By Rahul Kamath *
The European Union is juggling several problems at the same time and coming back to most of them. EU representatives organized a summit with the Western Balkans to continue accession and integration negotiations. The promises made during the Berlin process by the EU are still not kept despite the seven years since its creation in 2014, after the Berlin conference of 2014. Jean-Claude Juncker, then President of the European Commission, underlined importance of the region and aimed to consolidate and maintain the EU’s stature in the region against growing right-wing rhetoric and Euroscepticism.
The Berlin Process provides the Western Balkans with an institutional and political environment aimed at introducing reform policies that can bring much-needed economic development to the region. The EU-Western Balkans summit held on 6 October under the Slovenian presidency endorsed the Brdo declaration, which reiterates the EU’s desire for a process of enlargement and greater integration, but no he does not impose a fixed timetable for the six countries of the Western Balkans.
The six states are at different levels of integration, as the EU rejected Ljubljana’s enlargement proposal, citing concerns about migration policies in the region. Migration from the Western Balkans has contributed to the urgent need for improved relations between the EU and the Western Balkans, as a large majority of migrants transiting through the Western Balkans originate from Syria, Afghanistan and the Middle East. . Fears of illegal migration have increased since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. The Western Balkans transit route is preferred by irregular migrants to reach Western Europe from Turkey or Croatia. Migrants passing through the region use clandestine entries which not only pose a threat to their lives, but are also responsible for a large number of criminal activities such as drug trafficking, petty theft and human trafficking. .
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed the importance of the region for the EU, saying the EU is not complete without the Western Balkans. However, promises remain in limbo as several member states believe to avoid the mistakes of the past, where the hasty accession of Romania and Bulgaria has led to a poorly managed migration of workers from Europe to Europe. ‘East to Western Europe. Bulgaria is keen to assert its decision to prevent North Macedonia from joining the bloc due to a language dispute. The Serbia-Kosovo dispute remains at an impasse, with Serbia increasing its military maneuvers near the Kosovar border. Albania’s progress is linked to North Macedonia, thus halting its progress towards membership.
Enlargement-friendly states such as Italy, Austria, Slovenia and the three Baltic states – Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia – have pressured Germany and France to condemn Bulgaria’s veto on the integration of North Macedonia. Bulgaria is pushing for Macedonian to be recognized as a dialect of the Bulgarian language rather than identifying it as a separate language. In addition, the absence of a functioning government in Bulgaria has exacerbated the situation as Bulgaria organized two parliamentary elections in April and July with unsuccessful results as the government was not formed on both occasions. The third electoral attempt has started in Bulgaria and will run until 13 November. French President Emmanuel Macron has expressed concern as he believes the EU was unable to admit new members to the bloc after the Afghan debacle and the recent natural gas crisis. .
During her last tour of the Western Balkans, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the region’s integration of geostrategic importance. The EU is the Western Balkans’ largest trading partner and investor accounting for 70 percent of the region’s total trade at € 55 billion in 2019. In addition, the EU has pledged € 30 billion in the economic plan and investment plan (PIE) for 2021-2027 to continue cooperation in the region.
The lack of cohesion within the Western Balkans remains a major concern for the EU because despite two decades since the Yugoslav wars, ethnic conflicts still prevail in the region, thus hampering the growth and development of the region. Infrastructure projects in the Western Balkans suffered from an infrastructure deficit due to the wars of the 1990s as well as the late introduction of railways and highways in the region. Lack of connectivity and weak public infrastructure have led to aggravating economic developments in the Western Balkans, with growing unemployment and a stagnant economy being at the forefront of economic obstacles in the Western Balkans. The lack of infrastructure projects in the Western Balkans has been the main concern due to unfavorable geography which restricts the free and easy movement of people.
Foreign presence in the Balkan region
Against this infrastructural backdrop, foreign powers such as China, Russia and Turkey have made inroads into the region and the EU’s lack of integration policies has widened the possibility for foreign powers to relax their mandates. in this “geostrategic region”. Chinese expansion in Central and Eastern Europe through its 16 + 1 initiative has already resulted in a growing Chinese footprint at the gates of Europe. The significant Chinese presence in the region is explained by Chinese infrastructure construction projects which amount to US $ 9.1 billion in loans alone. In addition, China aims to build coal-fired power plants in this region, which deters the EU, as its quest for carbon neutrality remains thwarted by such dependence on fossil fuels.
In addition, Serbia and China have signed a comprehensive strategic partnership to promote their bilateral relations and cooperate on key issues such as energy and infrastructure development. At the summit, Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krišjānis Kariņš warned the bloc and made the EU’s emergency in the Western Balkans necessary, otherwise the region would drift into a foreign, not a regional entity. The lack of integration efforts is translating into a democratic setback in the region as Moscow and Beijing remain ready to seize any opportunity to discourage progress in EU enlargement. China and Russia are offering loans to the region without attaching any political conditions, which leaders perceive as free money. However, foreign loans have already increased government debt, which could further worsen the economic situation in the Western Balkans. Beijing has made significant investments in the Western Balkans as part of their “strategic concepts”.
A possible way forward
The EU must go beyond the promises of pre-integration and show the region’s prospects for joining the bloc by promising economic growth, national development and much-awaited harmony in the region. According to Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, the EU should extend membership of the Schengen area to the Western Balkans before attempting new accession negotiations, especially with Serbia, as it constantly deals with illegal migration routes.
However, the EU chose silence on visa-free travel arrangements in Brdo’s statement, and it also does not mention the opening of accession negotiations with Montenegro and Serbia, despite submitting their request. in 2008 and 2009 respectively. The biggest obstacle to Montenegro’s membership remains its corruption and organized crime units while, for Serbia, its growing proximity to China and Russia accompanied by tensions with Kosovo has slowed its membership talks with it. ‘EU. The overall delay has now diminished public interest in the region, as locals remain uncertain about the EU’s commitment to the region. The loss of the EU could ultimately lead to the triumph of Beijing and Moscow, which would attract the region by attracting the growth of infrastructure and the growing prospects for energy security.
The EU’s strategy towards the region would require a vigorous fight against Russian and Chinese intrusion, coupled with lasting economic and political reforms to achieve enlargement. The population of the Western Balkans is in constant decline with an overall rate of 7.3 percent, which is already having long-standing effects on the economic well-being and social development of the region, making the region more vulnerable to outside interference.
The EU is not the only culprit, as the weakening of public infrastructure in the Western Balkans has led to the prevalence of corruption, income inequality and inefficient government, as ethnocentric thinking remains at the heart of political decision making. Regional security remains in limbo and is fragile, as occasional outbursts of ethnic nationalism fuel the threat of armed skirmishes, further hampering the rule of law and democracy in the region. The region is marked by stagnant economic growth with a lack of investment and high unemployment rates coupled with drastic depopulation making economic and political transformation difficult.
The Western Balkans and the EU are haunted by the ghosts of the past, as the continuing civil and political unrest in the region is reminiscent of the Yugoslav wars. The region’s political ambition remains an unresolved headache for Brussels, as regional policy aligns with Russia on a few occasions while displaying a pro-EU stance over others; however, the region remains unequivocally fragmented as it was part of the former Yugoslavia. Nonetheless, the two-decade wait for integration continues for the region as enlargement fatigue slowly seeps into the Western Balkans.
The opinions expressed above belong to the authors.