Sep 23, 2022

Op-Ed: The Future of the Western Balkans Is at Stake

The EU needs more drive and determination in putting the six countries of the Western Balkans on the path to membership, argues Michael Roth, the chairman of Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee.

Albania's Prime Minister Edi Rama, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, French President Emmanuel Macron and President of the European Council Charles Michel arrive for a family photo, in Brussels, Belgium June 23, 2022.
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Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has woken up the European Union from its geopolitical slumber. In the midst of the conflict with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the EU has rediscovered one of its most successful instruments: enlargement policy—a driving force in past decades for peace, democracy, the rule of law, and prosperity in Europe.

Now, this success story needs to be continued in Eastern Europe and in the Western Balkans. The return of war to Europe has made clear to us all that the stabilization and integration of our neighbors to the East and South-East is first and foremost in our own interest. To achieve this, the enlargement process has to be reformed in such a way that the citizens in candidate countries are able to benefit from the initial advantages of EU membership even before formal accession has taken place.

The EU has wasted valuable time and a great deal of trust in the Western Balkans over the last few years, most recently by repeatedly postponing the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia. We can no longer afford this lack of determination and unity when the situation is more fragile than it has been in years. Nationalist tensions are on the rise in the region, as seen most recently at the border between Kosovo and Serbia and in the run-up to the elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Moscow Splits, Beijing Builds

Meanwhile, in the Western Balkans a clash of systems is raging between the liberal democracies and the authoritarian regimes of Russia and China. The EU’s hesitation and dithering has created spaces for other actors that do not only reject our values and interests, but actively fight against them. Yet, Moscow and Beijing are pursuing very different strategies in the region.

Russia acts as a spoiler in the Western Balkans. It actively seeks to destabilize the region to prevent further integration with the rest of Europe and the West more generally. The Kremlin relies above all on its close ties with Serbia and the Serbian-dominated Republika Srpska, one of the two entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. For instance, Moscow openly supports the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik in his secessionist plans.

Time and again, the Russian leadership has demonstrated a keen instinct for the ethnic tensions that pervade the fragile coexistence in the region and the shortcomings of EU policy. Where the EU seeks to resolve conflicts through mediation and dialogue, Putin tries—flanked by disinformation campaigns—to add fuel to the nationalist fire. And when the EU is too hesitant to act, Putin presents himself as the white knight in their hour of need, for example by helping to secure energy supplies.

In contrast, Beijing’s approach to the region is more subtle. It seeks to broaden its influence by expanding its economic ties, in particular through extensive infrastructure investment as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. And yet the promises made here only rarely end up becoming reality, with many of the projects announced never being realized or making only sluggish progress.

There is also a huge question mark over the economic value of these projects if they are financed by Chinese banks and carried out by Chinese companies using Chinese workers and materials. Above all, major projects financed on credit entail great political and economic risks: excessive debts can lead to dangerous dependencies, and in the worst case to critical infrastructure falling into Chinese hands. The best example of this is the credit-financed motorway construction in Montenegro, which almost resulted in national bankruptcy for the country.

Moscow and Beijing’s overtures to the region are met with wide open arms by Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić. During his presidency, Serbia has lost its status as a fully functioning democracy. Vučić pursues a foreign policy of ambiguity between the West, and China and Russia. The latter provide essential political support on the issue of Kosovo while also maintaining close economic and security ties. Yet, two thirds of Serbian exports go to the EU. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24 at the latest it should be clear to the Serbian leadership that the time for ambiguity is up. A country that intends to become an EU member must also share its values and geopolitical outlook.

Europe Is the Future

The EU does not need to shy away from open competition with Russia and China. The European model, based on liberal values, open markets, and the rule of law, remains more attractive and sustainable than the authoritarian model. Indeed, a large majority of citizens in the region continue to see their future in the EU—despite all the disappointments and broken promises.

Nonetheless, what the people and the governments of the region urgently need are tangible benefits that come with EU accession. To achieve this, the accession process needs to be reformed, and candidate countries need to be incorporated step-by-step into EU structures before formally joining the European Union. Six specific proposals could pave the way:

Six Points for Reforming the Accession Process

First, representatives of the candidate countries that make sufficient progress within the framework of the negotiations in terms of democracy, the rule of law, and good governance should be allowed to take part in the European Council and selected formations of the Council of Ministers on a regular basis. The decision would be taken by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers with a qualified majority on the proposal of the European Commission.

Second, prior to accession, the EU should cooperate even more closely with candidate countries in the key areas of security, energy, and infrastructure. Particularly in the run-up to winter, it is essential to secure energy supplies in the region. In addition, gradual access to the European single market would be an attractive incentive on the path into the EU.

Third, pre-accession (financial) assistance to support membership efforts should be increased significantly in order to close investment gaps and diminish the attractiveness of Chinese loans.

Fourth, when implementing and monitoring EU-financed projects, the role of the predominantly pro-European civil society should be strengthened, for example by means of compulsory consultation procedures.

Fifth, EU member states should take on sponsorships for candidate countries, as a means of providing close technical and political support throughout the accession process.

Sixth, the opening of formal membership negotiations along with the opening and closing of individual negotiation chapters should be decided in future by a qualified majority in the Council of Ministers.

These reforms would result in an incremental accession process, making the long road to membership more attractive and committing the Western Balkan states more closely to the EU, without undermining the strict criteria for accession.

As the largest EU member state, Germany has a special responsibility for the future of the Western Balkans. With the granting of candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, concerns have grown in the Western Balkans that the European Union’s focus will shift to Eastern Europe in the near future. It is up to us to ensure that the destabilizing influence of Russia and China will not grow further in the region. Renewed political commitment and a reformed accession process will lay the groundwork to enable the next countries from the Western Balkans to join the EU between 2025 and 2030. Let’s get to work!

Michael Roth is chairman of the German Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee and a member of the leadership council (Presidium) of the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

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