Over the past decade, EU accession has projected promises and expectations for a better, more prosperous, safer future among citizens in the Western Balkans. As often tends to be the case, however, hope and great expectations raise equal levels of fatigue and frustration. It is disconcerting to see the latter set of feelings appear to be settling in even though there is overwhelming agreement that EU accession is the only viable strategy for the Western Balkan countries. What can be done to move matters forward?
Policy makers in the EU and the Western Balkans seem to be struggling with three sets of challenges. The first entails translating the commitment to EU accession that has been made, and repeatedly reiterated, into a process that offers substantial and meaningful intermediate rewards for the Western Balkan states. In parallel, the EU member states must be reassured that conditionality criteria have been met on the part of the candidate states, that progress has indeed been accomplished, and that the accession pace and the rewards are ‘digestible’ for their own public. The second challenge involves promoting consequential intra-regional cooperation while further integrating the region into the wider European economic realm. Neither involves reinventing the wheel yet both remain compound with difficulties not yet overcome. The third challenge involves understanding that EU accession is a process leading to membership in a Union that has an undefined finalité politique and a dynamic, on-going agenda that aims to tackle the redress of social and other challenges. As such, economic and political conditionality criteria ought not to be viewed as targets but as minimum standards.
Regarding intermediate rewards the EU can offer, these may range from access to financial instruments, to visa facilitation matters and student mobility programs. Rather straight-forward it would appear. However, these require significant political will and even more institutional capacity on the part of the Western Balkan states to comply with the necessary conditions required for the rewards to be granted. A number of questions are unavoidably raised. Will intermediate rewards encourage further progress or might they lead to a degree of complacency once certain satisfactory thresholds are achieved? Particularly since the next enlargement round won’t be feasible for a few more years. Can conditionality be used in a tactical manner without discrediting the essential principles of conditionality? Further still, should the EU continue to focus on strengthening institutional capacity in order to support these countries in their efforts to meet the conditionality requirements, or are there limits to top-down transformational diplomacy?
As far as integration is concerned, economic inter-dependence and intensified cooperation on technical issues, trade and infrastructure are the tried and tested paths to economic development and democratic peace. The EU project testifies to this. So, what measures can be taken in the case of trade, energy and people?
- First, given that the region’s economies are of a very limited size and most of their trade is with the EU, the qualitative dimension of trade is of relevance. Increasing intra-industry trade across Southeast Europe is thus a priority.
- Second, the development of a regional approach to energy supply does not only aim to overcome the current fragmentation of energy supply. It is constructed around the premise that enhanced cooperation among the various entities within the region and with the EU will lead to improved energy security for all.
- Third, increased cooperation with border control, police agencies and on non-security related aspects of visa, asylum and immigration policies may facilitate pre-accession preparation in matters of Justice and Home Affairs. The EU’s ‘Blue Card’ scheme is a constructive step in this direction.
Such practical steps are necessary, but alone, are insufficient. A strong dose of pragmatic optimism is just as necessary for things to move forward. Pragmatic in terms of realizing that EU accession is far from offering an easy fix; optimistic in terms of constructively engaging in efforts aimed at enhancing the capacity of all sides and clearly indicating the will to comply, to accede and also, to enlarge.
Ruby Gropas is Southeast Europe Policy Scholar with the Southeast Europe Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, and Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP), in Athens. The author has written a longer version for Atlantic Community. Download it here as a PDF .
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