We, the undersigned participants of the Conference on (Mis)Perceptions of the European Union in the Western Balkans from the six Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and
Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia), European Union members (Croatia, Italy, France, Germany) and other European states (UK), issue this Call for Action in favour of a Fast Track for integrating the Western Balkans into the European Union.
Today we are facing a turning point. The Russian invasion of Ukraine carries risks for the entire Western Balkan region and its implications are already felt, so there is a need to reinforce the participation of the Western Balkans in the strategic reflection on European security. With Ukraine knocking on the doors of the European Union, the future of the EU accession policy is at stake. Welcoming the first steps taken towards Ukraine’s membership in the European Union, we consider this is the most propitious moment to accelerate Western Balkans’ membership. There is a sense of urgency: it is time to transfer Western Balkan citizens’ expectations into reality, to turn words into deeds.
Among the main stumbling blocks of European Union-Western Balkan integration are the differences in perceptions on both sides. Today, the gap between what the Western Balkan politicians and citizens think about the European Union and what the politicians and citizens in the EU member states think about the Western Balkans is wider than ever. However, perceptions can and should be changed. The following are the most important issues that must urgently be addressed, as suggested by the Belgrade Conference participants.
- No alternative but the European Union: The Western Balkans are European countries, there are no alternatives for them but to become part of the European Union. These countries are the “soft belly” of the Union, surrounded by EU member states. Most countries are “left-overs” of former Yugoslavia that in 1989 had the best starting conditions among all East European countries (economic, political, international). After thirty years, it is time to close a geographical, political and cultural hole in the middle of Europe. The choice between the European Union and other actors (Russia, China, United Arab Emirates) is a false dilemma, because the Western Balkans are strongly integrated with the European Union. The European Union is the Western Balkans’ main economic partner, responsible for 69% of exports and 54% of imports (2020), representing an even higher share of foreign direct investment and of banking sector ownership. The Western Balkans already implement economic policies similar to those in the European Union: austerity fiscal policies, restrictive monetary policies that imply overvalued national currencies (or use of euro in Kosovo and Montenegro), stimulating Western Balkan imports and hampering their exports, thus ensuring EU’s stable surplus with the region.
- Common interests: The European Union and the Western Balkans have many common interests that are often not sufficiently recognized – in the areas of security policy, migration, environment, trade, energy and transport infrastructure – that can best be pursued through joint and coordinated sectoral policies. Instead of the imaginative vocabulary (e.g. “creative ambiguity”, “autistic disorder”) – the European Union ought to openly recognize that the Western Balkans’ full integration into the European Union is a geostrategic investment into a stable Union, for the sake of its own political, security and economic interests. This requires the creation of a shared vision for the future of the Western Balkans in the European Union.
- Benefits much greater than costs: The benefits of letting the Western Balkans join the European Union would be much higher than the costs of leaving them out. This is a region of opportunities, not of risks. The economic benefits accruing from Western Balkan membership are well-known from previous EU enlargements, including the positive impact on economic growth, trade and enterprise networks. Moreover, once Western Balkans enter the European Union, it will be much easier to cross the borders between countries, softening the disruptive nationalistic rhetoric – given that all Albanians, Bosniaks, Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins and Serbs will become European Union citizens. The costs of entry of the Western Balkans into the European Union would be negligible in terms of budgetary or decision-making implications, considering that they are mostly very small countries, the whole region representing a population of 18 million inhabitants (4% of the current EU population).
- All Western Balkan countries should join the European Union together by 2025: Despite differences in the current status of individual countries – Montenegro and Serbia negotiating EU accession, Albania and North Macedonia soon to start negotiations, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo potential candidates – no country should be left behind. All Western Balkan countries have come a long way in adopting European Union laws and standards (e.g. regarding food safety, public procurement, customs). Facilitating European Union membership of all Western Balkan countries is the only way to avoid further divisions and political instability. Innovative solutions must be invented to render this possible due to different positions of European Union member states towards enlargement. For example, candidates’ EU applications could be considered by qualified majority, in order to prevent the imposition of veto by individual member states on future enlargements.
