10 Jan 2019

The EU’s re-engagement with the Western Balkans

A new chapter long overdue

Erwan Fouéré

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Key points for policymakers

2018 was dominated by deep divisions among the EU member states despite the great expectations set by the European Commission’s February 2018 strategy paper. A major effort will now be required to restore credibility to the EU’s enlargement agenda and ensure a genuine re-engagement with the Western Balkans. It will be up to the new Commission to regain a leadership role and give the integration of the region into the EU the priority it deserves.

Policy recommendations

The European Commission should ensure that all the recommendations contained in its February 2018 strategy paper be followed up. To that end,

it should incorporate the proposed concrete actions into the next enlargement communication strategy and country reports so as to make the reports more operational.

The European Commission and the European External Action Service (EEAS), together with the EU member states, should adopt a more pro-active diplomatic effort in resolving bilateral disputes in the Western Balkan region.

The European Commission should maintain the regular timing of early April for adopting its annual communication on enlargement and country reports, to allow sufficient time for follow up at the European Council in June.

The European Council in June should reaffirm the EU’s commitment to the enlargement agenda by deciding on the start of accession negotiations with both Albania and Macedonia, and the granting of candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina, assuming they will have fulfilled the conditions set by the June 2018 European Council.

Depending on the EU’s renewed commitment to enlargement, the Berlin Process should continue and focus more on societal issues such as reconciliation, education and culture.

Tackling environment and management of natural resources requires greater attention from both the EU and Western Balkan countries.

The new Commission, to take office in November, should:

  • return to the old practice and appoint a Commissioner responsible exclusively for the enlargement portfolio;
  • implement a more intrusive monitoring mechanism of reforms in the Western Balkan countries and make more systematic use of peer review missions as suggested by the February 2018 strategy paper;
  • ensure that civil society actors at both national and local level in the Western Balkan countries form an integral part of the accession process;
  • open up the structural and cohesion funds to benefit the Western Balkan region, in addition to the extra funds envisaged under the Multi Annual Financial Framework;
  • together with the EU member states, include the Western Balkan countries in Informal European Councils and other inter-ministerial meetings, as proposed in the February 2018 strategy paper;
  • aim to have formal accession negotiations opened with all Western Balkan countries during its mandate.