BY: MARIKA ANNUNZIATA
Even though the Brexit referendum defined 2016 along with the victory of Donald Trump in the US and the rise of populism and Euroscepticism, 2017 cherished new hopes and positive expectations. In the Western Balkans, the change of the regime in Macedonia provided an opportunity to strike a new balance after a decade of democratic stagnation in the region. The European Union itself recognized the importance of this momentum. The change in narrative among the European institutions brought hope to Western Balkan countries, voiced for the first time in September 2017 by the President Jean-Claude Juncker during the State of the Union speech, where he stated that there is a “credible enlargement perspective” for the Western Balkans. The year ahead of us is widely considered to be one of great importance for the EU enlargement process and expectations are much higher than a year ago. Since the announcement of the European Commission Enlargement Strategy presented on February 6, 2018, during the plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the year ahead promises to bring significant changes and challenges.
The European Commission President J.C. Juncker in his State of the Union Speech, and later in the letter of intent directed to the European Parliament in September, mentioned the need to outline a clear perspective for the accession of the leading candidates, Serbia and Montenegro, to the European Union by 2025. “If we want more stability in our neighborhood, then we must also maintain a credible enlargement perspective for the Western Balkans. It is clear that there will be no further enlargement during the mandate of this Commission and this Parliament. No candidate is ready, but in a short time, the European Union will be greater than 27 in number. Accession candidates must give the rule of law, justice, and fundamental rights the utmost priority in the negotiations.” The document stresses that the merit-based prospect of membership for the Western Balkans is in the strategic interests of the European Union. The EU’s enlargement policy must be part of a larger strategy to strengthen the Union by 2025. “It is an investment in the EU’s security, economic growth and influence and in its ability to protect its citizens.”
In order to lend credibility and give substance to the new policy of openness toward the Western Balkans, President Juncker along with High Representative Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Johannes Hahn decided to visit the countries involved, a political initiative of high visibility. Starting in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on February 25, they traveled to Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and lastly Bulgaria on March 1, 2018. During his tour, Juncker reaffirmed the guidelines of the EU strategy and also set out the goals for 2025. The negotiations are already well underway with Montenegro and Serbia, but all the Western Balkan countries must now swiftly redouble their efforts, sustain reforms and complete their political, economic and social transformation, while addressing definitive solutions to disputes with neighbors. Joining the EU is far more than a technical process. It is a generational choice, based on fundamental values, which each country must embrace more actively by coming to a political and social consensus.
The Western Balkan countries will be able to join the EU once they meet the criteria of Article 49 of the Treaty on European Union. Even though none of the countries meet the required criteria nowadays, “through six flagship initiatives, the Western Balkans Strategy sets out the EU’s unprecedented support to the transformation process in the Western Balkans, targeting specific areas of interest for both the EU and the Western Balkans countries.”
First, the most pressing issue for the region is reforms to strengthen the rule of law and to address the fundamental rights and good governance. Furthermore, the independence and efficiency of the judicial system and corruption still pose serious concerns. While the legislation of the Western Balkans envisages fundamental rights, more action is necessary to ensure full implementation in practice and that the freedom of expression and independence of media as a pillar of democracy has the utmost priority. “Journalists belong in newsrooms, not in prisons. They belong where freedom of expression reigns” said President Juncker during his speech for the State of Union in 2017.
Second, strategic and operational cooperation between the Western Balkan countries, the EU, and the region, must address organized crime and thwart terrorism and violent extremism. At the same time, the status quo calls for extensive cooperation within the Western Balkans on migration and border management. This cooperation requires, among the other priorities, further consolidating border and migration management capacities. The Commission aims to create and oversee an EU inter-agency Task Force in order to accomplish the main purposes of the initiative.
The third initiative envisions a particular effort to achieve socio-economic development and increase the competitiveness of the Western Balkan economies. The Regional Economic Area appears to be essential to secure economic integration between the European Union and the region while increasing the attractiveness of the regional market simultaneously. The focus of the initiative is the need to develop a cohesive and strong private sector capable of encompassing the region’s youth and securing economic integration.
As a result, the scope of the initiative seeks to expand transportation and energy connectivity, covering a strategic interest for both sides. Implementing transportation and energy connections will secure competitiveness, economic growth, and security of supply; an important prerequisite for economic integration within the Western Balkans. This calls for, among other reforms, upgraded measures to remove administrative restrictions and barriers at borders to expedite integrated road and rail operations.
The development of the Digital Agenda appears essential to contribute to creating growth, developing businesses, promoting innovation, boosting productivity, increasing public services and improving citizens’ quality of life. It is necessary that the Western Balkans participate in the EU’s attempts to pursue technological adjustments for the countries to benefit from digital innovations. Support for the adoption, implementation, and enforcement of the acquis in the sector of the single digital market will benefit these efforts.
Overall, fostering good neighborly relations and reconciliation needs strong ownership in the Western Balkans, which should be led by the countries in the region. The Commission intends to continue to support these efforts and will further extend support to reconciliation initiatives, with particular regard to those which involve transitional justice and attempt to rectify the outcome of recent crises. Supporting the education and cooperation in the field of culture, youth and sport, are a prerequisite for further development and peaceful coexistence.
It is clear that the credible enlargement perspective poses different issues and challenges. The European Union itself needs to ensure that its institutions will be ready to welcome new Member States once they have met the criteria required. Taking into account the lessons learned from previous enlargements procedures, new members should develop a gradual transition from pre-accession status to full Member State status. Accession is and will remain a merit-based process fully dependent on the objective progress achieved by each country. With a strong political will, delivery of real and sustained reforms, and definitive solutions to disputes with neighbors, Serbia and Montenegro could potentially be ready for membership by this date.
Marika Annunziata holds a Master’s Degree in law from LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome with a main concentration in European and international law. Marika is currently a trainee attorney and is studying in order to further pursue diplomatic career in Italy.
Please note that opinions expressed in this article are solely those of our contributors, not of Political Insights, which takes no institutional positions.