The “new” EU strategy in the Western Balkans
The “new” EU strategy in the Western Balkans
Are the new initiatives replacing real commitment?
Artan Sadiku – Program Director, Institute of social studies and humanities – Tirana, Albania
The Berlin process is a productive path for the Western Balkans but it might have been pushed beyond its limits. Pursued through the four Western Balkans summits the process has generated an intensified regional exchange that should lead to a more substantial cooperation. While on the one hand, the joint commitments have contributed to a decrease in instances of tensions among the neighboring countries, it is unrealistic to expect that these rounds of meetings and several new initiatives will deliver a significant change in the region’s economic and infrastructural integration and development. An agreement on the Regional Economic Area in the Western Balkans Six was reached during the Trieste Summit as a means to address this apparent ‘weakness’ of the regional process.
While at first hand the creation of a Western Balkans ‘single market’ might look as a promising initiative, the whole undertaking becomes rather problematic when taken into consideration the regional and wider European political, economic and social circumstances. Faced with internal troubles such as the leaving of a member state – the Brexit, an increase in undemocratic policies in the ‘eastern bloc’ members and a looming danger of new economic disturbances in the ‘southern members’, the European Union did loose pace with the six left-out aspiring European countries – recently being referred to as the ‘Western Balkan Six’. Only after a series of troublesome events, interpreted as ‘’Eastern interferences’, manifested vividly in in Montenegro and Macedonia, maintained in Serbia and involving Kosovo and Albania into the dangerous mix, did the Brussels policymakers attempt to re-engage with the region through a series of initiatives, of which the Regional Economic Area is the most advanced project so far.
After decades of reforms and various adjustments in the processes pursued through the Stabilization and Association Agreements, granting of the status of candidate countries and opening accession negotiations, the six countries have now embarked on a plan that is supposed to re-orient their EU driven long-lasting processes of structural adjustments towards a new regional integration of the Western Balkans Six. Claims made by the enlargement commissioner Mr. Johannes Hahn, during a regional meeting in Durres – Albania, that the Regional Economic Are is a ‘complement not an alternative to the European integration process’ of these countries, fall short when put in the context of institutional and structural settings and processes that govern the relations between the Union and the Western Balkan countries.
The WBREA is more likely to obscure the political and policy processes rather that provide a new drive to development in the region. There are at least two serious questions that this process opens up and which challenge this apparently well-meant project. The first relates to the integration priorities of these countries in the upcoming period. Namely, should they orient towards regional cooperation for integration into a regional model of a quasi-single market, a new idea yet to be clarified, or should they pursue individual adjustments towards the integration into the Union’s single market, a process they are used and committed to for a long time now. At first had, it poses an internal policy confusion for these countries which chronically suffer from a week level of institutional policy capacity. And at the other, it confuses the already established list of individual conditions and priorities set for each individual country in its own integration path. A new and interdependent process can easily lead to a series of blame-gaming played out on every regional setback in relation to the economic area plan, setbacks that will surely occur in the very near future due to the lack of a proper institutional infrastructure to support this ambitious plan.
The second question relates to the mode of enlargement that has been pursued until now and which will have to be revised in the near future in order to address the changes that the Regional Economic Area, if takes seriously by all parties involved, will have to deliver. Namely, when the Western Balkan Six create a joint regional market that will enable “unobstructed flow of goods, services, capital and highly skilled labor” that will involve a high degree economic integration and institutional cooperation, it will render problematic any future individual membership in the European Union of any of the six countries. Once the Regional Economic Area is established by the Six, an ‘exit’ of a member that joins the EU single market, hopefully followed by others, runs completely against its aim. In a similar process as the CEFTA, the WEREA is designed to shrink as its members join the Union. The question that arises than is, whether it is politically viable to collectively pursue a new regional project, while the individual aspiration of each of the six countries is to leave it – to join the Union.
There are two possible scenarios that can hint a possible answer to the motivation for putting forth this rather vaguely planned initiative. The first is that the political circles in the Brussels are well aware that there will not be any new membership anytime soon, probably decades ahead, due to internal uncertainties and issues among member states, thus proposing an alternative plan seems a better move than publicly declaring a long-term halt to further enlargement. A loose plan is better than no plan. Then, when better times come, think of new strategy. The second might be that the whole region ought to be included in the European Union as one bloc once it has leveled its internal tensions and issues and improved economic integration into a single regional market area. It’s a prospect that the EU Commission, given its creativity and adaptability, can pursue as a negotiating strategy with the member states of the Council once the WB Six have improved their economies through integration and development.
