By Hamza Preljević & Almir Mustafić
In early February 2018, the European Union (EU) Strategy for the Western Balkans (WB) was presented in Strasbourg, and it represents a framework for the integration of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia into the EU. The strategy requires the authorities in the WB to invest more efforts and “deliver on the well-known conditions for accession”, as well as to promote the establishment of a common economic space and launch the economic development in the Balkans. One of the objectives is the improvement of the institutional connectivity of the WB with the EU. The strategy promotes six initiatives related to the rule of law, security and migration, socio-economic development, transport and energy connectivity, digital agenda, reconciliation and good neighborly relations, and it is considered a geostrategic plan for investing in a stable, strong and united Europe based on common values.
As EU officials emphasized, the WB states prior to their accession need to resolve all their regional conflicts, stop migration of the population, strengthen the independent judiciary, establish a stable democracy and the rule of law and curb organized crime. Issues related to border disputes and more efficient public administration, as well as state institutions are also very important, and economic development is certainly implied. It was reiterated that the EU “will not import bilateral disputes” of the WB states, but enough room was left for the international arbitrates if the WB countries need them. Arbitration decisions will have to be enforced prior to accession into the EU, and partners from the WB are also required to align their foreign and security policies with the corresponding EU policies. With this strategy, the WB countries do not become ‘a contracting parties’ with the rights and obligations to implement the mentioned reforms, but it is emphasized that the countries of the region cannot become EU members if they do not meet the specified requirements.
When presenting the strategy, Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn said that Montenegro and Serbia did the most work on the European path. Montenegro has opened 30 out of 35 chapters and Serbia 12. BiH still has no candidate status, and recently it has just completed a questionnaire which is a precondition for obtaining a candidate status. In Strasbourg, therefore, an overview of the factual situation was presented, on the basis of which the strategy of future activities has been developed. In other words, a credible EU enlargement strategy on the WB has been presented, according to which Montenegro and Serbia should complete the accession negotiations in 2023, and become EU members in 2025.Albania and Macedonia should start accession negotiations in 2019 and BiH in 2024. It is important to emphasize the specified dates are not deadlines, but rather a credible forecast, and the dynamics of accession will depend mostly on the countries themselves and their commitment to the implementation of reforms towards the EU.
The European Commission (EC) released its regular report on the progress of the WB countries, and it is expected that the General Affairs Council adopts the conclusions of the report in June. Similar to the EU Strategy for the Western Balkan, the EC report provides insight into what BiH has done and what it still needs to do for the EU membership. Based on the report, it can be concluded that the progress of the WB countries has had limited effects, and that the EU officials want to remind the WB countries that EU membership requires specific reforms, promotion of basic human rights, media freedom, fight against corruption and organized crime, as well as the implementation of economic reforms. Although the enlargement policy is important for the future of the WB and EU because it is considered an investment in "...peace, security, prosperity and stability of Europe...", it will not be implemented without democratic, political, economic and social changes. Also, one of the most important messages to the WB states is that they must find solutions to disputes with their neighbors because the EU does not want instability within its community of states.
An important clause in this year's EC report is the recommendation to open accession negotiations with Albania and Macedonia, two countries that have already implemented some of the key reforms to gain a positive EC opinion. Albania has improved the independence of its judiciary and the rule of law, while Macedonia has shown significant efforts in line with the Greek request to change its name – Macedonia, and later on completed the process of renaming the country into North Macedonia. The report states that the independence of the Macedonian judiciary has improved as well, and that Macedonia has made significant improvement in the fight against corruption and organized crime. The EC expressed satisfaction with Macedonia's human rights reforms, but it demands greater social inclusion of the Macedonian Roma community. Albania's efforts in the fight against corruption and organized crime have also been recognized, but the report says further efforts are needed to curb money laundering and illegal acquisition of assets and wealth. In addition, Albania has received positive evaluations for the alignment of human rights with European standards, as well as for active participation in regional cooperation and maintenance of good neighborly relations. Montenegro and Serbia are rated as the countries with the fastest progress in the negotiation process, but Serbia is required to normalize its relations with Kosovo. BiH is still waiting for the EC's opinion on its EU candidate status, while Kosovo is in the worst situation since five EU members do not recognize it as a nation. A section of the report pertaining to Kosovo states that a new coalition elected in the 2017 elections has had limited success in implementing EU reforms and reaching consensus on key strategic issues for Kosovo. It is positive that the EC ratified Kosovo’s border demarcation agreement with Montenegro in March 2018 as an important step. The report further states that the integration of judges and prosecutors, as well as their auxiliary staff from the Serb people of Kosovo, was a very important success in the Kosovar justice system in 2017. Kosovo has made certain progress in the fight against corruption and organized crime, but it is still necessary to accelerate processes related with these issues. In terms of human rights, it is stated that they are in line with European standards, but the main problem remains the implementation of the law.
