EU enlargement has proved to be one of the most successful tools in promoting peace, stability as well as political and economic reforms in Europe and beyond. Thus, countries such as Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and even a pragmatic player like Serbia are striving for a long time to be part of the EU and still are to be found in the waiting room. Perhaps, new hope will come under the Slovenian Presidency? For sure, the enlargement policy is essential to reinforce the EU’s presence in the region and that is why this policy continues to be considered as a shared strategic interest that benefits all the involved parties.
Today, the Western Balkans are formally part of the enlargement strategy and this time not just at the level of narratives. Although, some countries such as France, Netherlands, or Denmark have been strict in this regard. More specifically, in 2019, France chose to veto and block the start of negotiations for the accession of Albania and North Macedonia, while Netherlands and Denmark agreed to start negotiations with North Macedonia but refused to take the same decision for Albania (Outeda & Troitiño, 2020). In explaining his decision, President Emmanuel Macron stated the need to first reform the EU and the enlargement process, and after that, to proceed with a further expansion (Gotev 2019).
Additionally, he expressed his concerns about the capacities of Albania and North Macedonia in regards to corruption, organized crime, and migration (Puccetti 2019). As a result, in 2020, the Council decided to revise the enlargement methodology as an attempt to overcome the deadlock and to revive the accession process (European Western Balkans, 2020). Therefore, accession negotiations are going on with Montenegro and Serbia and as for Albania and North Macedonia, the Council agreed on opening accession negotiations but both these two countries have not yet held their intergovernmental conference (Maas, Silva, & Logar, 2021).
But, there are still hopes that the whole EU accession process of the Western Balkans will accelerate and maybe hope was introduced the moment that Germany took over the leadership of the EU Council Presidency. Similar to Germany, other countries like Portugal and Slovenia which were also part of this Trio Presidency had included the enlargement process with the Western Balkans as one of their priorities (Dimovska, 2021).
During its Presidency of the Council of the EU, Germany emphasized the need for a credible perspective for the Western Balkans. Thus, Germany tried to finalize the negotiating framework with North Macedonia and Albania and reach a consensus within the European Union on the organization of the first intergovernmental conference with these two countries. Unfortunately, due to the Bulgarian veto, accession negotiations were once again blocked. Therefore, the focus of Portugal’s Presidency was directed on finding a solution between Bulgaria and North Macedonia but without success. Nevertheless, Portugal managed to reach a consensus for the application of the new methodology to Montenegro and Serbia.
But, what is important, there are more positive signals that come from Slovenia as this country has taken over the Presidency of the Council of the EU and is keeping the Western Balkans on the EU agenda (Website of the Federal Government, 2021).
Closer cooperation and business as usual
Since the EU membership, Slovenia has been always a very strong supporter of the European integration of the Western Balkans. A clear example is a major contribution of Slovenia in the visa liberalization process, in particular with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and now with Kosovo. Slovenia has also been perceived as a role model by the WB countries, and here it can be mentioned that Slovenia has already and continues to contribute to the reform process, especially when it comes to public administration reform. There are numerous twinning projects between Slovenia and the WB countries that aim to strengthen public institutions and public capabilities. Additionally, Slovenia continues to work closely in this regard with countries such as Serbia and Montenegro that have already transferred some good practices in terms of legislation.
Another aspect is that Slovenia engages in the region by using its historical, social or cultural ties and has a huge contribution through NGOs, think-tanks, joint projects, and also through scholarships for all the students from the WB countries.
Even though high-ranking officials from Slovenia and the WB countries exchange regular bilateral visits, Slovenia also tries to play a more active role through regional initiatives and multilateral meetings such as the Bled Strategic Forum as it remains interested in the stability and the security of the region. From here, it has to be mentioned that Slovenia has always supported the WB countries that adhere to NATO. Therefore, Slovenia has been among the first countries to ratify the NATO Accession Protocol for Albania, Montenegro, and recently for North Macedonia.
But, Slovenia has taken the integration of the Western Balkans very seriously also because of business, financial, and trade interests. Considering that it was difficult for the Slovenian companies to do business in the west, these companies were headed to Southeast Europe and since then, have been quite successful. Therefore, Slovenia has developed strong commercial and business links with the WBs and it may be argued that it has much more to gain from the expansion of the single market with these countries.
More specifically, since the Yugoslav Wars ended, Slovenia was among the first to come to Bosnia & Herzegovina and to do business in many sectors, especially when it comes to banking. Similar to Bosnia & Herzegovina, Slovenia was one of the first foreign investors for Montenegro, and today, Slovenia ranks as the 7th EU country with over 200 enterprises.
If we look at Serbia for example, Serbia is one of the most important trading partners for Slovenia. There are around 1500 Slovenian companies in Serbia that secure jobs for more than 25,000 people. According to the PM of Serbia, Ana Brnabic, the value of the Slovenian capital in Serbia exceeds €1.1 billion, while the trade is amounted to be more than €870 million (The Government of the Republic of Serbia 2019). What is more, there is a huge Slovenian community living in Serbia and consequently, the relations between Serbia and Slovenia are considered to be at the highest level. As for North Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo, Slovenia has signed different trade agreements and there are clear expectations for an increase in investments and trade incomes.
What are the real expectations from the Slovenian Presidency and what will Slovenia achieve to meet its priorities by the end of this year?
As it was mentioned above, Slovenia strongly supports the European integration of the WBs. Thus, the European future of the Western Balkans and the credible continuation of the EU enlargement is set to be one of the four priorities that Slovenia has for its Presidency program (Vladisavljevic, 2021).
