EU engagement in the western Balkans has proved a catalyst for the countries in the region and the progress achieved in recent years. Now, however, there are signs indicating that the initial impact of our policy has been weakening. If we want to keep the momentum and make our commitment to integrate the region a reality, we need to be more ambitious. As confirmed by the Commission’s recent communication on enlargement strategy and related progress reports, the overall reform process in a number of countries has slowed down, while achievements in some other countries are far from being considered irreversible. Furthermore, the situation in Kosovo necessitates our deep involvement there and throughout the region of the western Balkans, in order to mitigate potential risks to regional stability.
On November 19, in the context of discussion on developments in Kosovo that was held at the European Union Council of Foreign Ministers, Greek Foreign Minister Ms. Dora Bakoyannis submitted a comprehensive proposal regarding the course of relations between the countries of the western Balkans and the European Union.
The time is ripe for some courageous decisions on the western Balkans. Based on the experience we have gained, we must build on our existing strategy and draw from the lessons learned from the fifth EU enlargement, a policy that was, at the time, conceived and implemented to deal with similar challenges to those we are facing today in the Balkans.
Our aim should be to encourage a new enthusiasm and motivation for necessary reforms by the peoples and governments of the region who risk losing their belief and commitment in an accession that appears distant and even uncertain. We urgently need to establish a sequence of policy steps, which would send an unambiguous message to all parties involved, that the European perspective of the region is definitive. A clear prospect of membership is the most important and effective tool at our disposal in helping countries of the western Balkans overcome weaknesses and political, social, and economic challenges and catch up with the rest of Europe.
Greece’s specific and cohesive proposal on the “need for ambitious decisions by the EU on the western Balkans”—which can be dubbed the “Thessaloniki Agenda 2”—is a multiplier of incentives and involves the following:
- In the framework described and as a first step, the EU should immediately sign Stabilization and Association Agreements with Serbia and, at the earliest opportunity, with Bosnia-Herzegovina, the two remaining countries in which internal problems have not permitted such a positive step so far.
- First Serbia, followed by the other countries with a Stabilization and Association Agreement but no candidate status, should be encouraged to apply for membership. The Commission could present the avis on the application in the fall of 2008. The December European Council of 2008 could decide about granting candidate status to any applicant country.
- A date for the start of accession negotiations will be decided later on, depending on the progress on fulfillment of specific benchmarks that will be set. Any additional step in the accession process will depend on each country’s progress in meeting the specific requirements set by the EU in full application of the principle of conditionality.
- However, in order to have, from a European perspective, the effect we desire, we should combine it with measures that would translate this perspective into something practical and tangible for the peoples of the region, something that corresponds to their basic requests. Already in Thessaloniki we declared that “we were aware of the importance the peoples and governments of the region attach to the perspective of liberalization of the visa regime.” We had promised to help the countries deal with these issues to make such a move possible. Following the visa facilitation agreements that we signed this year, the EU should now provide the countries of the region with a road map that would eventually lead to visa liberalization: A series of concrete and measurable benchmarks and an outline of the necessary steps with an indicative timetable.
- Additional financial resources will also be necessary. Within our actual budgetary obligations, we should make full use of the “principle of flexibility” in order to guarantee that any additional available funds will be directed, as a priority, to the region of the western Balkans. Furthermore and taking into account financial requirements, we should explore all possibilities that would allow a substantial increase of aid, in an effort to meet the increasing needs and serve our own priorities in this sensitive region at this very critical time.
Alexandros P. Mallias has been ambassador of Greece to the United States since 2005. Joining the Foreign Service in 1976, Ambassador Mallias has been at the forefront of Greece’s stabilizing role in the Balkans, serving as Director of the Southeastern Europe (Balkan Affairs) Department at the Foreign Ministry in Athens in various capacities, and as Ambassador to Albania, Head of the first Mission in FYROM, and Head of the European Community Monitor Mission Regional Office in Sofia.
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Marco Overhaus on Twelve Years after Dayton: Europe and the Western Balkans
- Elizabeth Pond on EU Can Prevent Versailles Syndrome in Serbia