The situation in the Western Balkans countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia is becoming more and more challenging for the European Union. The governments of all of them are formally pro-European but in the last few years most of these countries have seen setbacks in the process of building democratic institutions and market economies. The governing elites in the region base their power on clientele networks providing jobs for their voters and public contracts and protection to oligarchs. Indeed, the situation looks gloomy after fifteen years of reforms under the auspices of the EU and the ongoing accession process into it.
The European Union and Member States preoccupied with internal problems like the euro, migrant/refugee crises, and Brexit have been tolerating the negative dynamics in the Western Balkans. Partially it has been a continuation of the politics of double bluff when the Western Balkans pretend to implement reform and the EU pretends that it wants them in. Some Member States seem to think that more important than implementing democratic reform is that the regional semi-autocratic leaders can deliver solutions in the some other areas like in Macedonia, which closed its border during the time of the migrant/refugee crisis or in Serbia, which started the normalization dialogue with Kosovo and provided a kind of pro-European anchor in Serbian foreign policy. However, this strategy is very short-sighted.
The elites in Western Balkans are increasingly using nationalist and anti-EU rhetoric in order to channel public frustration. These habits generate frequent tension in the region and threaten its stability. As the migrant/refugee crisis demonstrated, the weakness of these states may pose a serious threat to the security of the EU Member States, especially in areas such as smuggling of people, arms, and drugs. Support for the semi-autocratic and corrupt leaders weakens the credibility of the EU as defender of the values of liberal democracy and the rule of law. Moreover, the regional leaders are keen to play off external actors against the EU; Russia, China, Turkey and Arab states are taking advantage of the lack of an active EU policy in the Balkans.
Warsaw has always been a strong supporter of the “open door” of the European Union. The security threats related to the growing involvement of Russia in the region, its location on the Balkan route for illegal migration, the perspective of destabilization of regional states and rise of inter-ethnic tensions turning into armed incidents are particularly worrying for Poland. Further expansion of the EU enjoys a broad consensus in Poland and is backed by both the Polish political elite and society, though with a rather insufficient bilateral engagement with the region. However, Poland has become increasingly active in the Balkans in recent years as far as the EU accession process is concerned. In 2012, the Skopje Conference was introduced. This is an annual meeting of representatives of state institutions from Poland and Macedonia aimed at sharing Poland’s experience in the process of European integration. Later on, similar platforms of cooperation were established with Serbia and Albania. Since 2015, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has hosted the annual Enlargement Academy for officials from the Western Balkans, a forum for sharing experiences from the transformation process and from the accession negotiations with the EU. Since 2017, young people from the Western Balkans have taken part in the seminars held in Krzyżowa, which through presenting the contribution of Polish-German rapprochement to the EU integration serve as a source of inspiration for the reconciliation process in the Balkans. According to the Polish government, the combination of strict conditionality with tangible benefits for those countries which fulfill the EU condition would be the most effective policy towards the region.
But currently the European Union is not applying either of these principles in the Balkans. On the one hand it tolerates the state capture phenomena, but on the other it doesn’t offers tangible benefits if the country implements reform desired by the EU. For Poland, it is very important to keep promises that the EU has made to candidate countries. That is the way Poland strongly supports the opening of negotiations with both Albania and Macedonia, which have made considerable progress on the path to the EU. Albania is in the process of implementing reform of its judicial system; and Macedonia achieved agreement with Greece to end the conflict that had lasted since 1991. Despite these events, during the EU Council in June, France, blocked the start of membership negotiations with Skopje. This decision not only undermined the Macedonian government’s main argument in favour of the agreement, which was supposed to open the way for Macedonia’s membership of the EU; more importantly it also questioned the reliability of the EU’s policy in the region. Thus the new left government of Zoran Zaev broke with the common practice in the region to exploit ethnic tensions to build a political position and set a positive example to other Balkan states of how to resolve disputes through negotiations despite opposition of a part of the society. Another similar case is Kosovo, which fulfilled all the requirements to get a visa-free regime but they have yet to receive a positive decision from the Member States. Poland is also very critical of using the enlargement policy to enforce concessions in bilateral disputes by some Member States. Also recalling the argument that the EU should firstly consolidate before getting more involved in the Balkans is unjustified in the current situation taking into consideration that the reform process in the region will last at least for a decade. The idea of enlargement pause is only discouraging the Balkan elites from further reforms. The hosting of the Berlin Process Summit, which will take place in July 2019, gives Poland an exceptional opportunity for a qualitative increase of its bilateral engagement in the Western Balkans — convincing EU partners to become more involved in the region and reinvigorating the EU perspective of it.
Marta Szpala is expert at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW).