Ramadan (Dani) Ilazi is a former deputy minister for European integration in the government of Kosovo, and is currently a PhD student at the IICRR in DCU, where he is researching EU diplomacy and statebuilding (@Danlazi).
There are stark warnings coming from all sides that the situation in the Western Balkans is at a turning point. In the media you read headlines such as this statement from Slovakia’s Foreign Minister: “two countries in Western Balkans about to break up, three in deep crisis”. Or the appeal for “keeping the Balkan ghosts at bay” from Sweden’s former prime minister Carl Bildt, as Ivan Krastev rightly asks if the EU is going “back to the future in the Balkans” while “Russia Re-Enacts the Great Game in the Balkans” according to Leonid Bershidsky.
Throughout the 1990s the countries of the Western Balkans fought brutal ethnic wars in the process of the dissolution of the socialist federation of Yugoslavia. During this period, the worst massacre in Europe since World War II was committed in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and ethnic-cleansing was introduced as a new term in the international legal and political vocabulary. At the same time, the EU’s inability to respond effectively to the emerging crisis in its neighbourhood prompted further cooperation and integration among its member states on foreign and security affairs.
Promise of EU membership
In the aftermath of the war, the European Union promised the countries of the region a future within the EU, and this became an official commitment at the 2003 EU-Western Balkans Summit in Thessaloniki, Greece. European integration became a fundamental process of transformation for a region marred by conflict and perceptions of backwardness. On a basic level, the EU aspired in the Western Balkans to:
rebuild or strengthen the institutional and legal infrastructure in the image of the liberal model;
reshape society-state relations from the communist legacy to a democratic system that would eventually lead to a new accountable political leadership transcending the traditional model of nationalism;
reconnect the countries of the region in order to promote reconciliation along with political and economic cooperation, and finally rebrand the countries of the Western Balkans for the citizens of the EU, who generally do not have a positive perception of the region. Although controversial, putting the term “Western” before “Balkans” is one of the ways this has been attempted.
The EU invested about €11.5 billion between 2007 and 2013 to further these goals through the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA), and for the next stage of IPA II 2014-2020, the EU has committed a budget of €11.7 billion. Leaders of the Western Balkans have agreed to establish the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO), following the Franco-German model, in order to promote reconciliation and support exchanges and cooperation among youth, which is an essential investment in future of relations in the region.
In terms of promoting reconciliation and normalisation, the most impressive accomplishment in recent years has been the April 2013 agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, applauded as a historic milestone. Eventually in the context of European integration, Kosovo and Serbia are to sign a legally binding agreement which would, potentially, lead to recognition of Kosovo’s statehood. Kosovo also took the first step in promoting internal reconciliation with the recent initiative by the President of Kosovo to establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Ten years after the Thessaloniki summit, Croatia became the first country from the Western Balkans to join the EU in July 2013. Montenegro, which appears next in line, and Serbia are negotiating accession, while Albania will most likely get the green light to start negotiations in the second part of this year. Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has applied for membership and the European Commission is in the process of preparing an opinion on its candidacy. Kosovo marked two important achievements last year: in April the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU entered into force and in May, the European Commission recommended visa liberalisation. Macedonia remains the only country in the region that has been stuck in a status quo situation since 2009, due to its internal challenges and also because of an impasse in the dispute with Greece over the name of the country.
Public support for the EU and the European integration process has been strong in the region, as Gallup Balkan Monitor shows. A recent poll from civil society shows that 93% of the citizens of Kosovo support membership of the EU, the highest in the region. European integration has been also declared to be a vital national interest of every country in the region. This is manifested also by the impact and attention given to the Country Reports that measure progress in meeting conditions for European integration.
Although the region is not there yet, the commitment to a European perspective on the part of the public, governments of the region, and the European Union has led to significant progress in some key areas of economy and democracy. Arguably, the Enlargement Policy of the EU regarding the Western Balkans has committed all countries towards a common goal, and this has been essential in promoting regional cooperation. And if it hasn’t yet supplanted nationalism – the culprit of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s – it has at least made it obsolete.
However in recent years there has been a slow but progressive detachment of the EU from the realities of the region, primarily because of the unpopularity of the Enlargement Policy and the increasing unpopularity of the Wester Balkans.
The Enlargement Policy has, in the words of the EU’s former Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy, Štefan Füle, managed to expand “the area of peace, stability and prosperity in Europe – beyond the borders of the European Union. By building cooperation between former rivals, while upholding the highest standards of human rights, the European Union radiates a magnetic soft power that can make a significant contribution to the peace and stability of the world”. Scholars such as Frauke Austermann and Knud Erik Jorgensen among others, have hailed the Enlargement Policy as the most powerful and influential foreign policy instrument of the EU. However, it seems the Western Balkans is the main victim of the 2004 and 2007 super-enlargement towards the East, when Berglund, et al. argue that the European Union bit off “more than the EU can chew”.
