Spotlight European Integration – III – WB6 catching up with the EU aimed at membership, or maybe not

Blog Post by Emil Kirjas, Founder of Kirjas Global, Vice President of Liberal International

Spotlight European integration blogpost series tracks the progress of EU enlargement with a liberal perspective, looking at Europe’s future.

“The EU reiterates its unequivocal support to the European perspective of the Western Balkan countries. The future of the Balkans is within the European Union”. For the first time a formal EU document included these words in 2003 with The Thessaloniki agenda for the Western Balkans: Moving towards European Integration. In the time of great EU enthusiasm, just before the 2004 big EU enlargement, that was the outcome of the EU-Western Balkans Summit under the Greek EU Presidency.

The Zagreb Declaration

Fast forward 17 long years to 2020, with Croatia being the only country from the Western Balkans that joined the club, the first Croatian EU presidency hosted the online Zagreb EU-Western Balkans summit in May.  The Zagreb Declaration adopted in May 2020, used a known vocabulary: “[…] Recalling the 2000 Zagreb, the 2003 Thessaloniki and the 2018 Sofia Summits, the EU once again reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans. […]” It went to add that “[…] the Western Balkans partners reiterated their commitment to the European perspective as their firm strategic choice [and that] the credibility of this commitment depends also on clear public communication and the implementation of the necessary reforms”. At first it looks as if the words were merely repeated form 2003. However, the crucial part on the future EU membership of the Western Balkans was not only deliberately omitted, but careful analysis indicates that even the conclusions from the previous summits were not recalled.

There are two ways to understand this “evolution”. It could be just a game of words to please the rising tide of the Eurosceptics and populists. This optimism builds on the commitment to enlargement in the European Commission 2019-2024 priorities and the European Council decision from March 2020 on opening accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, in line with a newly adopted Enlargement Methodology. Alternatively, the words demonstrate clearly the lack of willingness among the EU leaders for EU enlargement. This view is supported by the stalled EU talks with Turkey, the lack of progress in the talks with Serbia and Montenegro, the challenges with the post-Brexit treaty, and the problems with the rule of law in number of new member states. In either case, the evident absence of enlargement enthusiasm is now even further lowered given the overwhelming energy that the EU governments spend on the Covid19 crisis.

The Berlin Process

The integration of the Western Balkans in the EU would fortify Europe’s security and stability. Equally important, it remains essential tool for the needed political and economic reforms in the region. The roadmap to membership has always been a roadmap for fulfilment of the standards for functional liberal democracies and for economic prosperity of the citizens of the aspiring countries. Understanding that the future EU membership remains critical and aiming at stepping up regional cooperation in the Western Balkans on their path to EU integration, the German government initiated in 2014 the so-called Berlin Process. Next to the Western Balkan countries, the Berlin Process involves number of EU nations, most notably Germany and France, as well as the United Kingdom.

Under joint Bulgaria-North Macedonia chairmanship, this year’s summit of the Berlin Process took place in Sofia on 10 November. It was only a month after the European Commission presented an Economic and Investment Plan for the Western Balkans, pledging a substantial investment package of up to €9 billion for the long-term economic recovery of the region, support a green and digital transition, foster regional integration and convergence with the European Union. While this is not a completely new financial pledge, given large part were previously allocated funds in the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance, nonetheless the Plan sets a clear ambition for the region. It identifies ten investment flagships to support major road and railway infrastructure, renewable energy investments, renovation initiatives to increase the energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, waste and wastewater management infrastructure, as well as the roll out of broadband infrastructure. Further, it foresees investments in the private sector to boost competitiveness and innovation.

The Western Balkans Summit in Sofia

Answering to the EU’s Plan, the leaders of the Western Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – at the Sofia Summit adopted Declaration on creation of a Common Regional Market (CRM) based on EU norms and principles, including the four EU freedoms. The initiative is labelled as “a catalyst for deeper regional economic integration and a steppingstone towards EU Single Market”. It aspires to bring an additional 6.7% GDP growth to the region. The Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) is foreseen to play a leading role in its implementation. It remains how effective this will be, given the previous poor experiences when CEFTA could not prevent cases where the member states breached their obligations when they deemed appropriate. How will this regional initiative be compatible with the existing Stabilisation and Association Agreements in another matter that requires clarification.

Towards European standards

At the Sofia Summit, the leaders also adopted Declaration on the Green Agenda for the Western Balkans. It aligns the Western Balkans with the EU Green Deal, and aims to support and accelerate changes and processes in the region with the overarching goal of addressing climate change. Alongside with the plan for digital transformation of the region, these policies have the potential, in a long-term perspective, to seriously impact the quality of life in the region, to revert the brain-drain of the young and highly skilled people and to help the countries catch up with EU’s economic and environmental standards. However, there will be still paramount work needed in the Western Balkan countries to catch up with the political and democratic standards of the EU.

Catching up with the standards will most definitely benefit the citizens of the Balkan nations. Whether that will be sufficient for EU membership remains an open question, especially given the attitude of the Bulgarian government which abused its veto right at the last EU Council meeting on the enlargement decisions. That question requires a serious and definite answer.