Europe’s Soft-Power Pull is Still Working, if Unevenly, in the Western Balkans
Photo Credit: Marcel Billaudet/ERSTE Foundation. See more photos of the Western Balkans Summit Vienna 2015 - Civil Society Forum here.
VIENNA—Enlargement of the European Union is a hard sell these days. The member states have turned their gaze inwards as they confront a protracted period of low or no economic growth, not to mention the unfolding migration crisis. Nonetheless, leaders of the EU and Western Balkans states met again last week in Vienna as part of the “Berlin Process” launched by German Chancellor Angela Merkel last August in an effort to reinvigorate the enlargement process in the EU’s geographic inner courtyard. And reinvigorate it they must. Merkel said in 2011, “If the euro fails, Europe fails.” Similarly, if enlargement, heralded as one the EU’s greatest achievements, halts, then with it goes the EU’s credibility and soft power.
The EU’s credibility on the world stage is already weakened by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the carving out of part of Ukraine’s Donbas region by separatist forces backed by Russia, as well as by the eurozone crisis and the migration challenge. So it is all the more important, then, to underscore that the promise given at the Thessaloniki EU Summit in June 2003 stands and that the Western Balkan countries shall join the EU as full member states once they fulfill the requisite criteria of democratic governance and rule of law.
Replicating the idea of a coal and steel community, last year the prime ministers were asked to prepare regional infrastructure projects (highways and railways) that would link up this region of 6 countries and 19 million inhabitants. They were put to the test of whether they could work together in the spirit of European, democratic values, demonstrating good regional and neighborly relations, and thus overcoming the legacy of the conflict of the 1990s. They were able to deliver.
At the Vienna Summit, 24 different infrastructural projects worth approximately €7 billion were confirmed. Agreement was reached that the EU would grant €600 million for regional infrastructural project over the next few years.
Just days before the summit, a “landmark” step was taken by Serbia and Kosovo, under the auspices of the EU and EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, who struck an agreement on a number of contentious issues, including creating Serb-run municipalities in Kosovo and agreements on energy and telecommunications. It was a great step in the process of normalizing relations, a key condition for forward movement on the integration path. Praised by the EU and other international officials, the agreement demonstrates that even the thorniest and most contentious issues can be resolved.
These successes reflect that Europe’s soft power still has pull in the region. Majorities in all these countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia) still wish to join the EU as they know that there is a little more predictability and security in the EU than outside of it.
At the moment, this is also demonstrated by the great number of people are migrating from the region to northern Europe. Of the close to 200,000 who had applied for asylum in Germany by July, 42 percent were from the region. The protracted economic crisis, high unemployment rates especially among youth, continued corruption and perception of corruption, and the slowness of the reform processes have led to a continuing regional brain-drain and loss of confidence in a better future.
Thus it is in the EU states’ obvious interest to push Western Balkans leaders to pursue much-needed reforms more vigorously, and work regionally to create enabling environments that can attract new investments. But they also need to set in motion longer-term strategies, especially in education, to start changing mental maps and educate their youth for the 21st century. This is a small region, and it desperately needs to work together.
The countries also need a more vibrant civil society. Here too, signs of progress were visible in Vienna. After a year-long process of discussions among 50 civic leaders, the Western Balkans Civil Society Forum met parallel to the government summit to share a series of recommendations for addressing regional cooperation, youth employment, media freedoms, and the necessary increased engagement of and with civil society. The prime ministers of Albania and Serbia, the foreign ministers of Bosnia and Montenegro, and EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn met with the civic leaders in Vienna in an open public debate, which was the first of its kind and applauded by all.
The region has come out of the 1990s conflict and, thanks to the EU’s power of attraction, has made significant strides. Clearly, though, much more needs to be done so that next year the Western Balkans Summit in Paris can deliver much more to its citizens. For Europe, too, it would mean success on multiple levels if the citizens of the Western Balkans could look toward their futures at home more positively.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.