Concerns have been raised over the capacity of the EU to be in a constant mode of working towards widening, without substantial reforms towards deepening of integration and the consequences that hasty memberships have brought for the EU. Alexander B. Murphy argues that “vigorous debates” emerged in the EU about the impact of enlargement following the 2004 and 2007 round, as the state which joined didn’t seem ready for the responsibility of membership and became more of a burden for the EU, while their citizens flooded the labour markets of older member-states. The EU responded by strengthening conditionality towards Western Balkans aspirants, but didn’t engage sufficiently in countering the rapidly growing anti-enlargement sentiments in the public and mainstream politics.
In 2014 the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced a five-year halt to the enlargement process, and what had been the Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy became a Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations. This approach was justified with the need to focus on deepening of the EU and strengthening internal integration. It was a rational choice considering the domestic dynamics in the EU, but also because it is in the interest of future member states to join a stronger EU rather than weaker. However, this decision was received with concern in the region, and some have interpreted as an act of appeasement to the far-right.
Open disagreements among member states over the migration crises of 2015 and 2016 clearly demonstrated that the despite the focus, the project of deepening was in as much trouble as that of widening. What has been interesting in these developments is that some of the countries of the 2004 enlargement have been the most vocal in populist approaches to decision-making in the EU, such as the position of Slovakia to accept only Christian migrants and opposition to refugee quotas.
These developments, coupled with other occasions of member states behaving in ways which critics argued where against the EU normative framework, such as Hungary’s efforts to curb media freedom and Poland’s contention with the EU over high court appointments, have profound implications for the principle of solidarity on which the EU is based. Since it is the 2004 round of enlargement which is widely seen to have caused enlargement fatigue, one would expect that these countries would engage actively in giving a good name to enlargement rather than attacking integration. The European Union perhaps is experiencing what Rachel A. Epstein and Wade Jacoby (2009) called “a certain degree of Balkanisation” as people “don’t identify as European, they rather put their nationality first.” 
Recent developments with the Syrian refugee crisis, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Brexit, emerging tensions in transatlantic relations, and the momentum of far-right political movements have challenged the European Union as never before. After the Brexit fiasco, prospects for Juncker’s halt to enlargement becoming permanent seemed realistic.
This has further exacerbated the EU’s lack of attention towards the Western Balkans. Since the 2013 agreement between Kosovo and Serbia on the principles of normalising of relations, a certain level of complacency seems to have shaped the EU’s approach to the region. Furthermore, shortcomings in fighting organised crime and corruption, and a perception of the region as the “the unruly ones” has also made the EU more reluctant to deal with the area or the current political elite. A former British politician referred to the region as “Europe’s Zombie Zone”.
Other big players
Nonetheless, the Western Balkans remains fragile and doesn’t have the necessary democratic and economic resilience to effectively resist the growing influence internally of extreme nationalism and religion, and the external pressures for changing the pro-Western, pro-EU course. In light of current developments, the EU cannot afford any level of complacency towards the region.
The perception of weakened commitment to the Western Balkans by the EU can make the countries in the region easy prey to the influence of other powers. The ability of the countries to act together as region to counter such influence is highly unlikely, considering the unfortunate collusion of elements in the Serbian government with Russia which has instigated a wave of instability in the region.
In October last year, 20 Serbian and Montenegrin nationals were arrested for allegedly planning to assassinate the Prime Minister of the country in order to prevent Montenegro joining NATO. In January this year tensions between Kosovo and Serbia were heightened when a train with nationalistic propaganda that was sponsored by Russia was prevented from entering Kosovo while Serbia’s president threatened to deploy the army. Despite being banned by the Constitutional Court, Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina organised celebrations for its disputed “statehood” holiday on January 8, 2017 amid tension and ethnic divisions. More recently, Macedonia has been engulfed in crisis as the president of the country refuses to give the mandate to form the government to opposition parties because of a platform that would do nothing more than advance rights for the Albanian community in line with the 2001 Ohrid agreement that ended the ethnic conflict in Macedonia. Nikola Gruevski, former prime minister of the country and the leader of the biggest political party VMRO-DPMNE, has been gradually shifting alliances towards Russia, in whom he has a friend for his take on democracy and human rights. The situation in Kosovo is just as easy to enflame, with growing frustration among citizens over the continued isolation of the country.
