Isolation during the virus epidemic could have been a good opportunity to think and rest, followed by hard work on a project that began 17 years ago, to include the Balkans in the European Union. Too long for Europe and the Balkans. Both are tired because of that – Europeans from enlargement, Balkans from neglect.
Is there a chance that this two-decade story will finally come to an end, accelerated by the health crisis from which both Europe and the Balkans are emerging these days? Is it likely that long-term, mutual tiredness will grow into enthusiasm and lead to the expected and promised end? There is certainly, if both focus not on the crisis itself, but on its other face, which is always a chance, an unexpected opportunity.
Even in the days of the epidemic, unproductive, countless clichés were repeated about the Balkan giving up on the EU, the growth of autocratic trends in the region, turning to the East… Most often with Serbia, as an illustration for these anti-European deviations. As usual, superficially, for a short time and without argumentation, such paternalistic dosing only continued the trend of hypocritical view of the European expansion into the Balkans, which has been nurtured by a part of politicians, researchers and media in EU countries for 17 years. In the days of crisis, and especially in the moments of chaos that reigned at the beginning of the epidemic in, without exception, all EU countries, the Balkans easily served as a punching bag, as a bad student, whom you can always find unprepared and give him an F if it will make you less under the weather.
It is true that there has not been too much enthusiasm for further enlargement within the EU for a long time. This is not a topic on which you will get votes, moreover, in many countries you will surely lose them if you are recognized as an advocate of enlargement. Since the financial crisis 12 years ago, the mood of Europeans towards new members has been weakening, and only Croatia has been accepted as a new member of the Club since then. At the same time, Britain, an incomparably larger and more important member, decided to leave the Union, which further strengthened the distrust towards aspirers for membership. For more than a decade, nothing within the EU has been able to deliver on the 2003 Thessaloniki promise that the Western Balkan countries would become members of the Union.
It is also true that the Balkan states missed numerous chances to accelerate their European path, they reformed slowly and indecisively, they lost their European focus, targeting some other priorities. But it is not fair, not even in the spirit of the European integration project, to put all the blame only on them. This process is two-sided and for its success, as well as for eventual failure, both sides will be deserving or guilty.
However, there are signs that the joint path of the EU and the Balkans could be continued in the post-crisis period much more efficiently and faster than has been the case so far.
The decision of the EU to separate the massive fund for the recovery of the Western Balkans from the consequences of the pandemic crisis is excellent. The 3.3 billion-euro package, which will go to health and humanitarian needs, but also to alleviate economic problems in the Western Balkans, is a large and critically important European support to the region. To get a clearer picture of how large this spending is for the EU and how much it benefits the region, let’s just say it’s one-third of Lufthansa’s aid package, and on the other hand, that’s as much as 4% of the GDP of the entire Western Balkans region.
With this decision, the EU has shown that it understands very well that its soft power, in this case economic, is its strongest and most effective means of influence in international relations. This, in the case of the Balkans, has not long been a pathetic indication of cases of non-European practices and trends. Because there are such cases beyond measure and in every EU member state, so the Balkans, and especially Serbia, have not been a scarecrow to scare the European public for a long time.
The effects of financial support will, without a doubt, be strong on the pro-European mood in the Balkans, as always, until more, not less, Europe came to the region. The effects will be positive due to the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia, and they will be good if the visa regime with Kosovo is liberalized as soon as possible. The pro-European mood will be encouraged even if the EU, after a long break, becomes active in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina and regains the role of an influential and constructive mediator. All this together will strengthen not only the shaky image of the EU in the Balkans, but it will be the only way for the region to essentially turn to its internal reforms and accelerate its path to EU membership. There will be no strategic turn to the East (China, Russia…), which Nathalie Tocci rightly notes in an article in Politico, because the whole Balkans, and especially Serbia as its largest and most influential country, for which this “anomaly” is most often unjustifiably tied, is already sufficiently, strategically connected to the European economic, technological, social and cultural space. It is only necessary to give up the narrative that has been cultivated for too long, which has made the Balkans a stereotype of hopelessly unprepared for membership in a society of equal Europeans. And that is a process that requires the work of both sides, and in order for a step forward to be made, the first steps still need to come from the EU. Judging by the decisions of the new management team in Brussels, we may be on the right track.