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The US is indispensable in the Western Balkans – for now – EURACTIV.com

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With EU enlargement back on the political agenda, the West has an opportunity to revitalize its policy towards the Western Balkans. To achieve this goal, the United States must take greater leadership by advocating for a phased, reversible accession process and intensifying efforts to reduce intra-regional tensions, write Nicholas Lokker and Kristen Taylor.

Nicholas Lokker is a research associate for the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Kristen Taylor is a research fellow for the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

This month of June marked the twentieth anniversary of Thessaloniki Summit 2003where European leaders declared that “the future of the Balkans lies within the European Union”.

Yet, two decades later, the accession to the EU of all Western Balkan countries except Croatia remains elusive, as the region struggles to overcome persistent ethnic tensions and implement the necessary measures reforms for membership.

With the enlargement of the EU back on the political agenda Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the West has an opportunity to revitalize its policy towards the Western Balkans. To capitalize on this renewal geopolitical dynamicsgreater leadership from the United States is essential.

Washington’s active engagement will now allow the European Union to take primary responsibility for the Balkans and lead the situation without American assistance in the future.

In response to the conflict that broke out in the recently dissolved Yugoslavia in 1991, former Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos said proclaimed it will be “Europe’s time, not Americans’ time”, in the hope of encouraging the European Union to take the lead in its own neighborhood.

Yet this vision never materialized. After European efforts sprayedthe United States – despite its initial reluctance to become involved – assumed the predominant role in the region.

From monitoring NATO bombing campaigns brokerage After the Dayton Accords, Washington’s decisive action would establish the uneasy peace that has since defined the Western Balkans.

The long-term goal of Western policy towards the region must be to realize Poos’ vision, with the EU assuming responsibility for the Western Balkans as the US increasingly turns its attention to other regions of the world, such as the Indo-Pacific.

Paradoxically, however, achieving this end goal will require a more concerted near-term effort by Washington to stabilize the region.

The best method to guarantee this stability is the accession of the Western Balkan countries to the European Union. Although it appears that EU enlargement is an issue for Brussels to resolve, the United States has significant stakes in the enlargement process.

In addition to reducing the risk of conflict, greater integration with the European Union will help foster prosperity, consolidate democracy and to block Russian influence in the region. Successful enlargement will also strengthen the EU’s geopolitical position, making it a more influential partner for the United States.

Moreover, once the Western Balkans are firmly anchored within the EU, Washington will finally be able to shed its role as a power broker in the region.

Until then, American participation is essential. The European Union lack sufficient diplomatic influence in the Western Balkans, due both to its track record in matters of low commitment to the region’s integration as well as its inability to meaningfully address five of its member states non-recognition of Kosovo, which is a serious blow to its credibility with Pristina.

Washington, for its part, enjoys unique legitimacy as an interlocutor with Western Balkan governments due to its historic role in the region and its broader position as a preeminent global power.

The United States should leverage this legitimacy to advance the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU. Its strategy must go beyond the current practice of using EU enlargement as both a carrot and a stick to correct progressive behavior. Rather, they should be meaningful short-term measures aimed at promoting the region’s membership in the EU.

First, Washington should encourage the adoption of a step-by-step membership process that eliminates the binary distinction between EU membership and application by providing progressive but reversible participation for aspiring members in the bloc’s policies and institutions.

This would allow Western Balkan countries to quickly benefit from the benefits of EU membership while still allowing the European Union to punish bad behavior.

The prospect of short-term gains will likely prompt Western Balkan countries to normalize relations and implement reforms.

Even if the responsibility for this decision lies with Brussels, pressure from candidate countries could change things. Therefore, in addition to urging EU leaders for step-by-step accession, Washington should use its influence with Western Balkan governments to propose that they adopt a unified position in favor of an integration process. in stages.

Importantly, a transition to phased membership would not require changes to the basic institutional structure of the Union, making it a viable option in the short term.

At the same time, the United States should intensify its efforts to reduce intra-regional tensions. The normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia is particularly crucial to unlocking the path to the EU in the region, and it is an issue to which Washington could contribute more.

For example, the United States should reaffirm its commitment to Kosovo by offering to host contact group meetings between the five unrecognized EU member states once Pristina commits to resolving current tensions and joins under the conditions of the current Member State of the European Union. Ohrid Agreement.

Meanwhile, Washington should capitalize on recent events put pressure on Belgrade to implement reforms.

While Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic climb over between the West and Russia constitutes a major obstacle to regional stability, Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine has open a window of opportunity.

Washington should offer to release more funds as soon as normalization negotiations resume, while threatening sanctions if Belgrade reneges on its commitments – as it did in blocking Kosovo’s application for membership in the Council of Europe.

This threat could be coordinated with the EU and target Serbian elites – like the American sanctions against Republika Srpska’s Milorad Dodik last year, as well as far-right groups with ties to Russia.

While Washington may worry that penalizing Serbia will push it closer to Moscow, the greater concern should be that allowing the country to have it both ways emboldens Vucic and others. nationalist leaders in the Western Balkans.

As the West realizes the importance of fulfilling geostrategic voids in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it cannot afford to fail in integrating the Western Balkan countries into the EU.

But while EU membership represents the best promise for the region’s future stability, the path to membership cannot be opened by the European Union alone.

To ensure that it can devote its energy elsewhere when it matters most in the years to come, the United States must understand that, for now, it remains indispensable in the Balkans.

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