The European Union has failed the Western Balkans in terms of enlargement, and it is more important than ever to handle the process in a careful and sensitive way while still upholding the bloc’s fundamentals, speakers said at an EU conference in Zagreb on Thursday.
The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a two-day event in the Croatian capital to discuss the role of civil society and the media in the current geopolitical context with war at Europe’s doorstep. With panellists from across the Western Balkan region, the topic of enlargement was understandably high on the agenda.
“We have to manage the Western Balkans in a very careful and sensitive way, in a proper and honest way. Europe can only take members who fulfil the criteria of democracy, else we develop a Europe with enemies within,” said Seamus Bolan, the president of the EESC Civil Society Organisations’ Group.
While it is important to ensure a consistent approach to the accession of all member states, candidature conditions must be clear and transparent, but also provide tangible hope for countries, he added
But beyond that, Europe has made a number of mistakes, not just regarding accession, but with its approach to geopolitics, he added.
“We learn nothing from history, said Winston Churchill, we have learned nothing from WWII, this is quite said,” Bolan said.
“Europe needs to look to put itself in a place where it has a power to deal with the kind of aggression we have seen from Russia. It will never go away,” he added.
This must take the form of creating novel structures to deal with the new security reality, managing infrastructure in terms of food security, free movement of people, energy security, and defence as all of these are now on the agenda.
“This will challenge the EU in a way that will make it or break it,” he added.
Regarding stalled enlargement, panellists discussed the real-world impact of this, including declining EU support in several countries, including Serbia.
Dusan Gajic, a correspondent for RTS, the Serbian public broadcaster and chief editor of SEETV, said that Europe has to put a credible offer on the table, both for the sake of Serbia and the region because currently “the EU seems like a nice but distant goal”.
Addressing the overwhelming support for Russia and its President Vladamir Putin while only 34% of the country back EU accession, he explained that this is partly a “protest vote”.
While it is also fuelled by nationalism and the “inadequate response of Europe to the Balkans” over the last 20 years, he said support for Russia is more about resentment of the West.
“They see the country as a victim of unfair treatment from Western powers, nurtured by politicians. The resentment now is stronger than it was 20 years ago after NATO bombed Serbia. While there is a slight increase in support for sanctions against Russia, this remains a big minority,” he said.
As for the proposed European Political Community, an idea floated by French President Emmanuel Macron earlier in 2022, followed by the first meeting in early October, panellists remain unconvinced.
“There is no substitute for EU enlargement. The Western Balkan countries are right to say they don’t want the European Political Community,” he said adding EU integration is about aligning and creating a functioning system not trying to replace it with something else,” said Adnan Cerimagic, a senior analyst for the Western Balkans at the European Stability Initiative.
As for the plight of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which the European Commission recommended in October, should receive candidate status but is struggling to garner support from member states, the need to bring the country into the EU fold is even stronger.
Leila Bicakcic, director at the Centre for Investigative Reporting in Sarajevo said that ”EU accession was not even mentioned during the recent election campaign, it is not on the agenda and not important for politicians.”
“Candidate status is important for Bosnia and Herzegovina, there needs to be a stronger EU role in the Western Balkans,” she added.
(Alice Taylor | EURACTIV.com)