The Western Balkans: Time for a new strategy or just filling the gap?

By Annamária Tóth | 7 October 2012

To quote this document: Annamária Tóth, “The Western Balkans: Time for a new strategy or just filling the gap?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Sunday 7 October 2012,, displayed on 02 April 2023

What future for the process of European enlargement to the Balkan region? Which scenarios for the European Union (EU) and for the candidate countries? What do citizens think about these issues? These and other questions were at the heart of two conferences, one at the Jean Monnet House, the second at Sciences Po Paris, on 28 and 29 April 2011 dealing with the Balkans.

“Europe means peace – even if this might sound amusing for Western European ears today,” Pierre Lequiller, President of the European Affairs Commission at the French National Assembly, started his opening speech at the Jean Monnet House on 28 April 2011, where the members of the project We Are Europeans had gathered with participants from all around the EU to discuss the issue of enlargement to the Balkans. Lequiller underlined the importance of reuniting Europe as a whole: “Reunification has already succeeded with the Central and Eastern European countries. Now, it's time to integrate the Balkans within the years to come.”

“The Hungarian presidency supports EU enlargement with all its forces,” Zoltán Fejes, First Counsellor for European Affairs at the Hungarian embassy in Paris said in agreement a day later during the conference “Candidate Countries: With or Without You?” at Sciences Po. “We are putting the credibility of the EU in question if our strategy does not succeed.” Adding to that, a failure would justify complaints about the EU “promising much but doing nothing.” In order to make accession possible, Fejes agreed with the other participants that democratisation, stabilisation, the establishment of the rule of law, and the respect of human rights were fundamental.

Enlarging after 2004/2007: New tools for a new situation

“The current enlargement is trying to recycle the successful policy mix of the previous one but we introduced novel features to address the particular circumstances of the Western Balkans,” Vincent Rey from the European Commission's DG Enlargement compared the last wave of enlargement to the Western Balkans' situation on 29 April. He underlined that the fragmentation and specificities of individual countries had to be taken into account and showed that the 'carrot and stick' approach was not always enough. In contrast to the last enlargement, where the EU was on top of the candidates' agendas, in the Western Balkans, there is still much nationalist rhetoric going against integration. What is at stake is reunification of the continent and healing the wounds of conflict. This is why the EU has to show even more strongly that it is serious about accession prospects: the successful closure of negotiations with Croatia would be a clear signal in that direction [Author's note: Croatia finished the negotiations on 30 June 2011.]

Agreeing on Croatia as a “potential model for the region”, Natasha Wunsch, Research Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, pointed to other difficulties with the EU's current strategy, which she described as “too much too soon. By granting a membership perspective immediately in 2000, the EU created expectations that accession will proceed within the next few years." A decade later, people are beginning to wonder whether they will enter the EU at all. Thus, the enlargement fatigue inside the EU is being paralleled by “reform fatigue in the region, and the EU must struggle to keep up the dynamic.”

For Wunsch, therefore, the road ahead in the short and mid term includes finalising negotiations with Croatia. Second, the EU needs to overcome bilateral disputes, particularly concerning Kosovo and Serbia. In this case, the EU has to “make itself sufficiently attractive for both countries in order to promote dialogue and convince them to make concessions.” Third, “as long as EU protectorates persist, there is hardly any hope for progress.” Especially in the case of Bosnia, as long as it is EU pressure that holds the country together, it cannot be ready for membership. Finally, Wunsch emphasised the necessity of civil society development, a field in which the Commission has already started some initiatives focusing on dialogue and reconciliation.

“We have come a long way on the road but political challenges are putting us in front of demanding questions on the way forward,” Jonas Jonsson, Head of the Western Balkans Division at the European External Action Service (EEAS) emphasised as well in his opening keynote at Sciences Po. “We are still looking for a balance between crisis management and local ownership on decisions of how to move on. We have not always been able to find a correct balance.” The biggest challenge for Jonsson was to keep the attention of the EU in the region awake. This is an obvious problem when there are many other issues on the agenda. Moreover, Jonsson added, “the Lisbon Treaty gives additional rules and aspirations but we need to implement them and find out how to become more coherent on ground. We have to become more proactive in political engagement.” For this, the active contribution of both sides is needed: the Balkan countries, for instance, should start at home and show that regional cooperation is working, for instance in promoting the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue.

