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The EU and the Balkans: Parallel Lives Forever?

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Prospects of the Western Balkans joining the European Union any time soon are fading. The sense of pessimism around the region is growing pervasive.

The future of the small region is thrown into yet more doubt by the high degree of “enlargement fatigue” that has gripped EU citizens. More than half of current EU countries’ citizens oppose further enlargement of the European Union.

The 2003 Thessaloniki Summit’s promise of membership now serves as an uncomfortable reminder for an EU struggling with internal economic, social and migration crises.

Holding up an illusion?

This does not mean that the Western Balkans has entirely disappeared from the radar of the EU institutions. Countries such as Germany are trying to keep the process open.

Initiatives such as the Berlin Process aim to send a message of support and reaffirmation for the European future of the region. The Trieste Summit of this last week sent a positive signal to the region that the region’s future lies in the EU but the countries have to be serious in their reform processes.

The underlying idea is foster economic cooperation and political stability within the region–although without clear timelines.

This behavior is meant to prevent further damage from the “reform fatigue” that already manifests itself in the region.

The “new” Balkan problem

The Western Balkans remain dominated by old and new enmities. Ethnic divisions seem more entrenched than before and state institutions remain unstable and weak. This presents serious hurdles for the democratic transformation of the region.

Social discontent is deep, poverty is enduring and levels of inequality are increasing. This encourages mass outward migration of people.

Heavy population losses

Three countries in the Western Balkans rank globally among countries that have lost a fifth or more of their population due to outmigration.

One third of those born in Bosnia and Herzegovina are now living abroad, as are 28% of Albanians and 21% of Macedonians.

Worse, most of those who have departed are from the younger age cohorts. It is hard to imagine a more powerful vote of no confidence in a country’s future than that.

In addition, because most of the Western Balkans’ young emigrants are relatively skilled, their emigration seems to be permanent. Only limited numbers of migrants return.

EU as an anchor

Amidst such dire circumstances, the EU remains seen as the anchor power in the region. It is crucial for the EU to keep its allure alive and not lose its credibility.

To be sure, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are working hard to obtain a stronger beach head in the Muslim countries of the region. Russian meddling in internal affairs in the Western Balkans has increased in the last years, acting as an opportunistic spoiler using internal institutional weaknesses.

The current trendline is ominous. Only 39% of people in the Western Balkans think EU membership is a good thing, while a large number (36%) have a neutral opinion.

A key part of the explanation is a wrong-headed form of nostalgia – about the (Communist) past being better than the challenges of today.

That yearning for the past has, in its own way, also gripped places that are much better off economically, such as in the United States or Western European countries.

Albania and Kosovo as exceptions

Albania and Kosovo are the only exceptions, with more than 80% supporting EU membership. Negative perceptions prevail in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, with large numbers thinking that their country will never become an EU member.

Quite self-destructively, the lack of successful developments in the region will continue to feed growing anti-EU sentiments. Pessimism is real, but scapegoating the EU for the slow transformation of the Western Balkans is unfair.

A dangerous negative feedback loop

The overriding problem with the prevailing pessimism is that, wholly independent of the question of EU membership, this languishing does not encourage economic, political and social reforms. They have stalled across the region even though, EU membership or not, the countries very much need them for their own sake.

The longer it takes for the Western Balkans to join the EU, or at least have some tangible progress in the accession path, one thing is for sure: Whether inside the EU or outside, these countries on the EU’s edge will pose a considerable risk to the future of the overall European project.

Valbona Zeneli