The Balkans no longer believe in the EU


In the Western Balkans, a region known to generate crises that seem intractable, the good news is often underestimated. On July 29 in Skopje, North Macedonia, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called a summit to announce the launch of Open Balkan, an initiative to strengthen regional economic integration. The three have pledged to abolish border controls between their countries by January 2023.

The news has so far been met with cautious encouragement. Regional economic integration is an end that all Westerners support, both Washington and Berlin have declared in separate statements, and all efforts to achieve it are welcome. In private, however, there is more hesitation. European diplomats wonder if this effort could bypass established European Union efforts to foster regional dialogue and cooperation (the so-called Berlin Process) or, worse, create an alternative to joining the EU. ‘EU.

During a regional tour in July that took us to North Macedonia, Serbia and Albania, we felt optimism for this initiative among local decision-makers and business leaders, strongly lifted by the disillusionment over to the blocked membership process of the political class. The Albanian Rama was particularly outspoken in public, comparing it to the experience of being repeatedly left standing in front of the altar. “Enlargement is not at a standstill, it has stopped,” another leader told us in a series of informal conversations with regional officials. Betting on Europe is increasingly becoming a handicap with jaded voters tired of hearing about broken promises.

In the Western Balkans, a region known to generate crises that seem intractable, the good news is often underestimated. On July 29 in Skopje, North Macedonia, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and North Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called a summit to announce the launch of Open Balkan, an initiative to strengthen regional economic integration. The three have pledged to abolish border controls between their countries by January 2023.

The news has so far been met with cautious encouragement. Regional economic integration is an end that all Westerners support, both Washington and Berlin have declared in separate statements, and all efforts to achieve it are welcome. In private, however, there is more hesitation. European diplomats wonder if this effort could bypass established European Union efforts to foster regional dialogue and cooperation (the so-called Berlin Process) or, worse, create an alternative to joining the EU. ‘EU.

During a regional tour in July that took us to North Macedonia, Serbia and Albania, we felt optimism for this initiative among local decision-makers and business leaders, strongly lifted by the disillusionment over to the blocked membership process of the political class. The Albanian Rama was particularly outspoken in public, comparing it to the experience of being repeatedly left standing in front of the altar. “Enlargement is not at a standstill, it has stopped,” another leader told us in a series of informal conversations with regional officials. Betting on Europe is increasingly becoming a handicap with jaded voters tired of hearing about broken promises.

Politicians are not wrong to despair. In 2003, in Thessaloniki, Greece, European leaders promised the countries of the Western Balkans that their ultimate future lies in the EU. The language of a “European perspective” for the region has featured in almost every relevant statement since, to which officials have clung as a demonstration of seriousness and commitment from a bloc that has traditionally struggled to articulate policy. coherent foreigner for its wider neighborhood. But political will never followed rhetoric. And support for enlargement among voters has largely collapsed across the continent since Croatia’s admission in 2013, with audiences in Western European countries particularly reluctant to admit more countries for now.

But the dropout is not limited to the fact that Europeans do not keep their commitments. Over the past decade, the EU has faced a wave of crises, from the financial shock of 2008 to the migrant crisis, the effects of which have been exacerbated by the bloc’s own internal structural shortcomings. French President Emmanuel Macron, who has led efforts towards a new, stricter and above all reversible enlargement methodology, insists on far-reaching reforms of existing European institutions before new countries are admitted to the bloc. Meanwhile, concerns about organized crime are hampering support for enlargement in countries like the Netherlands.

And to be fair, Europeans are not wrong to point the finger at corruption and rule of law issues for the disappointing progress of the talks. The 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Serbia 94th out of 180 countries, Albania 104th and North Macedonia 111th. The fact that EU members such as Hungary and Poland are going back on democracy, and that Bulgaria and Romania continue to fight high-level corruption almost a decade and a half since their accession, has not isn’t exactly an endorsement to hastily admit more members to the club. .

Faced with such bleak prospects, it is notable that none of the founders of Open Balkan sees their initiative as an alternative to EU membership, but rather as a complement to existing processes. Vucic, Rama and Zaev all stressed to us during our trip that the objectives of the project were modeled on the European common market, in particular by seeking to guarantee the “four freedoms” of the market (the free movement of goods, capital, services and people). The memorandum of understanding signed at the recent summit commits to keeping the promise of free movement of goods within six months, and of free movement of people by January 1, 2023. The goal, they say, is to show tangible benefits to their citizens as soon as possible. Serbia, in particular, faces a labor shortage and wants to make it easier for Macedonians and Albanians to cross the border for work. Over the longer term, neither country is large enough on its own to attract significant and transformative investment from Western companies. A single market could prove to be much more tempting.

While the name Open Balkan explicitly suggests an invitation to others, the absence of Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro from the Skopje summit was glaring. The three dissenters remain skeptical, arguing that the new initiative duplicates the development of a common regional market that was agreed by the six in Sofia, Bulgaria, last year as part of the Berlin process. They fear that taking part in an initiative that was not conceived in Europe will have an impact on their membership prospects, however distant they may be. This is of course not true. The door to Europe is, for the moment at least, also closed to all. And although, as we noted above, US and EU leaders are concerned about the Open Balkan initiative, the deliberate ambiguity of their statements – expressing support for regional economic integration without specifying which vehicle is the best to achieve this – also betrays a real ambivalence on the issue.

The truth is that an initiative like Open Balkan will ultimately be implemented or not. The recent meeting saw only one binding agreement promising emergency mutual assistance actually signed, with the rest of the ambitious proposals to be fleshed out at lower levels of government in the coming months. The smart game at this point would be for the West to help the initiative succeed while ensuring that its pledge of openness to the whole region remains in place. Any honest account of the birth of the EU admits that it was itself the product of many bilateral initiatives and agreements carried out simultaneously and which, over time, have merged into the arrangement they now have. The birth of a lasting order in the Western Balkans is unlikely to be any different. The role of the West should not be to engineer and micromanage. On the contrary, it should allow participants to honor their commitments with honesty, while keeping an eye on the big picture, ensuring that the outcome is as inclusive, functional and even open as possible.

The big picture counts above all. In the wake of Prespa’s groundbreaking agreement between North Macedonia and Greece, initiatives like Open Balkan signal that something important, and even healthy, is happening on the ground: local leaders are taking their destiny into account. hand and get creative. It needs to be embraced and encouraged. The EU in particular should take the opportunity to be more flexible. As he adapts himself to a changing world, he should start to reimagine what his relationship with his near stranger can be like. Perhaps concentric circles of deepening integration over time can replace a single bureaucratic approach that has clearly come to a standstill.

Vucic used the recent summit as an excuse to run an editorial in a major Serbian daily calling on fellow Serbs to consider a bright future instead of marinating in a long-standing hatred for Albanians. This is just the most recent manifestation of a thaw that has been taking hold for over a year now. As of this summer, Serbs have been the second highest nationality to visit Albania’s beaches, a surprising number given recent history. More positive surprises are possible, if not probable, if a cycle of prosperity sets in.

About Elizabeth Smith

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