The Western Balkans Summit in Trieste – Are the Balkans stuck in the EU’s waiting room post-Brexit?

Posted on 27. July 2017

by Hatidza Jahic and Miruna Troncota

hatidza-jahic miruna-troncota

It’s been almost 15 years since the 2003 Thessaloniki promise of EU membership for the Western Balkans, and the countries in the region are still in the EU’s ‘waiting room’. The European Commission’s ‘White Paper on the Future of Europe’, published on 1 March 2017 does not mention EU enlargement at all. In the context of the 2017 Western Balkans Summit in Trieste, the first one to be organised after the Brexit vote, Miruna Troncotă (Ro) and Hatidza Jahic (BiH) ask: Are the Balkans forever stuck in the EU’s waiting room?

The Western Balkans Civil Society Forum took place in Trieste (11-12 July 2017) and was followed by the fourth edition of the Western Balkans Summit in Trieste (14 July), reuniting the heads of state and governments from all the Balkan countries and several EU members interested in the region. The very choice of the city of Trieste as the venue of this year’s summit is an acknowledgment of the pivotal role that the Western Balkans play for Italy in particular. The gathering in Trieste also brought together entrepreneurs, young people and civil society representatives from all over the region. Regional economic integration, transport and energy interconnections, youth cooperation and the promotion of the rule of law were the key issues on the agenda.

One year ago, in June 2016, HRVP Mogherini presented, and EU heads of state and government endorsed, the EU Global Strategy (EUGS). The Global Strategy recognises that European citizens want a stronger, more secure Europe, yet it also recognises that no single European country has the strength or resources to seize the opportunities or address the threats of the 21st century. Very recently, Angelina Eichhorst, Director for Western Balkans and Turkey at the European External Action Service (EEAS), stated that: “It is not idealism that leads populations in Serbia or Albania to seek to bind themselves with other Europeans. It is realism and recognition of our mutual interests that tell us that we need each other. Only by working together we can meet our shared challenges and successfully respond to common threats”. Should these statements give more hope to the countries in the Balkans? Or are there real reasons to believe that they could remain stuck in the EU’s waiting room, with their indefinite status of candidate countries?

Strengthened intergovernmental cooperation

In 2014, Germany, along with Austria, France, Italy and two partner states from the Western Balkans, Croatia and Slovenia, initiated a political process complementary to the EU integration process, aiming to achieving sustainable economic growth, democratic reform and reconciliation. The initiative was named the Berlin process because it started with the Conference of Western Balkan states, held in 2014 in the capital of Germany and convened by Chancellor Angela Merkel. The process started as an intergovernmental cooperation initiative focused on economic development and political dialogue, and was planned to be developed in the framework of consecutive summits between 2014 and 2018 (marking the 100th anniversary of both the start and the end of WWI). The Berlin process was a response to the enlargement fatigue among the EU member states, and it tried to offer a more pragmatic answer to this challenge.

Many perceived this as a renewed commitment to the Balkans, with a more pragmatic approach, focusing more on people’s lives, and less on the elite’s rhetoric. This was later followed by the Vienna (2015) and Paris Summit (2016). Their primary goal was to “keep an eye” on future EU enlargement, taking into account the increased levels of Euroscepticism across Europe, as well as the announcement of the then newly appointed Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that there will be no enlargement in the next five years.

The main participating Western Balkans states in the Berlin process are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Many are criticising the Berlin process for being a substitute for full EU membership. However, we argue that this is not the case. The Berlin process is not at all ‘an alternative’ to the enlargement process, because the candidate countries successfully continued their negotiations in the meantime, and even made some progress (like Serbia and Montenegro, who managed to close two negotiation chapters by the end of 2016).

This process is important for many different reasons. The EU has shown once more its strong commitment towards the Western Balkan states and their EU membership perspective. Moreover, it also has a combined symbolical and material meaning as it shows that the EU (under the German initiative) has provided a platform for regional cooperation, connectivity, bilateral issue resolution and youth development – issues that are expected to have a visible impact. Thus, the launch of the Berlin process was in fact a way to reconfirm the EU’s continued commitment to the region’s accession and to give a new momentum to the enlargement process. The agenda was conceived with a three-pillar structure with ‘diplomatic, economic and soft dimensions, that tackle issues related to bilateral disputes, economic governance and connectivity, social affairs, cooperation with civil society, and youth.

Main priorities for the Balkans – connectivity and youth

In 2015, within the Berlin process, the Connectivity Agenda was launched, making this one of the projects with very practical implications, including a wide-ranging effort to modernise and integrate the region’s economic and transportation infrastructure. The agenda was perceived as the most significant regional policy initiative since the 2003 Thessaloniki Declaration. Last year, also in the framework of the Berlin process, the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) was launched, expected to open in the summer of 2017 in Tirana. RYCO provides funding for regional cooperation initiatives (such as public university exchanges and language schools within the countries of the Western Balkans), and its total annual budget is €2 million. This will have a concrete impact on people’s lives and the often repeated claim that the only merit of the Berlin process is to ‘keep the momentum’ of the EU integration process does not stand.

What was agreed in Trieste?

Besides youth connectivity, physical connectivity is another priority area within the Berlin process. During the Trieste Summit, participants reached an agreement on seven projects, with a total worth of over €500 million, €194 million of which comes from EU grant co-financing, loans from institutions such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), and national financing. During the summit, the EU and its five partner countries in the region have signed the Transport Community Treaty; Bosnia and Herzegovina was the only country that was unable to sign. Due to a lack of agreement within the state, the funds that set aside for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s projects are put on “stand-by“. It was agreed in Trieste that the signing parties must agree on the seat of the secretariat and have it operational by the time of the next summit, which is scheduled to take place next year in the UK. The main idea behind the Transport Treaty is to bring the region closer to the EU by creating a fully functional and integrated transport network between the countries of the region as well as between the region and the EU, according to EU standards and policies.

The Western Balkan’s leaders have also stressed the importance of developing a Regional Economic Area similar to the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), which would be based on the standards and principles of Stabilisation and Association Agreements. Other results of this year’s summit include decisions in the following areas: (i) IT summit together with the EU, the Regional Cooperation Council and other participants, based on the EU Digital Single Market Approach, (ii) thematic seminars on five issues: prevention of corruption; transparency; public procurement; whistleblowing and conflict of interest, (iii) starting the process of establishing the Western Balkans Research Foundation (proposed by the Joint Science Conference of the Western Balkans Process from June 2017 and (iv) stressing the importance of civil society.

The future

The Berlin process shouldn’t be a substitute for full EU membership of Western Balkan countries Ongoing EU support in terms of transport and energy, regional cooperation and trade is important and brings about some rather visible outcomes. However, corruption and a failing rule of law are still causing a high brain drain from the region. Two countries (namely Serbia and Montenegro) are already negotiating their membership, while others are still waiting, mostly because of a shallow commitment to reforms. It will be a challenging task to discuss a new EU enlargement round when the EU28 is going to be EU27. One of the most challenging outcomes of Trieste is that the United Kingdom (UK) has expressed the readiness to host the 2018 Western Balkans Summit. We need to closely follow how the British exit strategy from the EU will affect EU’s Balkan ‘waiting room’.