West Balkan woes: Though the EU has committed to starting accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania last year, it remains unrealistic that any Western Balkan country will join the EU within the next years. Taking this into account, how can the EU still facilitate regional economic growth and revive the European perspective for these countries?
Chaired by Jędrzej Cader (PL)
‘Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is a success.’
– Henry Ford II, US-American industrialist
The Topic at a Glance
The Western Balkans are a culturally diverse region that has been plagued by local political disputes and economic instability. The dynamics between the individual countries are often historically complex. Therefore, it is crucial to focus on the region as a whole, aiming to aid it in dealing with economic struggles, stabilise it politically, and only engage in local disputes when absolutely necessary. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the Balkan region especially hard, and the economy is only now slowly recovering. Moreover, countries like Albania suffer from a sluggish economy ranking terribly on human trafficking indexes and money laundering rankings, which blight the region as a whole.
Serbia and Kosovo, despite engaging in the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue, appear to be nowhere closer to reaching an agreement on the legal status of Kosovo, a fact that is putting a stop to both countries’ EU accession negotiations.
North Macedonia has had its negotiation progress blocked by the bilateral disagreement with Greece regarding the former naming itself “Macedonia”, with Greece only lifting its veto against North Macedonia entering the EU in 2019. However, the enlargement talks are being stalled as the nation is haunted by similar economic problems as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro, namely rising unemployment rates and increasing government debt. The North Macedonian economy shrank by 4.5% in 2020, and with the COVID pandemic still not completely over, the country, and region, will struggle to recover without EU help.
Figure 1: The West Balkans within Europe.
- EU enlargement is the collection of policies adopted by the EU in efforts to expand to potential candidates – notably Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Turkey.
- West Balkans is a neologism in current politics referring to the six countries Serbia, Albania, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and Kosovo.
- In the context of the EU, accession is a new country becoming a member of the European Union, after having fulfilled the accession criteria, also called the Copenhagen Criteria. These include having stable institutions guaranteeing democracy and human rights, a competitive market economy, and adherence to the EU’s political and economic goals and policies.
- A political summit is a pre-planned meeting between two or more heads of state or government, usually in the form of a conference. They are the primary source of progress in integrating the West Balkans into the EU.
- Open Balkan is the name for the “Mini Schengen Area”, established in 2021, whose members are Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia. Its aims include free access to the labour market of the region and deepening the economic and political ties within the region.
The focal point of this topic are the West Balkan States, who are each facing numerous obstacles on their path to join the EU.
Following that, the next key stakeholders are the various bodies of the European Union itself, which each have a different degree of say in the region’s politics. The European Council consists of the heads of the Member States, and is responsible, together with the European Commission and the Member States, for deciding with which countries the EU should open any type of accession negotiations.
The abovementioned Commission is the most important executive organ of the EU. It decides where to allocate funding and develops schemes like the most recent Economic Investment Plan, granting EUR 28 billion to the Western Balkan region, however it is also responsible, together with the Council and Member States, for the opening or suspending of negotiations between Member States and the states applying for EU accession, as well as those already in the accession plan.
The EU’s existing Member States play a twofold role in this debate: On the one hand they, by virtue of being in the EU, can veto any suggestion of opening or continuing the EU enlargement negotiations, like France, Denmark, and The Netherlands did in 2019 regarding negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. On the other hand, specifically the Member States geographically closer to the Balkan region, are crucial when discussing the political landscape of the region. For example, the dispute between Greece and North Macedonia regarding the latter’s name was holding up any multilateral negotiations until as late as 2019.
Figure 1: The Key Stakeholders of the Topic.
The Local Landscape
A major hurdle the West Balkan states have to overcome in order to accede to the EU is stabilising their volatile economies. The region is notorious for its high unemployment rates (male youth unemployment being as high as 33% in the region), which sap the nations of opportunities and fuel economic decline. What is more, countries like Albania are infamous for their drug trafficking. In 2019 alone, marihuana trafficking was projected to account for over 25% of the country’s total gross domestic product (USD 15.3 billion). Human trafficking is also a major problem, with both of these issues paralysing the region’s chances of applying to join the EU.
Countries like Montenegro, on the other hand, also suffer from a lack of media freedom and disagree with the European Commision urging it to accelerate its reforms in the fight for judiciary freedom and against corruption. Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is only a potential candidate to join the EU, is experiencing the same political volatility and unrest. Lastly, the country is split between different religions, the main ones being Christian Ortodox, Catholic, and Muslim. These religious divides lead to a fascinating cultural diversity, but are sadly often the grounds for political or social conflict in the area.
