Opinion Don't Forget the Western Balkans

Following the Brexit vote, attention in the EU is likely to shift to internal debates on the future of European integration. But it's important that Europe not forget the Western Balkans, for whom the prospect of membership in the bloc is an important motivator for peace.

A former Yugoslav war memorial in Pristina, Kosovo
REUTERS

A former Yugoslav war memorial in Pristina, Kosovo

By Sarah Wohlfeld


The Brexit referendum means that the EU will have to devote tremendous energy in the coming years to its own internal debates and to the thorny work of determining the future of European integration. With this internal focus, the appetite for enlarging the EU to the states of the Western Balkans is receding into the far distance. If real membership prospects for these states vanish, however, democracy and peace in the entire region could experience dangerous setbacks.

Even before the outcome of the Brexit referendum, the Western Balkans and the topic of EU enlargement were hardly top priorities for Europe's decisionmakers. Since at least the onset of the economic and financial crisis in 2007 and 2008, and with mounting worries about member states leaving the EU, the community has been chiefly concerned with internal matters, issues that require enormous effort and resources. Moreover, as Euroskepticism found louder expression among citizens, governments did not see an opportune moment for pursuing EU enlargement. And so the process has stagnated.

Yes, there have been some small victories, such as the talks mediated by the EU to normalize relations between Belgrade and Pristina and the so-called Berlin Process, which brings all the Western Balkan heads of state and government together for negotiations, with a third summit having started earlier this week in Paris. But these are not substantially advancing the EU accession process.

While accession negotiations are currently underway with Serbia and Montenegro, no successful conclusion is yet in sight. Albania, meanwhile, is wrestling to initiate judicial reform -- the first precondition for opening the negotiation chapters. It will be impossible for Kosovo to join the EU until it is recognized as a state by all of the union's member states. As for Bosnia and Herzegovina, which continues to be under international supervision, the country remains practically ungovernable. And the national crisis in Macedonia is crippling the entire country.

In short, EU membership is the sole goal uniting -- and at least superficially stabilizing -- these countries, and with it, the hope that it will bring increased prosperity. With the Brexiteers' victory in the referendum in the United Kingdom, this goal begins to look very distant indeed.

A Risky Policy

Now, quite apart from the referendum's concrete results, the EU will be more preoccupied with itself than ever. Its order of business is going to be determined by withdrawal negotiations with Britain, by the accompanying debates over whether there should be more Europe or less Europe, by Scotland's potential independence and by right-wing populist parties calling for further referendums. The EU is going to be busy defending the European project and salvaging its achievements. Under these circumstances it is difficult to picture either governments of member states or their citizens showing exuberance for rapidly expanding the EU, particularly since the Western Balkans are economically weak and haunted by bilateral conflicts that are still unresolved. The EU will need to get its own house in order before taking on more problems.

There are risks to pursuing this policy, however. It is already possible to see what happens when enlargement policy stagnates. We are already seeing setbacks in the democratization of political systems, particularly in Macedonia but in other West Balkan countries as well. Authoritarian tendencies in the governments and attacks on the freedom of the press are just two of the more alarming symptoms. The region's elites have come to comfortable terms with the status quo; often they are only willing to uphold reforms to the extent that their own sinecures are not threatened. Without the strong presence of the EU and its willingness to accompany political processes in the region, further regression away from democracy and, eventually, destabilization across the Western Balkans could well be possible.

It is true that the majority of the population still supports the EU's reform efforts, but there are already signs that patience is fraying as stagnation sets in and hopes are stymied. If the EU cannot find the energy to peer beyond its own borders, local frustration will mount. We must also keep in mind that other global players -- particularly Russia -- are more than happy to fill the vacuum and expand their sphere of influence.

The EU is going to have to spend enormous energy on securing its internal cohesion in the years to come. In doing so, however, it cannot afford to neglect the Western Balkans. Diminishing hopes there of joining the EU threaten to set back the region's democratic, peaceful development. The EU still has strong appeal in the region, however, and the conditionality attached to its enlargement policy remains an effective mechanism for promoting crucial reforms. The EU should use the integration of the Western Balkans to create new and positive momentum.

About Sarah Wohlfeld

Translated from the German by Miranda Robbins

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tomislavstojanovic 07/09/2016
1. not a good idea
I am a Serb (I live in San Francisco). I visited my family in Serbia about a month ago and I don't think people are that eager to join EU any more. EU for them is like an old woman who was pretty and wise about 20 years ago, but unfortunately now she is toothless, very poor, corrupt and has all kind of STDs. I have a UK citizenship and was quite happy with BREXIT results. I certainly hope Serbia will never join the failed undemocratic club. Unless they want to turn into another Greece. I spoke to Croat and Slovenian friends - they regret joining. Time to dissemble the failed state. I fully agree with Marine Le Pen
Mila Uneed 07/09/2016
2. EU is futile
From the "Western Balkans" (whoever invented this term must be earning his living in Brussels!) perspective, EU has always been futile in its foreign policy. At the end, Rambo (US) will show up, kick some a.s and clean the mess, and give the "Western Balkans" to the EU on a platter. The question is only, if this will happen before the EU practices its international policy to the point where there is a war in the "Western Balkans", or after. We know how it ended with the breakup of Yugoslavia: hundreds of thousands dead, Millions of refugees - in the EU, btw, until Rambo started bombing, in 1995, and again in 1999. And at this time, the EU will prove to be an even bigger disaster: Besides the Syrians and the Britons, now they have Orbans, the Polish guy (what's his name?), and other creatures to worry about. Fortunately for us in the "Western Balkans", US is already showing increased interest, so let's hope that we will not end up in another war after all. The "Western Balkans" needs a big stick and a Marshal Plan, but the EU alone doesn't have the internal capacity for either, unfortunately.
nzview 07/09/2016
3. EU's true real value
May Peace be with you - the best of hopes, has made a home in the EU. Cherish it, and hold it tenderly. The longest period of Peace in Europe's history, since 500 AD, is an honour the EU can rightly lay a claim to. For 70 years now Europe has held aloft this beacon for the world. The real issue for the UK is not the EU but inequality at home. They will return to the EU, if indeed they actually leave.
Vxx 07/10/2016
4. Yes, we can!
Europe has enough issues with out some childish rivalry with Russia. Russia will do more to protect the borders of it's friends than Europe has done. The elite of Europe,the financiers have forgotten the citizen whose taxes pay for it all. Europe is moving into the AI/machine economy and the ivory tower is not ready to adapt to the new reality. Bringing in more poor populations who see Eurozone as a golden mountain is unwise. Europe cannot protect it's own borders nor deport the migrant and phony refugees. Now those freeloaders will drain national treasuries dry and of course the bankers will be there to "help". Those countries will need first to get their economies, technology and work force in line with the coming of the machine age economy. One of the first things will be a trade language that all speak and read. Then the borders need to be guarded with zeal against any that are not invited. The failed policies of Multiculturalism and Political Correctness dismantled. Helping the education system of countries bordering Europe is a real step forward. Europe needs the political power back to the voter. Even if the treaty signers do not like it.
ljeusa 07/12/2016
5. Eu
Nostalgia for Yugoslavia's open borders and common currency should lead to EU membership.
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