Almost a decade has passed since the European Union, at the ‘EU – Western Balkans Summit’ in Thessaloniki, gave a clear European perspective for the countries of the Western Balkans (WB) for the first time, according to the individual progress each of them. Today, when all Western Balkan countries (except Croatia) have a long way ahead toward full EU membership we cannot skip over two important questions which are: ‘are the EU and Western Balkans drifting apart?’, and, ‘how sustainable is the EU enlargement strategy for the successful completion of this process?’
After democratic changes spread out through the whole region in 2000, the European Union promoted the Stabilisation and Association Process (SAP) as a framework for negotiations with the Western Balkan countries, all the way to their eventual accession. Despite the fact that SAP was a key instrument for implementation of the political and economic reforms in the region (aimed especially at stabilization and promotion of regional cooperation) we are still witnesses of its very limited results in the Western Balkan countries on their way to full EU membership.
The reforms in the region have slowed down and it seems that European perspective stopped serving as sufficient motive for further consolidation. The SAP was not successful in attempts for all the countries in the region to progress at the same level and its approach to the region was often criticized as incoherent. One of the consequences of the limited results of reforms was a decline in the support for EU accession by the Western Balkan countries among their citizens.
All Western Balkan countries made a significant step ahead in fostering democracy and rule of law in the region, strengthening administration capacities, and improving internal and external security, but there are still serious challenges (related to corruption, organized crime, unsustainable economic models, open political issues and insufficient regional cooperation) that the region is facing.
Enlargement fatigue is often underlined as one of the reasons for the slowing down of the process of European integration for Western Balkan countries. Considering the tense atmosphere of World economic crisis and Euro-crisis which the European Union is facing, EU enlargement policy certainly is not at the top of the priority list. There are some voices coming from Brussels that speculate about bigger enlargement fatigue after Croatia’s accession to the EU.
Also, we can identify a lack of public debate about the EU enlargement strategy and its possible redefinition among EU member states, although public opinion surveys have shown that EU citizens believe that enlargement in the past contributed to the stability and prosperity of European Union.
Bearing all these issues in mind, it is hard to give any predictions regarding further integration for Western Balkan countries. Maybe it is time for the EU to evaluate the results and efficiency of the Stabilisation and Association Process and to adjust it to specific needs of the region in a way that can be to the benefit to the citizens of these countries.
On the other hand, all WB countries should intensify reforms and work very hard on the process of fulfilling criteria for EU membership. For the speed of the progress in these countries, it is necessary to create very detailed Communication strategies, in order to inform citizens and other relevant actors involved in the integration process and to remove all obstacles to communication among them.
It is very important for the region to learn how to speak ”with one voice”. The Western Balkans is still facing an insufficient level of sincere and open regional cooperation. Regional cooperation shouldn’t be considered only as a part of the EU conditionality policy. On the contrary, it should be perceived as a real and honest necessity. The Western Balkans can, through sincere partnership and open regional cooperation, be a relevant actor in European policy and successful not only in the process of European integration, but also in further internal reforms. If WB countries succeed in that, getting precise dates for becoming full EU member states (based on the so-called ”Regatta” or ”Convoy” approach) is of less importance.