European Union Runs for Life with Integration of Western Balkans
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Gabor Stier

Foreign policy senior analyst at Hungarian conservative daily Magyar Nemzet

Valdai Discussion Club

The European Union, closed in itself and battered by crises, looks again into the future, seeking to complete the unification of Europe by integrating six new states: Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. The task is not easy, taking into account the varying degree of preparedness, ethno-nationalism and political differences between the countries of the region. However, time waits for no one, because if the EU does not do anything, it will not only suffer defeat in the competition for the region, but will also lose the chance to become one of the geopolitical centres of the changing world. Is this really the goal? Did the European Union manifest such ambitions in recent times? Is Europe ready for expansion until 2025? Has it learned from the past years’ experience and can it help strengthen the economies of candidate countries to an extent of a win-win integration? There are many questions and the answers will determine whether Europe becomes stable and strong after the Western Balkans’ integration, which has already been declared a geopolitical investment.

The European Union is experiencing the deepest crisis in its history due to the shaken euro zone, the rigidity of the institutional system, the weakening of traditional elites, growing Euroscepticism, Brexit, the migrants crisis, and helplessness of the European elite in general. More and more analytical materials are published, which predict collapse on the horizon.

But Europe cannot be written off: it got a new chance after the “Big Atlantic Brother” began to change its economic course. This is evidenced by new negotiations on the reforms, awareness of the importance of defence capabilities. But this is also proved by the bold decision to integrate the Western Balkans: it can be regarded as a rescue for the European Commission, which used to oppose further expansion, having been burdened by previous accessions.

Europe is forced to act by rapid changes in the world, growing competition, and challenges related to security. We should not forget about the war in the early 1990s and that despite today’s relative calm the situation is fraught with the possibility of new conflicts. Integration will undoubtedly bring stability to the region, and this will help cope with the migration crisis.

If you look at the map, you will see that the integration of the region surrounded by EU member states is undoubtedly a logical step. This will uniquely strengthen the competitiveness of Europe, despite the fact that “pulling up” new countries will require a lot of work and money. One should not forget that in the past years Russia, Turkey, China, and even Saudi Arabia increased their influence in the region, which is explained by historical and geostrategic reasons, as well as by cultural affinity. One builds a pipeline, another – roads and a railways, yet another – mosques and bridges. At the same time, the largest investor and trading partner of the region, the EU, somehow “fell asleep.” The set date of accession looks rather risky, but the EU has unequivocally made it clear that it has by no means abandoned the Western Balkans. Along with the increase in the annual subsidy, which so far amounted to one billion euros, the EU determination is also evidenced by the fact that after the abovementioned announcement European Commissioner Johannes Hahn immediately left for the region. At the end of the month Jean-Claude Juncker will visit six countries, to be followed in spring by High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, and in May, at the summit in Sofia, the EU-Western Balkans meeting will be held.

After talks with the two most advanced countries, Serbia and Montenegro, negotiations will begin on the accession of Albania and other states. The path will be difficult and bumpy, taking into account corruption, criminality and the state of the market economy. It is quite clear that even the two leading states will not be ready for membership before the year 2025, but the “beginners” will be most vulnerable in terms of competitiveness. Even more important is the resolution of ethnic conflicts, for example, Macedonia’s dispute with Greece over the country’s name, or tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. Currently, it is difficult to imagine that Belgrade recognizes Kosovo, but this issue can also be resolved. For example, despite the huge difference in these countries’ preparedness, it is advisable to admit six states at one time, so that those who joined earlier could not block the accession of neighbours. But before that, the EU must create the conditions by adapting its institutional system for the membership of 33 states. This is a political solution, and the geostrategic interests of the European Union should be above everything else.

The implementation of the large-scale project, drafted by Juncker, together with additional transformations, suggests that by 2025 the European Union will again claim the role of one of political centres of the world. So, it is necessary to rethink transatlantic relations taking into account mutual interests, to normalize relations with Russia, to find a stable place between these two poles of the Eurasian geopolitical region for Ukraine and Turkey, which have no chances for the EU integration. Usefully, the Western Balkans are more sensitive to the stability of the eastern neighbors than the western members of the EU, and thus within the EU they will reinforce the group of those countries which prefer a pragmatic approach to the issue. Of course, this expansion will serve to strengthen Europe only if Brussels can flexibly manage internal differences, and Europe by that time will not finally split in two.

Valdai Discussion Club