However, while the European Union will remain the main partner for our region, the economic crisis of recent years, growing influence of the far-right populist policies in the mainstream politics, shaken societal and political cohesion, and cracks in the Euro-Atlantic relations, we are seeing an EU that is increasingly looking inwards, as their public demands a concentration for resolving internal problems. Similarly, the weight of the EU in the Western Balkans is weakening, despite being number one donor and economic partner of the region - for instance.
Saying that the weight of the Western Balkans in EU’s external dealing is fading, amid the decision earlier this year to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia – which was very positive – and the 2020 EU-Western Balkans Zagreb Summit, might seem counterintuitive, but both cases also showed that member States as well as countries of the region are growing impatient with each other. On the one hand, there is the lack of satisfying and tangible rule of law reforms across the region, which led to – rightly so – with some member States, such as France, expressing their protest to what they saw as primarily lip-service from the governments of our region to the European Commission and demanded changes to the methodology to ensure a merit-based accession process. On the other hand, countries from the region, were also rightly frustrated with mixed messages coming from the EU, and from their perspective, politicization of the accession process by member States, which were contradicting the positions and assessments of their own Commission, including the issue of visa liberalization for Kosovo. And, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the agenda for the EU-Western Balkans Zagreb Summit, was lacking ambition, despite high expectations from the region.
In other words, to quote the great Bob Dylan, it seems “The Times They Are a-Changin” in both directions of the EU-Western Balkans relations. The weight of the Western Balkans in the EU seems to fade, and vice versa, the Union is seen with growing skepticism in our region, owing to a damaged credibility as a result of the failure to deliver directly to the citizens of our region. This fading weight is not about the region being out agenda, but more with the presumed transformative power of the relationship between Western Balkans and the EU. It seems the Brussels, EU capitals as well as our region, are caring less and less about instituting meaningful structural and sustainable changes through the accession process. Part of the problem has been what can be termed as an unhealthy aspect of this relationship. The region often expects, even demands, that the EU resolves our problems.
When the Euro-Atlantic friends of the region visit the countries and meet with government and civil society representatives, they are often left baffled by the extent to which domestic problems as well as their solutions are externalized. Explained by a colleague a while ago, a delegation once was left with the impression that what was effectively being asked from them was for their country to be governed by member States of the EU. On the other hand, directly and indirectly the EU tends to feed this modus-operandi. Efforts by the EU to resolve this through self-promoted changes in the strategies and methodology have deflected attention from the underlining issues that have been problematic, which includes lack of balance in the extent of practiced accountability of the region towards the domestic audience and Brussels, in favor of the latter. This has rendered our region impotent to self-initiatives, be that to stand-up to domestic challenges or promote regional cooperation. This is now being manifested through blame-games, that perpetuate the image of ‘Wild West’ of our region among the capitals of the EU member States.
It is not clear if the Western Balkans is even ready or recognizes that its weight in the EU is shifting. One of the early victims of the fading weight of the Western Balkans in the EU is the dialogue for normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia. The time it took for the EU to appoint a special representative for the dialogue and the fact that both Mr. Miroslav Lajčák and Mr. Josep Borrell (HR/VP) come from non-recognizing states was seen as offensive in Kosovo and it further damaged the credibility of the EU. Having said that, recent decision by Spain to lift its veto over Kosovo's participation at international meetings is a very promising to the potential that Mr. Borrell’s appointment holds for bringing onboard the five non-recognizers with the status of Kosovo. However, for the EU to have a meaningful role in the dialogue and fill the void it had created, a constructive ambiguity approach is not the answer. The EU also should address the issue of credibility. As pointed about by a friend of mine, Mr. Lajčák delivering on visa liberalization for Kosovo, would be an important step in the right direction. But then again, the question remains of the weight of the Western Balkans in EU currently and how much the member States really care to move forward on this matter.
What is clear is that the Western Balkans problems cannot be solved by confrontation with the EU, just as the member States of the Union would be well advised not to allow the Commission to become a mere spectator of the developments in our region. Changes in our region will affect the EU, and therefore, swifter and ambitious action and a common approach towards the Western Balkans is necessary, just as it is for the region to realize sooner, that they are not at the center of attention and their weight is shifting.
In cooperation of two web portals, Remarker and Sbunker, a series of analysis will be published in the upcoming period in order to promote a critical debate on the current situation in the region of the Western Balkans.
After last messages received from one of the most influential members of the EU, France, the region has faced one of the greatest challenges in the last 30 years, when countries in the Western Balkans began their difficult path, first into conflicts and then in the process of democratization and european integration.
The goal of Remarker and Sbunker is to support better understanding of the current trends in the countries of the Western Balkans and raise the awareness on necessity of european integration process, straightening the process of democratization and the rule of law as necessary preconditions for permanent peace and stability in the region.
You may find the Albanian version here and the Serbian version here.