The Inner Courtyard of the European Union
The Western Balkans are again increasingly in the focus of European politics.
In particular, Russia's brutal war of aggression against Ukraine has increased fears that this could also have an impact on the still unstable Western Balkan region. The influence of authoritarian powers - especially Russia and China - has steadily been increasing in recent years and observers have therefore been warning for some time that Southeast Europe is drifting towards authoritarian allies.
But how should these challenges and dangers be countered appropriately? Is the prospect of joining the EU still a realistic goal for all countries? Against the background of the developments mentioned, should the integration of these countries even be accelerated, as some are demanding?
Representatives from science, the media and civil society discussed this last June at the invitation of the foundation in Belgrade: "The inner courtyard of the European Union - The Western Balkans in the field of crises and conflicts" was the topic of a panel discussion moderated by the experienced Southeast Europe correspondent Adelheid Wölfl of the Wiener Standard.
FNF board member Manfred Richter and Southeast Europe expert Prof. Solveig Richter, who joined from Leipzig, outlined the development of the countries of the Western Balkans region and pointed out that this region - surrounded by EU member states – is particularly important for the security and stability of the European Union overall and of particular importance.
However, the "European perspective" including subsequent full EU membership, which the countries of the Western Balkans have been repeatedly promised on many occasions for almost 20 years, is obviously moving further and further into the future. The most recent accession was almost 10 years ago (Croatia, 2013), Montenegro has been negotiating since 2012 and Serbia for eight years.
The European Union's "enlargement fatigue" and "skepticism" on the one hand corresponds to a lack of or decreasing willingness to reform as well as to disappointment on the part of the accession candidates.
Against this background, what realistic, intermediate steps, short of full membership, that could trigger a motivating boost, would be acceptable to both sides and could stand up to the new geopolitical challenges?
The Southeast Europe correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Michael Martens, suggested as an interim solution, which should not be misunderstood as renouncing full membership at a later date, focusing on the European internal market with its four pillars: free movement of people, goods, capital and Services. This would give the Balkan states full economic participation which could have enormous positive effects. However, they would be denied political participation for the time being.
The Director of the European Fund for the Balkans, Aleksandra Tomanic, found little to like in this approach. If the political criteria were to lose their importance there would no longer be any reason whatsoever for the political elites in the Balkans to actually and effectively tackle constitutional reforms. The entire paternalistic-nationalistic policy so typical of this region – the term “people” is always mentioned, but never the responsible “citizen” – could then continue unhindered.
Jelena Spasovic, from Brussels, has worked in the international youth field for many years and she points out another aspect. The EU has been sending contradictory signals to the Serbian public for a long time. Initially Vucic was treated as a credible pro-European partner, later as a fickle, unwanted autocrat. This also gave the public the impression that the EU actually did not want Serbia to become a member. The young, pro-European generation usually only has emigration as an alternative.
There was agreement on the podium regarding the risk assessment of Russia, which supports every initiative that appears suitable to undermine the desired EU integration of Western Balkan countries and uses it for its goals.
The EU must therefore pay much more attention to developments in Bosnia-Herzegovina where the dissolution of central government institutions has been under way for years. The Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik, for example, is pursuing the secession of the Serbian republic with great energy and the active support of Russia.
The event was also the final event of Michael Roick, who was responsible for the project work of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for freedom in the Western Balkans, Belgrade, for three and a half years. In the presence of many representatives from civil society, politics, science and the media, he introduced his successor, Markus Kaiser, who will start work in Belgrade in August.