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Unlocking Progress in the Western Balkans: A Call to Action

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This article presents the findings of a panel of experts convened by the New Leaders for Stability and Trust (NL4ST) in Novi Sad, Serbia, to discuss the geopolitical complexities, shifting priorities and internal dynamics that have hampered the progress towards Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans.

The European Union’s (EU) promise of integration for the Western Balkans, made at the historic Thessaloniki summit in 2003, remained a dead letter for more than two decades. Despite promises and assurances, progress towards EU membership has been slow, leaving the region mired in uncertainty. Although NATO integration has had some success, the pace of EU membership has lagged, hampering progress and perpetuating instability in this volatile region.

In light of these challenges, the New Leaders for Stability and Trust (NL4ST) recently convened a group of experts from across the Western Balkans and beyond to examine the root causes of the integration impasse In the region. This gathering of prominent figures from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary and beyond aimed to shed light on the geopolitical complexities, shifting priorities and internal dynamics that have hampered progress toward Euro-Atlantic integration.

Understand the roots of the problem

According to the panel’s conclusions, the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU and NATO represents a complex and multifaceted challenge, deeply rooted in historical, geopolitical and institutional factors. Despite their geographical proximity to the EU and their shared cultural heritage, tangible progress towards membership remains difficult to achieve for many countries in the region.

While NATO enlargement has provided a security framework for the Western Balkans, EU integration has been characterized by slowness and uncertainty. Since the historic Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, where the EU pledged its commitment to the region’s integration, only one country, Croatia, has managed to join the EU. This lack of progress has eroded public confidence and raised doubts about the feasibility of possible EU membership for other countries in the region.

The geopolitical landscape further complicates the integration process, particularly in light of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. This conflict has highlighted the region’s vulnerability to external threats and highlighted the urgent need for stability and cooperation. However, changing priorities and internal challenges in the EU have diverted attention from Western Balkans integration, leaving the region in a state of limbo.

Navigating Open Issues

The path to EU and NATO integration is fraught with challenges, both within the region and within the EU itself. Bilateral disputes, geopolitical tensions and unresolved issues such as statehood in Kosovo and the political complexities of Bosnia continue to hamper progress. These persistent challenges highlight the need for proactive and collaborative approaches to address deep-rooted problems and pave the way for sustainable integration.

Bilateral blockades imposed by EU member states pose another significant challenge, with some countries opposing the integration of Western Balkan countries and hindering progress for political reasons. This politicization of the enlargement process undermines the credibility of the EU’s commitment to integration and discourages reforms within the region. Overcoming these obstacles requires a concerted effort to foster dialogue, build consensus and prioritize the common interests of all relevant stakeholders.

The contrasting treatment of Western Balkan countries and other candidate states, such as Ukraine and Moldova, further complicates the integration process. While some candidate states receive rapid recognition and support from the EU, Western Balkan countries face obstacles and delays despite significant concessions and compromises. This inconsistency erodes trust and undermines the credibility of the EU’s enlargement policy, highlighting the need for a more coherent and equitable approach to integration.

Suggest a way forward

Unlocking progress in the Western Balkans and advancing the region’s integration into the EU and NATO requires a multi-faceted strategy. Recommendations put forward by NL4ST and esteemed experts chart the way forward:

Clear political decision and timetable: A decisive political commitment, accompanied by a well-defined timetable, is essential to accelerate the integration process. Similar to approaches taken with other candidate countries such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, a clear roadmap ensures accountability and maintains momentum towards EU and NATO membership.

Conditional engagement: engagement with Western Balkan countries should depend on their commitment to align with EU interests and refrain from engaging in conflictual relations with external actors, particularly Russia . Establishing clear expectations promotes trust and ensures that integration efforts are mutually beneficial.

Narrative shift: It is imperative to shift the discourse surrounding the Western Balkans, moving from a simple perception of the periphery to a recognition of its importance as a vital component of Europe’s future. Emphasizing the region’s geopolitical importance and its potential contributions can mobilize regional elites and instill a sense of ownership and responsibility.

Gradual integration approach: Implementing a gradual integration approach allows Western Balkan countries to reap some benefits of EU membership before full membership. This strategy not only encourages reforms, but also demonstrates to citizens the tangible benefits of European integration, thereby fostering greater public support and buy-in.

Overcoming bilateral blockades: Overcoming bilateral blockades between EU member states and Western Balkan countries is essential for progress. Parallel processes should be designed to address legitimate concerns without blocking integration efforts. Constructive dialogue and compromise are essential to overcoming stubborn obstacles.

By adopting these recommendations, policymakers can chart a path toward a more stable, prosperous and integrated Western Balkans, thereby strengthening the region’s security and contributing to broader Euro-Atlantic cooperation and cohesion.

The vital role of NGOs

Faced with these complex challenges, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play a crucial role in fostering dialogue, promoting accountability and enabling change. Projects such as the NL4ST Expert Panel provide a platform for constructive discourse, bringing together diverse perspectives to identify solutions and drive progress. These NGOs serve as bridges between government entities, civil society, and international organizations, facilitating collaboration and collective action toward common goals.

As Albert Einstein said: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” » To break the cycle of stagnation in the Western Balkans, bold and innovative approaches are needed. NGOs serve as catalysts for change, injecting new ideas and perspectives into the discourse and pushing for meaningful reforms. Their ability to mobilize resources, engage stakeholders, and advocate for marginalized voices amplifies the impact of their efforts, sparking positive change and fostering a culture of accountability and transparency in the region. By empowering civil society and fostering an environment conducive to dialogue and cooperation, NGOs play an indispensable role in advancing the integration agenda and building a more resilient and prosperous Western Balkans for future generations.

In conclusion

Unlocking progress in the Western Balkans requires collective action, political will and sustained commitment from all stakeholders. By taking into account expert opinions and leveraging NGO expertise, we can chart a path towards stability, prosperity and European integration in the region. The time to act is now.

Panel participants were Miloš Savin, President of NL4ST, Istvan Gyarmati, President of the International Center for Development and Transition (ICDT) in Budapest, Jelena Todorović-Lazić, Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Policy Studies in Belgrade, Zsolt Rabai, vice-president of the ICDT, Imre Varga, former Hungarian ambassador to Serbia, Igor Novaković, research director at the Center for International and Security Affairs (ISAC) in Belgrade, Selmo Cikotić, faculty member of the Faculty of political sciences from Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina, Nikola Burazer, program director at the Center for Contemporary Politics (CSP) and Veljko Racković, senior advisor at the European Integration Department of the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia.

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