Although it is stated that BiH has achieved some successes in the field of human and minority rights, "... the strategic, legal, institutional and policy frameworks for the observance of human rights are in need of substantial improvement." Limited progress has been made in the judiciary, but reforms are still slow. The problem is that corruption remains widespread in BiH and certainly one of the main issues. The report commended BiH's efforts in the fight against organized crime, in particular the adoption of a new strategy on "... fighting organised crime and fulfilling the action plan on anti-money laundering and financing of terrorism." The main warning for BiH is the need for urgent reform of the electoral law in order to ensure “the electoral framework remains to be urgently amended with a view to ensuring the proper organization of the October 2018 elections and the smooth implementation of the results” The report also states that “Bosnia and Herzegovina's alignment with EU Common Foreign and Security Policy has yet to be improved."
As for the EU aid to the WB, last year in July, following the Trieste summit, within the Berlin Process, it was said that the EU members would "allocate a grant of 194 million euros to the" connectivity package "which encourages investments worth 500 million euros for seven new regional projects to improve transport and energy connections within the Western Balkans and the EU." While speaking of a new strategy, the EU officials said in 2018 that the EU would allocate an estimated 1 billion euros for the Balkans for infrastructure projects and strengthening of educational capacities and that IPA funds will be increased by 2020, as well as monitoring of the spending of EU funds. In addition, the WB countries agreed to form a common economic zone, which aims to improve economic competitiveness and connectivity of the WB states. The new strategy, therefore, promotes the intensification of EU-WB relations, and its important part is regional economic development with the aim of reducing the unemployment rate and stopping migration from the WB, as well as efforts to achieve normalization of relations and reduction of national tensions in the Balkans. Funding for the Erasmus+ student exchange program will double, which will contribute to raising the awareness of Balkan students about other cultures and customs, but it will also allow them to see firsthand what European values are and how European democracy functions. Increasing funds for education and student exchanges in this context can be characterized as the use of soft power, and the aim of this policy is to contribute to the upbringing of pro-European generations in the WB countries. Also, this program will enable young people from the WB region to see what the EU has and what the WB can offer to the EU, as opposed to their state, or what the WB countries do not have because of the policies of their leaders. With the new strategy, it is therefore planned that the EU intensifies its political relations with the WB countries and thus strengthening its position in the region.
During this process, the EU will have to deal with extremely difficult challenges, which primarily refers to the establishment of a dominant position in the region where the great powers have already imposed their influence and achieve some of their global strategic goals. Due to its further spread to the Balkans, the EU has identified the potential risks and implications of the possible 'loss of' the WB, and also presented what the EU can offer to the WB states that other powers intending to establish themselves in the Balkans are not able to.
The new strategy, however, should be taken with a certain caution, and it is certainly worth remembering that fifteen years have passed since the European Union sent a message of support to the European future of the EU from the Summit in Thessaloniki. The Thessaloniki Declaration predicted that 2014 would be a "deadline" for the integration of the whole WB into the European Union, but a decade later, at the EU-WB Ministerial Conference in Thessaloniki, it was said that "much has been done" and that for the countries of the WB "There is no time frame," and it is pointed out that "Each country is progressing on the European path on the basis of its own efforts, with different problems, but the same rules for all." An additional burden on EU officials regarding the EU enlargement to the WB will also be the disapproval of some EU member states, primarily France, whose president considers the WB not ready to join the European community in its current form. Also, although it is relatively flexible, the EU budget from 2021 to 2027 did not include funds for the integration of the WB into the EU. Some officials who are suspicious of this strategy also point out that the strategy does not contain any funds for further enlargement, emphasizing that "despite the fact that there is more money in a joint budget of twenty-eight, no funds have yet been allocated for further enlargement of the Union." The Strategy suggests the increase of the financial assistance for the WB within IPP by 2020, "if within the existing envelope it is possible to redistribute funds." Such a financial prospect makes the European path of the WB unconvincing, because the new strategy relies heavily on financial investments to speed up the fulfillment of "well-known conditions for accession", which the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke about under the new strategy.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Balkan Studies Centre (BSC).
*Originally written in Bosnian language within the project "Bosna i Hercegovina i Berlinski proces: Analiza stanja ključnih procesa u BiH pred Londonsku konferenciju 2018" [Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Berlin Process: Analysis of Key Processes in BiH prior to the London Conference in 2018], Balkan Studies Center (BSC).
 In hope for better future, many people from the WB leave their homes and move to the EU countries.
 The last EU Strategy for the WB didn’t specified deadlines for fulfillment conditions on the road to EU membership, which were specified in the previous version (see: http://www.atvbl.com/strategija-eu-za-zapadni-balkan-izostavljeni-rokovi-za-ispunjenje-uslova/)
 EU initiative for strengthen regional cooperation on the WB, and thus further advance the EU integration, started in 2014.
 Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) intends to provide financial and other assistance to candidate countries, as well potential candidates, for the EU membership.
 See more: European Commission (2018), Strategy for the Western Balkans: EU sets out new flagship initiatives and support for the reform-driven region.