Where to Next, Western Balkans?

To Join or to Keep Dragging

18 May 2022

While Europe and the world are preoccupied with Russia’s war in Ukraine, one EU project that has been dragging on for years has long been forgotten: enlargement in the Balkans. But what is the future for the six Balkan countries, when — if ever — can they join the EU, and what problems do they face?

Analysts of international relations sometimes even take it upon themselves to draw up scenarios for the future, ceteris paribus, on the basis of current political-economic and social processes. The Western Balkans Futures study by Visegrad Insight also sets out to do just that: it takes the reader to 2030 and presents five scenarios for five fundamentally different Western Balkans.

What happens if the status quo continues to dominate the region? How will the relationship between the group of countries and the EU be affected by the rise of external actors? Will we see a Balkan nirvana in ten years’ time or a dark future for the region? 

The scenarios include different variables (acceleration/deceleration of EU integration, increasing/decelerating influence of external actors, strengthening/erosion of democratic elements) to give a picture of what the Western Balkans could look like in the next decade. They are like a what if type of film, or a story line where the character is given a choice at intervals. In our case, the heroic but not without past traumas protagonist, the Western Balkans, will have to decide on issues such as its relationship with the EU, the accountability of its political elite or even the possibility of strengthening civil society. 

Despite the fact that the scenarios were written before the war in Ukraine, this does not undermine their value. In fact, the conflict in our neighbourhood has confirmed the insights of some scenarios and we are able to take a closer look at the chances of some of them being realised.

The Scenarios: From Nirvana to Pessimism

In the Forced hand scenario, the EU decides to accelerate its enlargement policy as the only limit to Russian and Chinese expansion in the Western Balkans. The basic thesis is that the most important goal for the countries of the region remains the achievement of EU membership in the foreseeable future, followed (and concomitantly) by economic development. 

The Dark Future envisages a perpetuation of the current negative trends (unfinished democratisation, authoritarian tendencies, disaffected societies). External powers will also continue to be active: while Moscow will continue to be able to inflame regional conflicts from outside (especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina), Beijing’s “gallant” loans could easily create debt traps (as in Montenegro).

Elusive Europeanisation envisages a scenario in which the EU is so preoccupied with its own problems that it becomes unable to keep the Western Balkans on the path to democratisation. The enlargement policy will then lose its ideological character, the process will slow down further (but the door will not yet be closed) and only a substantial geopolitical threat will advance it. 

The scenario of Defragmenting the Western Balkans presents an idyllic picture: as economic integration between the countries of the region becomes ever closer, the grievances of the past will fade. This, in turn, has the potential to bring prosperity and reconciliation and to strengthen democratic processes.

In the last scenario, called Banding together, the increasingly frequent crises (e.g. the coronavirus, environmental disasters, economic crisis) encourage Western Balkan leaders to be pragmatic and to work together. The pandemic was a good start, with Serbia and Albania donating vaccines to neighbouring countries in solidarity, and environmental problems, as we know, know no borders. The importance of regional cooperation, such as the Open Balkans, will also come to the fore in this scenario. 

We already know the scenarios, but which is the vision of the future that has the best chance of being (partially) realised in the region?

The Case of the Extended Hand With Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has brought to the fore the possibility of some kind of — as yet non-existent — fast-track or even facilitated procedure for Ukraine (as well as Georgia and Moldova) to strengthen its ties with the EU or even become a full member. We have also discussed why, on the contrary, the EU integration of the Western Balkans should be the priority.

After all, the region has been politically promised EU membership for almost twenty years now, once the necessary criteria have been met, and has already implemented significant and often painful reforms. The Extended Hand is a scenario which, however ugly it may sound, could be a positive outcome of the war in Ukraine. For it is here that the EU recognises that incorporating the Western Balkans would be a low-energy exercise.

The Eastern powers are still present in the region: Beijing for the time being with its giga-investments and Moscow through informal energy channels and through a few allies, including the Serbian member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik. This, in the scenario, can be curbed by EU integration.

But to speed up the accession process, the EU should now deliver on its broken promises.

These include starting accession negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia (and overcoming the Bulgarian veto), visa liberalisation for Kosovo, closing and opening chapters with Montenegro and Serbia, and pushing for comprehensive internal reforms in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

For the time being, however, the EU does not seem to be treating enlargement in the Western Balkans as a priority in the shadow of the war in Ukraine. In this light, a synthesis of two scenarios is what is currently realistic for the Western Balkans in the coming years.

Halfway Between the Unimaginable Europeanisation and the Dark Future

The region will remain a theatre of great power games: the possible loss of Russian space could increase Beijing’s weight (except in the energy field). The EU has ‘proved’ that it cannot be more than one thing at once: its internal problems, its divisions and the unexpected crises (economic and euro crisis of 2008, refugee crisis, coronavirus epidemic, Brexit, war in Ukraine) have always pushed enlargement policy into the background.

Balkan political elites and societies are becoming increasingly enervated and continue to be disillusioned with the European project. This paints a negative picture, rather than one of a prosperous, democratising region making dynamic progress towards EU integration. 

However, there are many recipes to counter both scenarios. As the study puts it, the enlargement policy towards the Western Balkans must be mainstreamed in the European public discourse, while at the same time raising awareness of the dangers from the East.

The EU also needs to put more emphasis on the region: it needs to help solve its structural problems with an economic focus, but also to convince its reluctant enlargement-sceptic member states why it is worth accelerating Western Balkan integration now.

The future is never set in stone, and we can see that there are a number of recommendations available that could change the future scenarios for the Western Balkans in small but positive ways. Most of the dividends of these scenarios are therefore precisely to raise awareness:

They serve as a warning signal of the processes that could threaten EU-Western Balkans relations if they persist or intensify.

The original article was published in azonnali.hu

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

Picture: “MANS Billboard, Podgorica” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by tm-tm


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