The good wishes for the New Year passed by the countries of the Western Balkans and their path to EU membership, like by a restless child, who was left without a gift under the Christmas tree. They did not even receive routine congratulations, with the desire to accelerate their step towards EU membership in 2021, but they are increasingly told that their European story is actually over and that they have no reason to hope for change. In such a tone, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes these days, considering what options regarding the Western Balkans remain for the European Union, if its membership is not already realistic. Thus, FAZ only relies on a series of similar projections which, especially in the German public, have already built a narrative in the past year according to which the Western Balkans have already been written off, and that the Union should now devise a “light” regime to link the region to themselves, of course, without full membership.
It is most often advocated that the Western Balkans, as a consolation prize instead of full membership, get a privileged economic arrangement with the Union, like the one that Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein already have. The words advocating such a solution are also comforting – “It is not a losing model for the Balkans”, says Andreas Ernst from the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. “It is better to take small integration steps in the short term than to hope to join the EU in 10 or 20 years,” says Ernst. Gerald Knaus from the European Stability Initiative is also trying to comfort the Balkans, saying that the interruption of the accession process is in fact a “cessation of suffering” and that everyone should commit to another arrangement, such as economic partnership, of course without full membership.
Such projections are not a reflection of the official policy of the Union towards Serbia and the Western Balkans, nor should they be, but at the moment they have a much stronger effect on European, and thus Balkan public opinion, and Brussels’ official policy towards enlargement can hardly match them. The Union does not oppose the aggressive creation of such a narrative, which is already becoming dominant and thus very influential in creating official EU policy. Regardless of the fact that the narrative was created in intellectual laboratories, uninterested in the success of strategic European policies, as the policy of enlargement and without contact with the real relations between the Balkans and the Union. It is created by people who are essentially uninterested in the Balkans, although they deal with it, they are even uninterested in the EU, which they also deal with. They are toying with the Balkans’ ambition to become part of the Union, throwing under their feet the conviction and long-term efforts of millions of pro-European Serbs, Albanians, Macedonians and Montenegrins to integrate into the Union as their natural destination. Their rhetoric of rejection is often cynical and malicious, closed doors are a done deal for them and the best outcome. German media and authors are in the lead, with no positive attitude towards the integration of the Balkans in the last two years, which is undoubtedly what those non-European factors are looking forward to, who do not want to see the Balkans in Europe, but in their zone of influence. A worrying coincidence.
The new, destructive narrative about the Balkans paves the way for a new failure of the EU to demonstrate its attractiveness, and especially towards the failure of the Western Balkans to transform itself economically and democratically into an equal member. The answer is, of course, possible, but it requires the EU to clearly oppose this boiling frog syndrome, which is not particularly difficult. It only needs to return to its original commitment to integrating the Western Balkans, as it committed itself in Thessaloniki almost 18 years ago.
It is obvious that the EU has not shown enthusiasm for faster integration of the Western Balkans for years, because it is burdened with its internal problems. It is entering the situation again, which Federica Mogherini described at the beginning of 2018 with the words – “we have neglected the Balkans”. Last year, 2020, was lost due to the Corona virus pandemic, the year before it was lost due to the campaign for the European elections and the constitution of European institutions. Brexit and fears that another member of the Union could follow the example of Britain, have for years pushed aside any idea of strengthening the integration of the Balkans. Before that, in 2015, the migrant crisis took over all the attention and energy (and money) of the Union, so there was little left for anything else. Somewhere in there, is a turmoil about the financial crisis in the southern EU member states… We can make this list even more detailed, but we cannot avoid calling it a list of excuses for not fulfilling the goal, more precisely the obligation from Thessaloniki, which will become adult this year. This series of excuses, today, opens the door wide to views on the failed integration of the Balkans. They are not true today, but that does not mean that one day they will not come true. Whether that will happen, the biggest responsibility lies with the European Union. On its determination to tell itself and the Balkans what it really wants.
