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EU Forecast: Shifting Dynamics in the Western Balkans

Oct 19, 2011 Written by  Mikel Kotonika, Guest Contributor
EU_Parl_BalkansWith a deepening crisis in the Eurozone and a scrambled attempt by Europe’s leaders to avert further economic and political unease across the continent, the European Commission has nevertheless managed to move forward in its accession talks with countries across the Western Balkans. As the “enlargement fatigue” experienced by many countries within the EU heightens, however, prospects for membership in the troubled region remain dim. Coupled with lingering ethnic and national tensions still plaguing the region, the integration process is likely to be a grueling task in the ongoing negotiations between Brussels and its counterparts in the Balkans.

Though a report released on October 12 by the European Commission recommended the opening of accession talks with Montenegro and the granting of EU candidate status to Serbia, other countries in the region showed little-to-no progress in the annual Enlargement Package. Highlighting the successful reforms of the two countries, Commissioner Stefan Fuele stated that “the transformational power of the enlargement process sends a powerful message of hope at this challenging time, both for European Union Member States and for the enlargement countries.” Indeed, while the news is welcoming to Montenegrin and Serbian officials, the prospects for EU membership - in accordance with other regional states - remain uncertain given the current climate prevalent across the continent.

Furthermore, despite reforms undertaken at the national level in their efforts to satisfy EU accession requirements, populist support in the region has waned as the grueling process for membership in the region carries on. In addition, a polarized political environment continues to damage the prospects of swift integration to EU norms and standards. According to the recent report, major challenges remain in the areas of good governance, the rule of law, administrative capacity, unemployment and economic reform. Worrying developments in the media’s freedom of expression were also noted.

In a number of countries, important reforms were delayed, often as a result of internal political developments and conflicts. In Albania, the stark political polarization has put the country’s EU aspirations on hold since the much-contested parliamentary elections in 2009, followed by violent protests that left four people dead in January this year. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s developments have also flattened; Sarajevo is going into its second year without a central government due to inter-ethnic political wrangling, thus blocking the necessary developments in key EU-related reforms. While Macedonia has taken considerable steps forward in the accession process, the unresolved name-dispute with Greece continues to be the biggest hurdle for the country. With an ethnic-Albanian population estimated at over 25 percent, Macedonia’s internal issues will also play a large role in their integration efforts and will likely complicate ethnic dynamics often synonymous to the region.

Moreover, the Commission’s report pointed to the differences over the status of Kosovo, which continues to have a negative effect on both Kosovo and the wider Western Balkans region. In particular, the disputed Serb-held north will continue to be a divisive issue in projected negotiations between Prishtina and Belgrade, who have delayed the EU-led talks following clashes along border crossings near Serbia in recent months. Despite the arrests of Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic - the two remaining ICTY indictees that marked an important step towards reconciliation in the region - the debate over Kosovo’s North will likely be the most pressing issue shaping future relations with the EU going forward. While recognizing its former province is not seen as a formal condition for Serbia’s European integration process, there remain a number of outstanding issues which still prevent the normalization of relations. As for Kosovo, which to date remains in the least advanced stages of the accession process, the best it can hope for is a lifting of visa requirements. At the moment, Kosovar citizens are the only people in the Western Balkans requiring visas to travel into the Schengen zone covering 25 European countries.

Some may also wonder why the regional states want to join a club that has more than a few problems of its own. As the economic crisis continues in Europe, support for EU integration has fallen in most Western Balkan countries, including runner-up Croatia. Though the country is projected to join the EU in July 2013, its neighbors are years away from membership and thus is danger of slipping away from Brussels’ orbit. Despite the unlikelihood of opposition to the EU, progress between the 27-nation bloc and the Western Balkans will depend largely on the continued cooperation between Brussels and regional governments. Furthermore, as elements of Yugo-nostalgia and the added influence from Turkey’s soft power towards the Balkans permeate, the cultural as well as economic and geopolitical dynamics of the Western Balkans may soon be felt yet again.

Mikel Kotonika is a current Foreign Policy Intern at the American Action Forum. He has served as a Polling Station Advisor in Kosovo for the country's first parliamentary elections in 2010, and has completed previous internships at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in its New European Democracies Project and at the Heritage Foundation in its Administration Department. He holds degrees in international relations and German.

Photo courtesy of the European Parliament.

Last modified on Wednesday, 19 October 2011 21:43

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