While these two scenarios might seem a bit exaggerated, they remain a consequential result of a substantial analytical approach to the policy and political shifts and challenges that the newly adopted plan will bring forth. If taken seriously by the parties involved, the agreement on the REA will produce a new reality in the region that will impact the relations of the Union with the individual countries in ways that currently remain unaddressed and left into the grey area of speculations. In times of high uncertainties inside the Union, as well as outside its borders, there is a desperate need for clarity and sustained commitments as much as for a due respect to the history and continuity of the same.
There is a quite apparent ambiguity of what the Regional Economic Area will actually result in. The Multi-annual Action Plan sets out the objectives which are to be implemented within the CEFTA arrangement, while aiming to create a market of 20 million with a free movement of people, services, goods and capital among the six countries, a market which resembles the Union’s single market, but essentially lacks behind in many aspects. With the freedom given under the Multi-annual Action Plan to the WB6 economies to lead autonomous trade policy, the whole project embarks on a serious political and policy challenge. Politically, it hints a lack of clarity in the relations between the European Union and the Western Balkans countries, with many ambiguities which are to be managed, not resolved, in the future. At the policy level, the Multi-annual plan does not foresee the establishment of new institutional structures to support the whole process of the creation of the Regional Economic Area. While the Union’s free movement of people, services, goods and capital is supported by a huge Brussels machinery and by proper judicial procedures in cases of breach, the REA will use CEFTA’s structures which are not set up for such an integration level as assumed by the new plan. It also remains unclear why CEFTA was not enough as a model, while it served as a catalyst for EU integration for all the other Central European countries that joined the Union in the recent past.
Having in mind all the possible shortcomings that will inevitably occur, the REA is heading towards an uncertain future given the fact that no comprehensive institutional and legal bodies will be specifically empowered to enforce the set objectives. At present, the Multi-annual Action Plan also does not set up mutual obligations, but rather stipulates a set of commitments which are not enough to generate a new economic reality in the Western Balkans. Given all said above, the REA seems to be planned as a relatively weak model of economic integration, so that it does not seem to replace the EU accession processes of the WB6 on the one hand, and an easy to be abandoned plan, on the other, as soon as the enlargement climate within the Union shifts towards a more positive one.
The fact that EU is showing a new commitment to the WB is an indicator signaling the failure of the substantial enlargement policies. Mr. Juncker’s claim that “we (the EU) are stepping in, not out” says enough itself. The Union had left behind the process with the Balkan countries and now, it steps in again, but the very model it is now pursuing through the WBREA is one that seriously lacks in real commitment. It will rather buy-out some time, during which a series of unclear processes will bring forth again the need for clarity and commitment to the enlargement process on the side of the Brussels policy-makers and without any doubt it will require a stronger internal political action by the German government which, has for several years now become the center of the real political power in the Union.
The EU needs to reengage individually with each WB country, independently of the REA process, as soon as possible and with a clear agenda set forth and negotiated with the respective governments. Now that there are new governments elected in recent elections in the majority of the WB countries, they will desperately need to show to their citizens that there is a viable and sustained European integration path, one which will further motivate the internal political and policy reform processes. We have to keep in mind that there are two sides in the relationship, and none of them should have the privilege to avoid and postpone their own commitments. This is especially important for the EU, given the important role it plays in keeping the WB region at bay with democratic processes and economic development.
 The Western Balkans’ Berlin process: A new impulse for regional cooperation http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/BRIE/2016/586602/EPRS_BRI%282016%29586602_EN.pdf
 The Berlin Process and the Trieste summit 2017 http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/ATAG/2017/608637/EPRS_ATA(2017)608637_EN.pdf
 Serbia and Kosovo agree final steps for implementation of justice agreement in meeting of EU-facilitated Dialogue https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/31573/serbia-and-kosovo-agree-final-steps-implementation-justice-agreement-meeting-eu-facilitated_en
 European Commission – Press release. 2017 Western Balkans Summit – stepping up regional cooperation to advance on the European Union path. Brussels, 11 July 2017. europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-17-1938_en.pdf
 Commission Opinion on the Rule of Law in Poland and the Rule of Law Framework: Questions & Answers. http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_MEMO-16-2017_en.htm
 EU struggles to regain credibility in western Balkans: Russia and Turkey exploit historic links in the region in play for power https://www.ft.com/content/bc829a82-03e4-11e7-ace0-1ce02ef0def9?mhq5j=e7
 Johannes Hahn attends informal Western Balkans Prime Ministers’ meeting in Durrës, Albania
 Consolidated Multi-annual Action Plan for a Regional Economic Area in the Western Balkans Six http://www.esteri.it/mae/resource/doc/2017/07/map_regional_economic_area_06_july_2017_clean_version.pdf
 Balkans must join the EU eventually, European leaders say