For starters, it would be good to stop looking for excuses. It is always possible to find them for unfinished business. For example, the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, which has been going on for a full decade under the auspices of the EU, is now on hold again, and will probably be in that status throughout 2021. The government in Pristina is in a technical mandate, early parliamentary elections are being prepared, and after them the constitution of the parliament and the government, so we have to wait for months until the formation of a new negotiating team. At the same time, the EU envoy for that dialogue, Miroslav Lajčák, whose mandate expires in a month, and even if it is extended, Slovak diplomat will not be in a special mediating form. Here are at least two seemingly strong excuses for this negotiation process to reach 2022, without any progress. Serbia is aware that this is a key political issue, on which the speed of its accession to the Union directly depends, so it is not at all satisfied with the new tapping in the place, in which this year can quite realistically pass. But there is nothing it can do to change things in that regard. Another year of waiting, with no, one or several open chapters, will essentially not be a progress. Neither for Serbia, nor for the EU and its goals.
Only seven months ago, French and German foreign ministers Jean-Yves Le Drian and Heiko Maas fired with enthusiasm for the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina to continue (“it’s high time”) and concluded very precisely that this unresolved issue remains a destabilizing factor for the entire Western Balkans, which has a security significance for Europe “, i.e., “it interferes with much-needed economic development and political progress”. What about that enthusiasm today? It is overwhelmed by the divorce agreement with Britain, Corona, waiting for the Biden administration, the Kosovo elections, the expiration of Lajčák ‘s mandate… There are plenty of excuses. As there were plenty of them when the EU could not, or avoided, for a year and a half, to force the government in Pristina to abolish the unheard-of 100 percent taxes on goods from Serbia, which is why the dialogue was also on hold.
The European Union has the opportunity for a “big leap” when it comes to its international influence, especially on the issue of integration of the Western Balkans. Its authority in the only non-integrated European region has declined, which legally leads to the growing influence of non-European factors, primarily Russia and China. When they state that with concern in Brussels (for years), it would be appropriate to give a solution to the problem in the continuation of the sentence, but that is regularly missing. Perhaps because the Balkans are often seen only as an area important for European security, control of migrant flows, prevention of illegal trade corridors of any kind, or a cheap resource, and not as an area that deserves a full chance for economic and technological, and parallel to them, democratic development.
The moment the EU finds a continuation of the sentence that begins with concerns about the growth of non-European influence in the Balkans, it will awaken its leadership potential, which undoubtedly exists, but is overwhelmed by long-standing excuses. What, for example, prevents European leaders from standing unreservedly behind the initiative of three of their Balkan partners, Aleksandar Vučić, Edi Rama and Zoran Zaev, to remove economic barriers in the region? Since the beginning of the transition, no more European project than this has appeared in the Balkans, but the EU is still restrained and supports it only in principle. Instead of heartily promoting it as the right step towards accelerating accession, which it is, it allows critics from the lab to declare it a simulation and a consolation prize for a failed European integration project. Instead of the EU, with its authority, standing behind this project as its own, and even financially stimulating it, it allows a repulsive narrative about some kind of renewal of Yugoslavia to be created about it, followed by a competition for the wittiest word that describes it. “EU-goslavia” has recently become popular, after the long-term primacy of “Jugosphere”. This is not the narrative that the EU wants, it is imposed on it and it is destructive for its strategic goals. The sooner they accept this state of affairs, the easier it will be in Brussels to answer the question they have been struggling with for years – how to keep the Balkans in European orbit and not allow it to become a sphere of non-European influence. The answer is already 18 years old, and it says – full integration into the Union, without comforting and “light” semi-solutions. This is the position of the EU, for which there is still huge support in the Balkans, but which will undoubtedly decline if the belief prevails that the doors of the Union are closed and that a new model needs to be found. It is a sure path to a new, non-European Balkans, which the EU does not want, and the Balkans will not be able to resist it, because it is left stranded, where it will be forced to look for partners who are interested in it.