On the positive side, just a month into the Brexit shock, the Paris Summit in July 2016 of the Berlin process provided important reassurances from both the EU leadership and leaders of France and Germany, that the commitment for the Balkans will not be shaken by the recent events and the internal challenges facing the EU. The previous month, Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Vice-President of the European Commission, introduced the “Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign and Security Policy” which reaffirms the commitment to the enlargement policy and makes specific reference to the Western Balkans and Turkey. However, the White Paper on the Future of Europe for the Rome Summit of 25th March 2017 presented by the President of European Commission makes no mention of enlargement, and there is no Western Balkans in the eloquently painted pictures in the five scenarios of EU27 by 2025. This could have been done purposefully to avoid unwanted negative attention to the document from the far right parties, or it may actually represent a potential reality.
The destabilising potential of the current situation in the Western Balkans has been recognised by the President of the Council of the European Union, Donald Tusk, when he tweeted this on March 15th: “Good signal to Western Balkans: Unequivocal support for European perspective. Aware of inside, outside forces trying to destabilise region.” Following her tour of the area at the start of March, Federica Mogherini highlighted the explosive potential of the current situation in the region in her briefing to EU leaders.
What can be done?
Following the blow to the far-right momentum in the Netherlands’ national elections on March 15th, the upcoming Presidential election in France this April and May is pivotal not only for the future of the enlargement policy, but for the project of the European Union as a whole. Nevertheless, regardless of the result, the EU and member states will have to deal with the emerging crisis in the Balkans.
Former minister of defence and ambassador of Bulgaria to NATO Bojko Noev has suggested that the deployment of a “preventive and stabilising” EU mission in the region. Such an endeavour would take time to coordinate and with the attention on containment of Russia, it is highly unlikely the EU will consider something like this. Nonetheless, it should be ready for the worst case scenario, and a police mission in Macedonia now, modelled after the EULEX in Kosovo, would be better than a military one later.
Another suggestion for deterring Russian influence in the region and avoiding further deepening of the crisis in the region came from the prime minister of Slovakia, Robert Fico, who has suggested that Montenegro go onto a fast track to accession which would see it become a full member of the EU in two to three years. While a new member from the region in the EU would most certainly be a positive development, the suggestion is short-sighted, in terms of kicking the can down the road, in the face of a complex and potentially fast-evolving crisis in the region. The EU must signal both to Russia, but more importantly to the citizens of the Balkans, that it is not moving away from the region.
The EU has lacked a clear strategy towards the region as a whole, although recently the Berlin Process has compensated for this and also shown how significant a regional approach to European integration is. It has yielded an unprecedented level of cooperation between the countries of the Western Balkans, not only on a political level but also cooperation on addressing common problems such as energy supply and road infrastructure, through the connectivity agenda. The process has set benchmarks for regional cooperation that have been integrated into the conditionality of the European integration process, and this has arguably been a successful approach. The EU must formulate a strong response that sees the region as a whole in the context of European integration. This means a renewed and upgraded Thessaloniki commitment, one that would signal the prospects for accession of the countries as a block. Seeing the relationship between Serbia and Croatia adds further significance that, after Montenegro the rest of the region should be accepted in the EU together. This approach would further strengthen the countries’ commitment to regional cooperation and become an essential instrument in bringing the region forward in integration and reforms.
In the middle ages the Balkans served as a sponge for eastern invasions and this should not be allowed to be repeated. Prevention of conflict is a cornerstone of the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy. What is happening right now in the Western Balkans requires prevention before it is too late to prevent crises from escalating, and too late to save the region from further Russian penetration and influence. The EU has made the mistake before of ignoring the situation in the Balkans in the 1990s, and failing to read the signs. Lessons learned from this suggest that the first and most important step forward is reenergising engagement with the region.
In conclusion, tensions in the Balkans are high and with potential for escalation. Macedonia and Kosovo are “ground-sero” in terms of possible deterioration of the security situation. The situation requires strategic and political intervention, now.
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 Jorgensen, K. E., 2007. The State of EU Foreign Policy: Constituting a Global Player . In: S. Dosenrode, ed. Approaching the European Federation. Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Company, pp. 165-183.
 Berglund, S., Duvold, K., Ekman, J. & Schymik, C., 2009. Where Does Europe End? Borders, Limits and Directions of the EU. Edward Elgar Publishing Limited.
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 Murphy, A. B., 2006. The May 2004 Enlargement of the European Union: View from Two Years Out. Eurasian Geography and Economics, 47(6), pp. 635-646.
 Epstein, R. A. & Jacoby, W., 2014. Eastern Enlargement Ten Years On: Transcending the East–West Divide?*. Journal of Common Market Studies, 52(1), pp. 1-16.