Distrust on both sides is slowing down the process

Another problematic aspect of enlargement to the Balkans is the growing tension between the EU and the area. “Balkan leaders are suspected of being corrupt and linked to the criminal world, a heritage of the Balkans’ specific background,” French journalist Gaëlle Pério, who has lived and worked for several years in the region, pointed to one of several difficulties. “The relationship between the EU and the Balkans is mostly made up of distrust and exasperation,” she argued on 29 April. While the EU criticizes the failure of regional leaders to implement adequate measures, the Balkan countries point to the double standards the EU adopted in defining the accession criteria. She urged the EU to redefine its strategy for the Balkans, given that other regional actors, Russia and Turkey, are becoming increasingly interested in the area.

Concluding that both the Balkan countries and the EU “still consider enlargement as a valuable option,” Pério outlined some points to enhance the process: first, local leaders should be “involved in decision shaping, not in decision-making.” Second, the region's recent past has to be taken into account in any new strategy. Finally, regional leaders have to express “firm and clear goals” and abandon the saying “bice bolje malo sutra – it will be better sometime.”

Take a bottom-up approach

Veselin Penchev, student in European Affairs at Sciences Po, also set a critical eye on local and EU politics so far at the Jean Monnet House: “We all know that there are problems with corruption in the area, but we have to be braver on this point.” He emphasised that the EU's support of often corrupt leaders has not always had a positive impact on the citizens: “Hugging a leader in the Balkans is very good but what image does it give among the population?” He argued that the EU should stop her “top down approach,” which often supports leaders who are not recognised as legitimate by their own people. Instead, “we have to go bottom up: The brightest and truly honest people are not on top of the states but among the citizens.” This bottom-up approach was at the centre of a round-table discussion at the Jean Monnet House, including six participants of the project We Are Europeans, who were making a stop in Paris on their tour around Poland, Germany, and France.

Reacting to previous questions from the audience on the importance of reconciliation between the different peoples living in the area, Nedim Jahic, a law student from Bosnia, underlined the importance of interethnic dialogue, a cause he was promoting with several projects in his home country. With reference to the European motto of Unity in Diversity, his point was that “if we cannot live together peacefully, this means that the European project cannot work. At some point, ethnicity has to be part of the discussion in establishing states.”

So, if the Balkans are in a way the laboratory for the success of the European mosaic, what can they contribute to managing this project? Albania, for example, has had a long history of peaceful living together of different religions: Christians and Muslims. This, Ajesla Spahija, a political scientist, pointed out, is a clear asset for the EU, when issues about Islam are on the agenda on a daily basis.

What is EU membership about?

The participants also agreed that joining the EU should not be about gains and benefits. “If the EU only wants to let us in if they gain something, it has an economic connotation. If this is the case, the EU cannot gain much from Balkan countries,” Boris Surija from Croatia said, adding that the EU is a project of values and not only the internal market.

For philosophy student Vanja Spiric, the relationship of her country Serbia with the EU was like that of a bride dressing up for her groom before marriage: “Serbia is so much occupied with being white, and beautiful from the outside, that she is forgetting to clean up inside. Maybe she is sometimes even forgetting why she is trying so much to be beautiful.”

Macedonian Aneta Spaseska showed that people were not only optimistic about EU membership: “Some people have fears that they might lose what they have recently gained with independence.” Bojan Lajovic from Montenegro agreed: “We have been fighting for independence for long and now we are giving it up again.”

Overcoming stereotypes

Does this mean that the students do not have a European dream? Of course not. Indeed, they emphasised the importance of projects such as theirs to overcome stereotypes and prejudices. “We have been joking around a lot with stereotypes,” Boris added. “For example, Montenegrians are supposed to be very tall. Therefore we were kidding with Bojan that he was not a typical Bosnian because he is the shortest one in the group.” The same has been true for encounters with locals: a French woman told Ajsela that “in my country, we think that Albanians are wild people.”

Despite the jokes and laughter around these stereotypes, Boris warned that they could also be dangerous: “For many people who do not have the same level of education as we do, these things are not jokes, but they are the truth and this can create conflict.” This, then, is why projects where people meet on the ground and talk about their views are so important.

What better way to make this possible than by continuing the dialogue? Pascal Fontaine, Vice President of the Jean Monnet Association proposed to meet again in three years' time: to organise a meeting in Sarajevo, in June or July 2014, commemorating the end of an empire and seeing where we have arrived a century, two world wars, and a regional war later. In the spirit of Jean Monnet, then, let the dialogue continue!

[This article is re-published as part of a series of articles around the project "Candidate Countries: With or Without You?", first published in 2011. The other articles can be found at the section "To go further - On Nouvelle Europe".]

Photo source: "Mostar, bridge" on Flickr.

To go further

On Nouvelle Europe