To make matters worse, or rather, more complicated, the region is not only littered with internal disputes, but also challenged by its neighbours regarding land claims and name issues. As mentioned above, Greece had been vetoing what was then Macedonia’s accession attempts until it changed its name to North Macedonia, as Greece claimed it had the right to the name “Macedonia”, pertaining to a northern region of Greece. In addition, a North Macedonian accession is also being vetoed by Bulgaria, which, in turn, has only cited vague reasons of ‘culture, language’ and ‘identity’. Lastly, as mentioned before, Serbia is facing mounting pressure from Brussels over it not recognising Kosovo as an independent state, and the ineffectiveness of the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue.
Measures in Place
Major developments in a matter such as this one are difficult to come by, and progress is gruelling and slow. It is made almost exclusively following different summits organised between the Western Balkan countries and the EU, of which there have not been many.
The first of these summits was the Thessaloniki Summit of 2003, where little substantive development was made, but which established the grounds to start future discussions between the then ex-Yugoslavian nations and the EU. During this summit, countries like Albania and Croatia were already identified as potential EU member candidates, however, no legal action was taken to integrate or help them. Following Thessaloniki, there was a period of stagnation when it came to multilateral agreements and development.
A second conference was held in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2018, yielding similarly fruitless results. Meanwhile, individual countries, such as Serbia, had made small progress regarding a potential EU accession, e.g. in 2008, when the EU granted Serbia a so-called ‘partnership status’, before adopting an official intergovernmental negotiation framework with the country in 2013.
Fast-forward to 2020 and 2021, where there have been a couple of notable strides towards both inner stability and development, and towards accession. Kosovo and Serbia resumed their Belgrade-Pristina dialogue in 2020, but progress is unlikely, as the countries’ troubled pasts stand in the way of a united future.
The final two most recent summits during which most progress was made were Zagreb 2020 and Brno 2021. The former only served as a re-opening of the multilateral discussions since their post-2003 quiescence, but did promise a grant of EUR 3.3 billion to the Western Balkans with the aim of boosting the pandemic-stricken economy.
However, the more recent Brno Summit was more hopeful, with more considerable advancements being made. The main focus of the summit was the pledged EUR 28 billion under the Economic Investment Plan, with EUR 9 billion coming from grants, and the rest from public and private investments. The hope is that this money, provided to the West Balkan region over the next seven years, will help it boost its economy and lift itself out of its current slump. Another crucial result of the Brno summit is the commitment of the heads of state to partake in summits regularly, with the next one being already scheduled for 2022.
A last development achieved outside of the EU-Western Balkan tug of war has been Open Balkan, a mini-Schengen Area for three of the Western Balkan states. Its creation in 2021 was preceded by a three year long series of negotiations between Albania, Serbia, and North Macedonia and it offers, i.a., free access to the labour market of the three member countries. The ambitious goal of having all of the West Balkans join and fully open their borders, however, has been stopped by the dangers of increased drug trafficking and corruption, and the political tensions between current and potential future Member States.
- What can the EU do to reduce political turmoil between countries like Kosovo and Serbia without compromising the rest of the region?
- What are some of the measures the EU can take to foster economic growth in the West Balkans without being overly reliant on grants and donation plans?
- What could a long term plan regarding the total integration of the region into the EU look like?
- How can the EU engage in more successful and efficient ways to further the accession progress in the region, following the example of countries like Croatia, which successfully became an EU member in 2013?
- A website containing short reports regarding every West Balkan Country, 2021, European Parliamentary Research Service (essential reading).
- A fact sheet published by the European Parliament on the six West Balkan Nations, focusing on the region’s progress towards accession, 2021, European Parliament.
- A European Commission website full of densely-packed information about recent specific EU engagement with the Western Balkans (in the form of convoluted, jargon- filled PDFs, use this purely to research a specific aspect of EU-Balkan dynamics), 2021, European Commission.
- A paper detailing the Serbia-Kosovo relations, the history, and the significance in light of both countries having EU-aspirations, 2020, Belgrade Center for Security Policy.
- A paper documenting the EU’s efforts to assist the Western Balkans with COVID-19 vaccinations, 2021, European Parliamentary Research Service.