and growing prospects of energy security.
The EU’s strategy towards the region would require vigorous pushback against the Russian and Chinese intrusion coupled with sustaining economic and political reforms to achieve enlargement. The population in the Western Balkans is at a steady decline with an aggregate rate of 7.3 percent, which already has longstanding effects on the well-being of the region’s economy and social development making the region more susceptible to external interference.
The EU is not solely at fault as the Western Balkans’ weakening public infrastructure has led to the prevalence of corruption, income inequality, and government ineffectiveness as ethnocentric thinking remain at the heart of political decision-making. Regional security remains in limbo and is fragile as the occasional outburst of ethnic nationalism keeps the threat of armed skirmishes alive which further impedes rule of law and democracy in the region. The region is marred with stagnant economic growth with lack of investments and high unemployment rates coupled with drastic depopulation rendering economic and political transformation difficult.
The Western Balkans and the EU are haunted by the ghosts of the past as t continuous civil and political unrest in the region are reminiscent of the Yugoslav wars. The political ambition of the region remains an unsolved puzzle for Brussels as the regional political aligns with Russia on few occasions while displaying a pro-EU stance on others; however, the region remains unequivocally fragmented as they were as a part of erstwhile Yugoslavia. Nonetheless, the two-decades-long integration wait continues for the region as the enlargement fatigue slowly seeps into the Western Balkans.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).