The Western Balkans and the European Union

Where are the crossroads?

26 April 2022

Although the European Union is still the largest donor in Serbia, and its members are the largest investors, support for the European integration process is at the lowest level.

After the economic, financial and migrant crisis, Brexit, the war in Ukraine and other unresolved issues facing the EU, enlargement seems to be currently seen as a problem and challenge for the Union, not as part of a possible solution. On the other hand, Serbia and the Western Balkans as a whole are a small space, very diverse, still in the process of transformation, stuck in bilateral and internal disputes, that sees no alternative to the ‘European path,’ but still opens space for other actors on the international stage.

Enlargement has long been a driving force for political change and hope for all citizens in our region, but the EU lost its appeal when its ambitions to accept new members have waned. The ‘European perspective’ is still present in the countries and politics of the Western Balkans, but given the delays in this process, the changed negotiation methodology — distrust in the successful completion of the European integration process is stronger than ever. Fatigue in the Western Balkans is growing. The prestige of the EU has decreased and the citizens are no longer sure that a ‘bright European future’ awaits us.

The Time of Hope Has Ended

At the beginning of the year, a group of authors from the region, within Visegrad Insight, opened a discussion on this topic by presenting a report on the future of the Western Balkans and five scenarios for 2030. Based on research and interviews with various actors from the Western Balkans, five different scenarios have been developed for the future of the region as they see it. The scenarios range from those who see a bright European future for these countries in the region, to those dark scenarios in which the process of European integration of the region is in an eternal status quo position.

Continuation and eventual acceleration of the process of European integration of the Western Balkans into the European Union presupposes a more responsible approach of the countries in the region and commitment to the process which should be focused on strengthening its institutional capacities, regional cooperation and building democratic states (Forced Hand). 

Possible Futures for Serbia and the Western Balkans

Maintaining the status quo in the process of European integration will lead to further dissatisfaction and decline in the popularity of the EU in the countries in the region and is one of the pessimistic scenarios (Dark Future). 

Bringing together the countries of the Western Balkans on global challenges and mutually encouraging solidarity, cooperation and joint action would strengthen the progressive forces in the region and open the space for the region to start working for itself (Banding Together).

Obstructions in the EU accession negotiations may result in delays in the process, with the EU’s promise of integration remaining, but more in the context of diverting negative influence from rivals, who are becoming increasingly powerful due to growing support for Russia and China, rather than strengthening democracy within Europe. (Elusive Europeanisation). 

Turning the countries of the region towards stronger economic cooperation would lead to a change in priorities and would push disagreements from the past into the background (Defragmentation of the Western Balkans).

It is clear that there is no universal scenario that would be fully applicable to the entire Western Balkans by 2030 and the most likely outcome is a combination of multiple scenarios. It may even be the best option for the region at the moment. But the future of the region and the process of European integration will certainly remain dependent on the geopolitical situation, the development of relations within the region, but also the influence of other actors and events on the international scene. 

What is certain is that the region will remain dependent on the EU, as its main economic partner. On the other hand, what the countries of our region have in common is that there is still no significant progress in strengthening the rule of law, freedom in the media, the fight against corruption, liberating the captured state and the like. 

The commitment of Brussels and the actors from the Western Balkans to the process of European integration would still be the best way for democratic reforms of society and institutions, but also for a clearer perspective of the ‘European path’ of the entire region.

Which of these scenarios is the most likely for Serbia? In the process of European integration, Serbia still has a map of a thousand steps, but the fact is that it is not moving at the speed that was expected and desirable. In more than two decades of Serbia’s European integration process, some scenarios have already happened to Serbia in some way. 

Serbia Has Seen It All Before

The period from 2000 to 2006 was a period of trust and great commitment to the process of European integration. The support of the citizens was at the highest level, and the ‘European path’ was indeed the only path. The introduction of visa liberalisation has raised expectations to the maximum, the process of European integration has become a foreign policy priority, and full membership in the EU was expected. 

However, after that, the situation changed and the policy of conditioning and distrust led to an increase in Euroscepticism among the political elite, as well as among citizens. Even after 2012, Serbia was no closer to joining the EU, which led to the growing distrust of the citizens of the Republic of Serbia that they will ever be part of the European Union and the ‘European family.’ 

After that, Serbia played a neutral game, as on the one hand, it is in the process of European integration, but on the other hand, it is looking for other alternatives. Although the EU is still the largest donor in Serbia, and its members are the largest investors, support for the European integration process is at the lowest level. If there are no significant changes in the relationship between Brussels and Belgrade, and there is no feeling that something is changing, alternatives will be in the lead, and Serbia will slip out of the zone of interest of Brussels.

It is true that ‘more Europe’ cannot be achieved without the inclusion of the Western Balkan countries in its ranks through a responsible and predictable enlargement policy. But both sides in this process need to change their approach to enlargement, as it is becoming increasingly clear that the one currently in force is not working.

The article was originally published in Novi Magazin outlet.

This article is part of the Western Balkans Futures project supported by the International Visegrad Fund.


Svetlana Stefanović

Svetlana Stefanović is the Executive Director of the Foundation BFPE for a Responsible Society, Belgrade, Serbia.


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