(Photo: Flickr|Bryan Pocius, licensed by CC BY 2.0)

Shortly after the Brexit vote, Balkan countries were reassured from top EU leaders that enlargement will continue. The looming UK exit from the EU would not stop aspirant countries from joining the fractured European bloc one day, once they are ready.

This strong message came in unison from French President Francois Hollande, Germany‘s Chancellor Angela Merkel and the EU’s de facto Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini at the Balkan summit in Paris on 4 July.

It was nice and timely, but hard to believe.

Two Views

If we look at the facts and trends, there are two very different outlooks on the future enlargement to the Western Balkans – positive and negative.

On the one hand, this is the only region outside of the EU with membership perspective. Already now, the Western Balkans are completely geographically encircled by the Union.

Collectively known as the WB6, Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and even Kosovo (still not recognized by several EU member states including Slovakia) – are at different stages in the integration process, which was designed to improve their state institutions, economies and legislation. Two of them, Montenegro and Serbia, have already advanced their ongoing accession talks with the EU, while Albania hopes to open them next year.

Support in the EU

The Slovak EU Presidency, which is very committed to this process, has managed to achieve progress at the technical level even in the weeks and months after the Brexit referendum. Even amidst today’s turmoil in Europe, there are huge majorities in support of joining the EU in all six countries. At the same time, the economic growth has picked up, and is expected to reach over 3 percent in 2017 on the back of rising domestic consumption, foreign investment and export, mostly to the huge EU market.

Plus there is the so-called Berlin Process in parallel, consisting of yearly summits between WB6 and a group of key EU countries. It is also moving ahead, with international financial institutions on board, by committing funding for cross-border transport and energy infrastructure.

On the other hand, there is very negative external and internal context. Brexit negotiations, security and migration crises, growing populism and democracy backsliding add to a wide-spread European malaise. As EU institutions and national capitals will be self-absorbed with internal issues, there will be less political attention in Brussels and Berlin and leverage to promote reforms in the neighborhood, even in the inner courtyard. Without the risk of a renewed armed conflict or migration flows, the Western Balkans are likely to remain a low priority.

Rather Slowly

The enlargement train is going to be moving but at a very slow pace, and in the shadow of Turkey, by far the largest and strategically most important EU accession country. Even the Berlin Process, in spite of all the right messages at its last summit in July, has produced few results so far.

At the same time, most EU governments and populations do not see why they should rush with accepting the poor Balkan countries as new members. The enlargement process is alive but its timeframe is being extended: it is estimated that it will take Serbia at least 10-15 years to finish accession talks, as opposed to 8 years in the case of Croatia. The current GDP per capita of the WB6 is only about 30 – 40 percent of the EU average. This negative context plays into the hands of Balkan strongmen who pander to various geopolitical players or investors, increase their own power and patronage networks, and restrict space for democracy and media freedoms in their respective countries.

Add to this picture a lack of competitiveness on the global markets, widespread corruption, and as Dušan Reljic reminds us, ‘it becomes utterly clear why the majority of the people in the Western Balkans and especially the young are losing hope that perspectives might brighten in their life-time.’ So faced with such a gloomy picture, what is the right strategy?

BE Positive

In simple terms, it is to keep the positive agenda for the region alive and on track. The alternative would be far worse – deeper stagnation, instability and bilateral tensions boiling up.  Strategic complacency and neglect from Washington and the key EU capitals would also open up more space for other geopolitical rivals to increase their influence (Russia, China).

It means a three-track approach: 

1) Working with the Balkan governments to advance reforms and integration, which is still the best policy tool for economic modernization, small advances in the rule of law and human rights. A small contribution to this goal was the high-level ministerial panel of the GLOBSEC TATRA Summit conference on 29 October 2016, featuring Foreign Ministers or State Secretaries of the WB6 countries. Prepared under the auspices of the Slovak EU Presidency, it presented a very competent, determined message in terms of what is being done in the region in terms of incremental change on the EU track.

2) Political and financial support for domestic engines for change –  civil society and social movements, small and medium-size entrepreneurs, independent media and other democratic institutions that are under increased pressure from Balkan governments.

3) Keep the Balkans as part of the Transatlantic agenda: Europe needs  American engagement to advanced both first and second tracks credibly and effectively. NATO’s expansion to Montenegro is the latest sign that the U.S. involvement in the region has been more substantial than meets the eye. Let us hope that this active policy from the US State and Defense Departments will survive the upcoming American Presidential elections.

Because if America decide to disengage from Europe and leave its allies and partners to take care of their own security, be sure that one of the first region that will pay the (a very high) costs will be the Balkans.

Milan Nič  

Head of Europe Programme

GLOBSEC Policy Institute