As the German and Portuguese Presidency left some unfinished business, Slovenia aims to adopt the negotiating frameworks for Albania and North Macedonia (Bunguri, 2020). Also, Slovenia plans to focus on continuing the negotiation process with Montenegro and the Republic of Serbia. Additionally, it can be said that the Slovenian Presidency will launch the confirmation process to adopt the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the European Union 2021 2021).
An EU-Western Balkans summit involving the representatives of the six WB countries and the EU leaders has already taken place and what is more, during the “Leaders‘ Panel – Future of Europe Conference” that was organized on the 1st of September, was stated that Slovenia aims to make the EU-Western Balkans summit a regular annual event as an instrument to accelerate the EU enlargement process (Maček 2021; Website of the Federal Government, 2021). Furthermore, the involvement of the Slovenian Presidency with the Western Balkans also includes the security sector, especially when it comes to cybersecurity capacity building.
As for more concrete expectations, it has to be mentioned that in the case of Serbia for example, this country hopes to open Cluster 3 and 4 by the end of 2021. In other words, Serbia would like to see the cluster that includes competitiveness and inclusive growth as well as the cluster that includes the Green agenda and sustainable connectivity. Meanwhile, Montenegro, which has provisionally closed three chapters, expects to speed up the negotiations process during the Presidency of Slovenia so the country could join the EU by 2024. Thus, Montenegro considers this moment to be an ideal one in order to meet the provisional benchmarks in Chapters 23 and 24. As for Albania and North Macedonia, both these two countries expect to hold their first intergovernmental conference and officially start the negotiations process after a long wait and deadlocks. Another country that is waiting for the EU to deliver its promises is Kosovo which still hopes to finalize its visa liberalization process.
On the other hand, Slovenia expects to push even further the EU enlargement process by promoting the geopolitical narrative and recalling the strategic importance that this region has for the EU. In this way, Slovenia hopes to achieve something concrete like a road map or a clear timeline and that is why it tried, even though without success, to come to the EU-WB summit with a declaration that all the WB countries should join the EU by the end of 2030.
Besides the ambitions, Slovenia is in a very difficult position and this is not just because the credibility of the Slovenian government has been seriously questioned as there are claims by several MEPs and some journalists that the Slovenian PM, Janez Jansa, is undermining democracy, rule of law and media freedom (Vladisavljevic, 2021). One of the main reasons is that the Slovenian Presidency and the enlargement process is to be found in the midst of the French and Bulgarian election campaign and there is the possibility that this aspect might seriously affect the acceleration of the process. This, in turn, makes it even more difficult to answer if Slovenia will achieve its priorities by the end of the year.
Another challenge ahead?
A very important aspect that should be emphasized, even more, is the narrative of the EU and also the geopolitical dimension of the promise made by the EU in regards to the future of the Western Balkan countries. As it was mentioned above, Slovenia is trying to promote the geopolitical narrative and has warned on a couple of occasions that there is a gap created in the WBs that is already being filled by other forces.
In this way, external actors such as Russia, Turkey, China, and the Gulf States are trying to fill this gap that is left in terms of infrastructural investments, loans and it can be also said that the involvement of these countries also extends to political support for government and media engagement (Bieber and Tzifakis 2019).
For example, Russia engages in the WBs especially with Serbia and Republica Srbska but also with certain actors in other Slavic nations by using its historical, cultural as well as religious ties. Even though Russia is not interested in playing a significant economic role, it maintains a strong political and social engagement in the region. Turkey is another traditional external player that has an interest in engaging with the countries of the Western Balkans. Similar to Russia, Turkey uses the same ties to develop political and economic relations with countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania as well as with certain communities in North Macedonia and Serbia.
Nevertheless, other external actors like China and the UAE are also present in the WB. As for China, this region, and in particular, Serbia has significant geostrategic importance as it is considered to be the gateway to the EU market (Bieber and Tzifakis 2019). And, in the context of unresolved economic problems, some Western Balkan countries are accepting direct investments and also large loans for major infrastructure projects. Without doubts, China represents an important economic actor in the region which in the long run may increase its political influence and seriously threaten the EU conditionality policy (Hänsel and Feyerabend 2018). Also, quite similar to China, the Gulf States, especially the UAE, are making economic investments in the WB or in what they call, the “New Europe”. These investments are directed on construction or tourism and include countries like Serbia and recently Albania.
However, these massive projects and other direct investments that are made by these non-Western actors may include unfavorable clauses and also large loans with high repayment interest. As a result, this might undermine the EU conditionality, the EU transformative power as well as it might create a spill-over effect to the rest of the EU countries.
But at least, with the exception of Serbia, none of these non-Western actors are engaged with all the Western Balkans in all dimensions (Bieber and Tzifakis 2019). Also, the EU is still the main investor in the region, and this, not just in economic terms but also in what includes state-building, democracy, etc.
To conclude, there are expectations and you can see the level of ambition to achieve something concrete in order to speed up the accession process of the Western Balkan countries. The integration of the WB is not just an opportunity but a necessity for the EU and as the PM of Slovenia, has stated, this process represents strategic answers to many challenges that the region is facing (Maček 2021). Therefore, the EU needs to act carefully and remain committed to its promises because a lot of time has passed. Otherwise, countries like Russia, Turkey, China, and the Gulf states that are already moving forward will try to fill the gap left by the EU.
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Written by Dhimitraq Xhaçka