After years of taking the Western Balkan region for granted, the EU has woken up to the dramatic deterioration of democratic standards in its nearest neighbourhood.
This year will see a number of events that should sharpen the EU’s focus and offer the opportunity for renewed commitment to the region, starting with the European Commission’s forthcoming Enlargement Strategy Paper.
The Enlargement Strategy Paper should:
- i) set out a vision for the long term to transform the countries of the region into functioning democracies, with accountable governments and viable economies.
- ii) address the root causes of the deep malaise facing the Western Balkans, in particular the ‘state capture’, and prioritise the principles of rule of law and fundamental rights that lie at the heart of the accession process;
iii) put forward meaningful initiatives for the benefit of society at large, such as in the areas of – integrated education in multi-ethnic societies; – reconciliation programmes and local efforts towards transitional justice, including the financing of international investigative experts;
- iv) set out a clear commitment to more consistent and direct support for civil society at all levels and at all times. It should also promote more direct and public support for independent media, including more financial support for targeted projects;
- v) assume a proactive role in bilateral disputes by promoting targeted cooperation with both the OSCE and the Council of Europe;
- vi) support civil society’s role in resolving bilateral disputes, particularly in cross-border areas;
vii) propose a substantial increase in pre-accession funding to the region, including a possible merging of funds with the International Financial Institutions, and open access to EU structural funds.
Also, the Communication on Enlargement (April 2018) should include recommendations for the opening of accession negotiations with both Macedonia and Albania, assuming the reform programmes in both countries proceed as planned. It should also recommend the opening of a screening process in chapters 23 and 24 of the accession process with all the remaining countries.
The EU-Western Balkan Summit in Sofia (May 2018) should confirm the renewed momentum for the EU’s commitment to the region, and should become the first of yearly summits.
Erwan Fouéré is Associate Senior Research Fellow at CEPS.