Is there room for Western Balkans in the debate on the “new” EU?

04.03.2017

The dimension and intensity of problems that the European Union (EU) has been facing for over a decade are raising questions about its future. The “polycrisis” – characterised by slow recovery from the economic crisis, the war in Ukraine, the migrant crisis, Brexit, terrorism and the crisis over the legitimacy of EU institutions – produced asoil fertile for the mushrooming of anti-European, anti-establishment movements, which is why each upcoming election in any Member State is perceived as fateful for the survival of the Union itself.

However, the truth is far from the vision harboured by euro-populists. Unemployment today is by 3% down in comparison to 2013. Recovery from the economic crisis is slow, though visible, and positive growth for the third year in a row is expected in the EU in 2017, while the Eurozone peaked in growth over the last six years. Brexit did not cause a domino-effect, the anti-European idea lost at the Austrian presidential election, and the failed referendum on constitutional changes in Italy did not increase anti-European sentiment in the country. Even though the trend of “fateful” elections continues throughout 2017, which came to be known as annus horribilis, it is likely that the ultra-right stands no chance in either France or the Netherlands, while Germany appears to be in for another pro-European coalition government.

Unquestionable is thefact that the EU is far from a disaster, and, in the words of the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, “the disintegration of the European Union will not lead to the restoration of some mythical, full sovereignty of its Member States, but to their real and factual dependence on the great superpowers.” however, the fact also remains that it can no longer function in its existing form. Various dividing lines between Member States – on decision-making authority, positions towards Russia, economic measures or solutions of the migrants’ crises; fear of terrorism isgrowing, youth unemployment ishigh – all these are the causes for the loss of faith among the Union’s citizens.

This state of affairs provoked aserious reaction from Brussels last year. The Bratislava process, triggered by the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU, was started last autumn, as an all-encompassing debate that will help shape the final scenario for the Union’s future by this year’s December EU summit. In this framework, the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, presented his White paper to the European Parliament on Wednesday afternoon, with five different options colloquially labelled “carrying on”, “nothing but the single market”, “coalitions of the willing”, “doing less more efficiently” and “doing much more together”.  The third scenario, “coalitions of the willing”, is an already known idea of “multi-speed” Europe, which entails more profound cooperation among the states that desire it, in the areas of defence, internal security, taxation and social issues, with a deepening of the single market for all 27 members. According to unofficial information, the “two-speedEurope” scenario is theEuropean Commission’s favourite; the first two oppose further integration, and the fourth and fifth are unrealistic. Considering that Angela Merkel recently announced the possibility of constituting a “multi-speed” Europe, these allegations seem credible, and offering the other models can be seen as atactical move to soften the blows of those who oppose the desired scenario. The forthcoming EU Summit in Romewill be the first official opportunityfor heads of states and Governments to discuss Juncker’s “Europe’s birth certificate”, which is the informal title of the paper, symbolising a new beginning. The process of debating and advocacting these and many other ideas on the future of the EU starts now, to give shape to the agreement of the “new” Europe in December.

Will there be any room for the Western Balkans in the “new” EU? In the hypothetical “two-speed” scenario, access to all aspirants would probably be facilitated into the “slower lane”, but too many uncertainties in view of the actual modalitiesprevent any serious forecasting at this time. As is, the marginalisation of the issue of enlargement on the EU agenda is already the reality, ever since the 2014 enactment of a moratorium on new memberships and a reduction of institutional focus on the region.  The so-called polycrisis and its populist, anti-European responses additionally burdened the process. The upcoming “re-birth” of the Union and the uncertainty that will inevitably be reflected on the functioning of institutions in the months prior to it, may decrease its transformative power in the region.

The uncertainty that follows may discourage the reforms induced within the framework of the process of integration in the EU, and render a favourable climate for regional conflicts in the Western Balkans. Logically enough, such developments would slow down the motion towards the “new” Europe, whatever becomes of it tomorrow. This is why the months to come will increase the responsibility of membership candidates and potential candidates for implementing internal reforms as pre-conditions to their accession to the EU, and for regional stability. Their conduct under this pressure will be a political graduation of sorts, as well as a test of true commitment to European values.

Western Balkans states are not part of the Bratislava process, and are, therefore, left out of the current debate on the EU’s future. However, if, as stated in its Global strategy, the EU counts on cooperation with regional actors in providing a response to key security challenges, if EU officials have been repeatedly encouraging the region by stating it is their priority, considering the progress made in the on-going EU integration process and the officially confirmed European perspective – is there room for inclusion of the Western Balkans in the debate on the future of the EU? Are the future members not entitled a say in the matter of their destiny in a community which offered them membership? As they are not formally participants in the process of deliberating future scenarios, in order to ensure their voice is heard and their interests protected, EU membership aspirants from the Western Balkans will have to impose as contributors to this debate, and do so while speaking in single voice.

Even though,in light of the developments over recent months, the idea of regional cooperation may today seem utopian, cooperation between regional administrations is very much alive, especially in terms of the economy, energy and security, irrespective of day-to-day politics. EU Member States have many times demonstrated that regional grouping and advocacy aremore effective means to achieving goals than individual initiatives. As the Western Balkans is more often than not viewed as a single area, as its regional market mounts up to 20 million people, as itits states havea common cultural and historical heritage and are undoubtedly directed towards one another – the joint approach is the only sensible solution. It increases the potential influence of the region in the fora where scenarios for future Europe will be decided. Still, if the region’s Governments wish to have their say regarding the future form of the Union, if they want to use the on-going “reshuffling of cards” as an opportunity to re-invigorate the enlargement process, there is no use of waiting for an initiative to come from the EU. It would have to be raised by the Governments themselves.

The idea that Governments of the Western Balkans could, at this moment in time, unite in their approach towards the EU in order to secure their participation in the deciding of the Union’s future may seem overly idealistic. However, channels of communication with the Union’s officials have developed over the years, mutual trust is already there, and all initiatives stemming from authentic regional cooperation are greeted with evident approval by EU institutions. Moreover, as the civil societies are by nature more flexible and agile than state institutions, maybe it is up to them to initiate and advocate for these processes, and be their spiritus movens.

Marko Drajić
Ana Marjanović Rudan
The authors are consultants and associates of WB 6 Advocacy Group

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