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Coming Together? Thoughts on the European Union’s Strategy in the Western Balkans

Last year, during his State of the Union Address, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker promised to update the institution’s Strategy for the Western Balkans. On February 6th, President Juncker fulfilled this promise when the Commission released a revised plan to integrate Western Balkan nations. The plan declares its support for the transformation of the region in order to prepare aspiring states for membership to the European Union (EU). This program targets several areas of cooperation between the EU and Western Balkan states, including: strengthening rules of law, reinforcing engagement on security and migration issues, socioeconomic development, transport and energy connectivity, a digital agenda, and reconciliation and neighborly relations . In light of the update, Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, stated:  

Today we confirm that the door of our Union is open for the Western Balkans which is already an enclave surrounded by the EU, and that our offer is sincere. With the new approach, underpinned by concrete measures, we are strengthening the enlargement process which requires credible efforts and reforms in return in particular to strengthen the rule of law. We have to work for the benefit of the citizens.

The release of the updated guide comes at an interesting time, as other global actors are expanding their engagement with the region. Russia emphasizes its shared cultural and historical relationship with Orthodox Christians in the region, and uses these relationships in an attempt to tilt the region to fit its geopolitical interest. Though the South Pipeline project was abandoned in 2014, Russia uses its friendships and geopolitical proximity to play a key role in the energy sector of many states in region. An example is NIS, a Serbian oil and gas firm, whose majority share is owned by Russia’s state-controlled oil company.

Russia also enjoys using the region as an easy way to demonstrate its ability to exert soft and hard power to Western Europe and the United States. While the Syrian War has occupied a significant portion of the Russia’s foreign policy efforts, exploiting low-hanging fruits in the Western Balkans is still essential to stalling NATO and EU expansion in the region – something that Russia has consistently voiced its opposition against. EU policy makers in the Commission are aware of Russia’s role in the region, and must come up with ingenuitive ways to counter effective Russian rhetoric in the region.

Russia is not the only state competing with the EU in the Western Balkans. China has been increasing involvement with the region recently, which it sees as a strategic node for its Silk Road Project. One such example is cooperation between the Montenegrin government and China’s development bank in funding and constructing both the Bar-Bolijare and Smovac-Matesevo Highways. While analysts at the IMF warn that Montenegro’s ambitious infrastructure projects are financially unwise, these relationships demonstrate that Western Balkan states have a number of options for development cooperation outside of the EU.

As Commissioner Hahn stated, the carrot that the EU provides to the Balkans is future membership in the EU itself. The updated strategy for the region certainly demonstrates the EU’s willingness to invest in the region, but it does little to showcase any measurable progress in states approaching serious accession talks. This is not surprising considering President Juncker explicitly stated that no new states will join the EU during his tenure, which is set to end in 2019. It is unlikely that a realistic timeline for aspiring member states will emerge until a new European Commission is in place. The new strategy guide placed the anticipated accession year for Montenegro and Serbia, the two states expected to join the soonest, at 2025. Considering this is seven years away, it makes sense that they are looking to cooperate with outside actors in order to advance their interests.

If the EU as a whole seriously wishes to expand into the Western Balkans, it must engage the region in a way that makes accession more appealing accessible to its states. The best way to do so would be for the Commission to create a recommended timeline for membership under the assumption that candidate states reach certain benchmarks throughout the process. The Commission somewhat does this through its Chapters of the aquis and Commission reports, but it only speaks abstractly and gives governments and officials little upon which to build. If the concept of EU expansion is to survive, then it is of paramount importance that the next Commission assert its willingness to engage with these governments and give them more concrete expectations for their future EU membership. Unless the Commission paves a tangible path to accession, the Western Balkans will continue to increase their focus on relationships with actors outside of the EU.