- Negative effects of further delays: There is insufficient awareness of the fact that postponing the entry of the Western Balkans into the European Union can only cause further backsliding in the reform process. The strengthened EU conditionality in the Western Balkans, along with much weaker incentives due to uncertain membership, has had very negative effects during the past ten years. Instead of converging with the socio-economic and political matrix of its EU vicinity, there has been limited political and income convergence. The Western Balkans are still at 30-45% of European Union average GDP per capita (2020), without Kosovo (for which accurate statistics are not available). Given that the Western Balkans will receive financial assistance over the next seven years that represents less than half percent of the European Union budget, there is a risk of further divergence (rather than convergence) with the richer part of Europe, unless the region joins the European Union soon. People in the region are experiencing the “three Ds” phenomena – Disappointment, Disillusionment and Disenchantment with the EU – that is leading to a strong deterioration of the European Union image, in parallel with increasing loss of human capital through migration of young people leaving for better living and working conditions elsewhere (e.g. one-third of Kosovo citizens already live abroad). Frustration of citizens is being used by right-wing anti-EU parties to create an even higher wall between the Western Balkans and the European Union.
- Pro-Russian sentiment Vs. support of European Union: Some Western Balkan countries are linked to Russia through history, culture, religion. This does not mean, however, that their citizens do not strongly condemn the Russian attack on Ukraine. Moreover, public opinion in the Western Balkans predominantly supports European Union membership (if voting at a referendum) – 91% in Albania, 81% in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 95% in Kosovo, 83% in Montenegro, 80% in North Macedonia, 64% in Serbia – although an increasing number believes it will never happen and, due to unfulfilled expectations, their attitude towards the European Union is much less favourable. Serbia may finally have taken sides, having voted in favour of UN Resolutions denouncing Russia over the Ukraine invasion (March 2022) and suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council (April 2022).
In view of the above, we the undersigned issue this Call for Action, urging for a Fast Track for the Western Balkans to the European Union.
Will Bartlett, European Institute, London School of Economics, UK
Stefano Bianchini, University of Bologna, Italy
Srđan Bogosavljević, University of Belgrade; Ipsos, Serbia
Matteo Bonomi, Institute of International Relations (IAI), Rome, Italy
Ditmir Bushati, Chairman of the Board, Adriatic Security Forum; Former Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs of Albania, Albania
Mihailo Crnobrnja, former President of European Movement in Serbia; former Ambassador to the European Union of former Yugoslavia
Renzo Daviddi, former EU official in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo, Italy
Gordana Đurović, University of Montenegro; President of Montenegrin Pan-European Union; former Minister and Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration, Montenegro
Nedžma Džananović Miraščija, Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Jelena Džankić, European University Institute, Florence, Italy
Simonida Kačarska, Director, European Policy Institute, Skopje, North Macedonia
Dejan Jović, Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Zagreb, Croatia
Gëzim Krasniqi, University of Edinburgh, UK
Aleksandra Krstić, Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Belgrade, Serbia
Sonja Licht, President, Foundation BFPE for a Responsible Society, Serbia
Duško Lopandić, Forum for International Relations, European Movement in Serbia; former Ambassador to EU, Serbia
Vladimir Međak, Vice-President, European Movement in Serbia, Serbia
Miroslav Milićević, Anti-Corruption Council, Serbia
Jelica Minić, President, European Movement in Serbia, Serbia
Vesna Pešić, sociologist, former researcher at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory; former president of the Civic Alliance of Serbia, Serbia
Dušan Reljić, SWP – German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin/Brussels, Germany
Jovan Teokarević, Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Belgrade, Serbia
Milica Uvalić, Project’s Academic Coordinator, University of Perugia, Italy
Stamenka Uvalić -Trumbić, UNESCO, Paris, France
Jelena Vasiljević, Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, University of Belgrade, Serbia
Ivan Vujačić, President, Forum for International Relations, European Movement in Serbia;
University of Belgrade; former Ambassador to USA, Serbia
The conference within the Jean Monnet Project of the Universities in Perugia, Belgrade and Zagreb has been organized from April 7th to April 8th 2022.