Within the EU, 2017 has been a year of tense elections and ambitious speeches, with key figures calling for EU reform and setting out their own visions of the future. The Western Balkans (Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia) may play a key part in this future. Croatia joined the EU in 2013; is the EU likely to expand again and allow its neighbours to join any time soon?

The election of Macron in France and re-election of Merkel in Germany, both of whom have indicated support for the accession prospects of the current candidate and potential candidates, may provide cause for cautious optimism. However, with leaders distracted by Brexit and the continued success of Eurosceptics in member states, one wonders if any momentum be harnessed for genuine change in the region.

A fresh initiative or a poor substitute?  

In response to Juncker’s declaration that the EU would not enlarge during his mandate, 2014 saw the launch of the four-year ‘Berlin Process’. Lead by Germany, the initiative aims to boost regional integration and economic cooperation, provide a neutral forum for Western Balkan leaders to meet, as well as reassure them of the EU’s commitment to the region. EU members Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Croatia and Slovenia participate in the annual meetings, alongside the six Western Balkan countries, which take place entirely outside EU decision-making processes.

Wikipedia Commons
Greek minister Evangelos Venizelos shaking X’s hand in the Ministerial Conference between the EU and the Western Balkans in Thessaloniki, 2014

Critics stress that promoting integration outside of the EU institutional framework amounts to a replacement for, and distraction from, the real goal of accession. Montenegro, Serbia and Albania, the countries in which most progress has been made, have been particularly vocal against this supposed strategy. Promoting growth through the creation of a regional economic trading area is one key initiative being encouraged by the EU and other international organisations; however reactions to this from the Prime Minister of Kosovo, Ramush Haradinaj, the regions’ smallest country, highlight that tensions between the states still run high. Haradinaj rejected the scheme, and called it an attempt to “return to the past with a new packaging”.

Beyond criticisms of the real intentions behind the process, the climate in many of the Western Balkan states remains unsuited to reform. The Commission has long been accused of a reluctance to speak out emphatically against rule of law violations and suppression of media freedoms in the Western Balkans, particularly in their annual communications on enlargement policy. There is a disconnect between the high level declarations of the Berlin Process meetings and the EU’s approach in practice, as well as a lack of concrete action in the states themselves.

So why might things change now?

If the current deadlock has a chance of being broken, it may be down to timing, as well as changes in EU leadership. With the end of the Berlin Process approaching, all parties involved have something to prove. The idea of a ‘Berlin Plus’ scheme was put forward by the then German Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel, aiming to prioritise visible improvements and inject further funding. However, the election, whilst delivering continuity in terms of a Merkel-led coalition, does not guarantee continued German leadership on enlargement.

The need to appease the other members of a Jamaica coalition (considered the inevitable outcome, but talks continue) may distract Merkel from applying continued pressure to fellow EU leaders, and coalition partners may pressure her to alter the direction of foreign policy.

Many are therefore turning to Macron’s positive tone on enlargement, and hoping it might indicate more concerted action from a previously reticent France. However, merely appearing at the Western Balkans summit in Trieste and delivering a speech is not enough to ensure the practical application of the plan to boost integration and growth.

On the one hand, prioritising tangible goals is laudable. On the other, by doing so, the more contentious issues (which more fundamentally block the Western Balkan states from accession) are swept aside and ignored. A further timing issue which has relaunched discussions on the region is the nearing of EU elections and the upcoming Bulgarian Council Presidency. More tangentially, Britain becoming the union’s first ‘lost member’ may also be spurring leaders to look to the future beyond the EU27.

Angela Merkel, Sigmar Gabriel, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Christian Schmidt, and Ursula von der Leyen during the Bundestag project 2014

The need for internal cohesion for external development

The Western Balkans represents a huge geopolitical test for the EU. with its credibility at stake, adding pressure in an already volatile area.  With all these competing factors at play, and despite some encouraging signs, it is hard to see a clear path for the EU. Those working in enlargement policy itself, rather than in high-level political dialogue, tend to be realists, seeing the region as needing time and a greater focus on good governance before statements about EU prospects can have genuine meaning.

At the highest level, strong leadership from pro-EU and pro-accession Macron and Merkel can only be a good thing for the region, even if judgement should be reserved on the extent of their impact. At EU level, the interplay of the Berlin Process and enlargement policy will be crucial in the initiative’s final year, and the Commission should aim to seize upon the momentum and connect elements of their own policy to the most successful elements of the Berlin Process.

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