Elina Morhunova believes that geopolitics is all about leverage but asks, what’s in it for the Balkans and Europe? For political, economic and infrastructural reasons, as well as the European identity that the Union shares with the Western Balkans, it is vital to reanimate the spirit of the accession process in the region and in the European member states.
Credible enlargement perspective
It is often stated that the Western Balkans must be provided with a “credible enlargement perspective”. This phrase has in many respects replaced the question of whether the accession process as a tool in its current form is working and leading to measurable results. The very fact that 20 years after the EU launched the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) for the Western Balkans, with the aim of working toward eventual EU membership, only one country, Croatia, joined the EU, testifies that change is needed in order to maintain credibility of the accession process.
On 5 February 2020, the European Commission adopted the 2020 Communication to the European Parliament, The Council, The European Economic and Social Committee and The Committee of the Regions “Enhancing the accession process – A credible EU perspective for the Western Balkans”. The Communication proposes changes to reinvigorate the process based on four principles: more credibility, a stronger political steer, a more dynamic process, and greater predictability. To be truly credible, the EU Enlargement strategy should consider improving the overall methodology and opting for a bold political approach. The EU should demonstrate the political readiness to make enlargement functional, putting it at the centre of its policy by devoting resources and funds.
Great Power rivalry
Another aspect that needs the attention of both the EU and Balkans is the fact that the popularity of the EU or at least the confidence that the Western Balkans will join the Union at some point in the future is declining. The direct result of this is an increase of influence of other global powers in the region. While this effect has not gone unnoticed by the European Union, it cannot be stressed enough how real and big this danger is.
Everyday exposure to fake news diminishes the EU’s importance in the region, favouring Russia and China. The worry is that that this leaves a large number of citizens unaware of the facts about trade and donations where the EU represents the biggest and most reliable partner of Serbia. We shall be realistically aware of the economic leverage Russia and China have to increase their political influence.
The Wind of Change
Today, a core objective of the European Union’s engagement with the Western Balkans is to prepare them to meet all the requirements of membership. This includes supporting fundamental democratic, rule of law and economic reforms and alignment with core European values. This will in turn foster solid and accelerated economic growth and social convergence.
This forward-looking agenda will support the transformation of the Western Balkans into functioning market economies able to integrate fully into the EU’s single market, to create jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities, to improve the business and investment climate, to promote rule of law and to stop the brain drain from the region. These reforms are essential to boost the economies of the Balkans and to anchor them to the EU markets by accelerating the necessary convergence with the EU. Despite all the obstacles and odds, the Western Balkans accession process enunciates infinite opportunities for both Member States and the acceding ones. The region is a geopolitically decisive area for the European Union in terms of trade, transportation of goods and services, tourism, the energy market, security and much more.
To achieve that, the Balkans need the support of the European Union and the courage of European leaders to be the allies of citizens in the region and the agents of progressive and positive change rather than the guards of an unsatisfying status quo for both sides of the European Union border. Any future EU accession process needs adaptations and improvements to provide more clarity, support and realistic perspectives for the aspiring members. The perspective of the Western Balkans states on the further development of the accession process is comparatively underrepresented in the daily debate on EU enlargement policy.