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The Western Balkans and the EU: an Arranged Marriage

The Huffington Post logo The Huffington Post 10/03/2016 Enika Bushi

"Balkanize" was a term that came to underline "diversity, conflict and fractionalization"; much of what the world would think of the Balkans and much like what the Balkan people would define themselves. The EU has embarked since the early '90 in supporting democracy and bringing some 'unity or integration' in this small and complex reality of the world.
During the Thessaloniki Summit, the General Affairs Council reconfirmed the Stabilization and Association Process (SAP) as EU policy toward the Western Balkans. The Thessaloniki agenda for the Western Balkans was approved by the European Council of Thessaloniki on June 2003. The novelty was the possibility for all countries of the Western Balkans, to accede to technical and financial instruments applied to EU member states. The SAP countries were invited to take part to the community agencies at the same level of member states, in accordance to their needs. Moreover, each country could benefit from an European Partnership, as the one applied to Central and East European candidate countries (CEECs). In these partnership agreements countries' priorities for future integration were identified.
The Thessaloniki Agenda specified the areas that would benefit from european financial assistance and not only. Fight against organized crime and general cooperation in strengthening the judiciary and domestic affairs; promotion of economic development; regional cooperation for the return of refugees, the promotion of cultural and education exchanges and social development were among the pillars of this agenda, the success of which was highly dependent on the will of interested countries in implementing reforms.
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The state of art in the EU reports showcase the region in getting closer to the Union. It counts four candidate countries and two potential candidates: Kosovo* has signed the Stabilization Association Agreement expected to enter into force later this year; Bosnia and Herzegovina has lately applied to join the EU. However, of the candidate countries, only Montenegro and Serbia have opened EU membership negotiations.
In 2016, thirteen years later, the progress in reforms and political situation in the region has experienced some setback. The EU 'clear perspective' of the Western Balkans has been questioned by the people and their leadership, both within the EU and the Western Balkans. Croatia has been the last member to join the Union in 2013 and since this last accession treaty signed the bar for the remaining countries in the Western Balkans has been raised. Conditionality is not anymore a mere 'copy - paste exercise' of the EU acquis in internal legislation but a satisfactory track record in its implementation is required.
The exodus to Europe resulted in undermining the principle of free movement and is challenging Schengen. The Euro bubble in the past months has not have a shortage of high level meetings regarding the migration crisis. Most notably, La Valetta summit focused on the cooperation with third countries (Africa) and a Meeting on the Western Balkans Migration Route where the EU and Western Balkans' leaders agreed on 17-point plan of action. This crisis for the Western Balkans has been, so far, more than a danger, an opportunity. The refugees cross from on external border of the EU - notably Greece - to transit in the region to reach northern EU member states.
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It is the migration crisis that has put back the Western Balkans in the EU agenda. The power distribution and preferences between EU and Member States play a role of enhancing the EU's win-set. States and the EU, as a whole, may be moved not only by motives of personal gain but, one could hope, as well by ideological aspirations. The cooperation and readiness shown by the region has made for a case of arguing the 'ally' card versus the 'stability' card and prompting technocrats in Brussels to strongly (re)consider the success of enlargement policy. The 'sudden' reminder that the EU project cannot be complete without the integration of the Western Balkans might be shocking for 'euro-sceptics' and those suffering from a 'chronic' enlargement fatigue. Nevertheless, it is bound to happen in due time.
The focus on EU's approach is still on the need to strengthen its external borders. Commissioner Hahn stressed that in retaining control of the influx of refugees to Europe would allow for a change in the process of how these migrants are reaching Europe and how State authorities are answering to the demands. Italy and Greece continue suffering a huge pressure - as entry points - hence the European Council agreed to relocate an amount of 40.000 persons to be distributed amongst different Member States. The current European legal framework on asylum - Dublin Regulations - is under strain given the fact it is widely acknowledged it no longer respond in an efficient manner to the needs of EU Member States but also of asylum seekers. Not only several countries bear the burden of the system - Greece, Italy as entry points and German, Austria and Sweden as final destinations - but also the deadlines to get an application processed are slow and also it entailed many dramatic family separations.
Let's be clear, it is not as much about the influx of refugees and the absorption capacity of the EU member states as much as an increased waive of populism that has cashed in the fears caused by unemployment and overwhelmed welfare system preexistent the refugee crisis. Furthermore, the European migration policies suffered the linkage of increased security threat and the arrival of refugees despite calls from European leaders - notably Juncker - to avoid simplifications. Taking note of this, particularly worrisome is that the EU leadership seems to fail to understand that a long term sustainable solution requires that borders are kept open and further find mechanisms that allow access to safety of persons seeking international protection.
The EU and the Western Balkans are, hence, having an arranged marriage and will have to make it work. Globalization has brought in the EU doorstep challenges that cannot be faced alone and where credibility is essential for long-lasting influence. Only in the last years, the Western Balkans have been crucial in demonstrating that just by virtue of 'being' rather than doing should be sitting on the table when it comes to security, energy - notably the Trans Adriatic Pipeline - and the latest humanitarian crisis, to name a few.
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The EU cannot for longer disregard the Western Balkans. Much will depend on the way the EU will choose to maintain and strengthen the links with the region. Key in doing this will be an optimistic attitude in accepting flaws that were - and some would argue are still - present as well in EU member states. It is time to show more carrots, more in terms of structural funds to support these candidates and potential candidates in getting ever closer to joining the EU. Most importantly, accept that in the complex Balkan's scene individuality of each and single state has to be taken into account. 'Integrate to integrate' can be a good marketing motto but may oversimplify a reality that historically has all but ever been simple. It ultimately may define the results in the multi-crisis game at hand, which cannot altogether be delinked from the European future. Perhaps, proving once more, famous Churchill's saying: the Balkans produce more history than they can consume.

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