The European future of the Western Balkans depends on joint efforts and the desire to strengthen European unity
“Sustainable alternative for European integration of the Western Balkans does not exist, and anything else would be merely a foreign policy adventure that would be disastrous for stability, sustainable development, and even peace in the Western Balkans,” said the President of the Executive Board of the Academy for Development of Democracy (ADD) at the conference “Time to move on – 20 years since the Thessaloniki Summit,” organized by the Regional Academy for Democracy Development (ADD), the Center for Civic Education (CGO) from Podgorica, and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES).
Balša Božović also mentioned that 20 years after the Thessaloniki Summit, most of the Western Balkans still wants to believe that its future lies in the EU. “New war circumstances in Europe, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, have made it necessary for the EU and the Western Balkans to renew their mutual commitment and continue working together, in new circumstances, on the integration of this part of Europe into the Union,” Božović stated.
Božović stated that the experience of Ukraine teaches us that peace is no longer guaranteed. “The Western Balkans, as Europe’s soft underbelly, represents a weak point in European unity in foreign and security policy”
He added that it is important for the problem of stalled reform processes and difficult relationships to be resolved by the EU based on the Copenhagen criteria and the European system of values.
Božović mentioned that the experience of recent years has shown that some partners lack sufficient sensitivity to the situation in the Western Balkans. He believes that today, European sensitivity is more necessary than ever. “Peace is no longer a given; peace is a privilege, and in the Western Balkans, it stands on shaky ground,” Božović said.
He is of the opinion that, after the terrorism in Kosovo, “we have an obligation to focus on the democratization and Europeanization of the region. We cannot pretend that nothing happened in northern Kosovo because if we do, it will happen again,” Božović said, emphasizing that European institutions must find a way to deal with influences that can jeopardize peace in the Western Balkans.
Božović believes that those who have made the most progress in negotiations, like Montenegro, need to be supported. “Helping Montenegro to politically consolidate after a three-year crisis and gather the strength to continue on the EU path would be a sign that the Union is not geostrategically yielding this part of Europe to malign influences from the east and does not tolerate malignant influences from neighboring countries,” Božović said.
He stated that if a country does not want an EU future, it should say so clearly, but this decision should not hinder others and drag them back into an uncertain past. “It’s time to move forward because tomorrow may already be too late,” Božović concluded.
Director of the Center for Civic Education (CGO), Daliborka Uljarević, expressed her opinion that Montenegro has gone from being an outstanding student to a repeater with no signs of making the necessary substantial progress in the near future. She is unsure about the prospects of Montenegro’s EU integration, especially in light of the recent developments in the structure of the government.
According to her, Montenegro has been stagnant for six years without closing a single chapter. While the majority of the population supports the European dream and Montenegro’s path towards EU membership, the country is losing influence from the EU, its member states, the USA, and other Western partners. Uljarević believes that the enthusiasm and optimism among the negotiation structures in the region, which are the backbone of the process, are at a minimum.
Daliborka Uljarević expressed her concerns about Montenegro’s progress in EU integration and the lack of commitment to the process in the past few years. She mentioned that Montenegro is witnessing the departure of its second government in the last three years that, unlike the governments of the previous regime, has not demonstrated dedication to the European integration process. Uljarević explained that it will quickly become apparent in which direction the new government is heading, but the current indications are not encouraging for what should be a qualitatively different approach.
She highlighted that amidst regional instability and political upheavals where agreements are not based on values but on a struggle for survival, the topic of European integration remains on the sidelines. Despite the 20 years that have passed since the Thessaloniki Summit, Montenegro still finds itself in the same waiting room, as there has not been a convincing political will for reforms. This lack of political will, combined with chronic understaffing, a lack of knowledge, and inertia, as well as an excess of empty but dangerous ambitions, has impeded progress.
Uljarević pointed out that the current geopolitical circumstances offer a favorable wind for the region, as there is greater attention from the European Union, its institutions, and officials regarding the enlargement process. She emphasized that this opportunity must not be missed, and the EU integration process should not become a series of unmet expectations.
She also stressed the need for the EU to react more promptly and proactively by providing support in achieving the standards the region aspires to and eliminating factors that push society away from progressive values.
Uljarević believes that political responsibility is at the core of the process. She explained that this responsibility should bring with it the willingness to replace populism with hard work and credible results. Once this is achieved, it will be possible to talk about a clearer EU perspective for the countries seeking EU membership and reducing existing frustrations due to the lack of progress.
Regarding Montenegro’s commitment to EU integration, Uljarević mentioned that the symbolic fact that the country has been without a chief negotiator with the EU for nearly a year speaks volumes about where EU integration currently stands on Montenegro’s agenda.
Rene Schle, the Director of the Regional Office for Southeast Europe of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), reflected on the 20th anniversary of the Thessaloniki Summit and its impact on the European integration process in the region. He acknowledged that the ambitions and ideas presented at Thessaloniki were different from the current reality. However, he emphasized that it would be inaccurate to claim that no progress has been made during this time.
According to Schle, some progress has been achieved, as negotiations are underway with certain countries, while processes with others, like Albania and North Macedonia, are just starting. He noted that it is challenging to label this progress as a significant breakthrough because the term “enlargement” naturally leads to high expectations. Looking back over the past 20 years, it’s difficult to say that many of these expectations have been fully realized.
On the other hand, Schle acknowledged that there is a lot happening, with new ideas and initiatives emerging. There are sometimes conflicting ideas on how to continue the enlargement process. The Friedrich-Ebert Foundation aims to bring together representatives of governments, civil society, and the academic community to engage in discussions about these ideas. The synergy among these various stakeholders is considered essential for addressing the challenges and complexities of the enlargement process.
Aleksandar Spasov emphasized that the European Union is in a different geopolitical position today. He expressed the importance for the EU to ensure that this potential is not missed and that it doesn’t become an isolated island separated from its European neighbors. In the context of the Western Balkans, maintaining a path toward EU integration is crucial for stability and cooperation in the region.
Borko Stefanović, the Vice President of the Serbian Parliament, stressed that there is a consensus that it’s time to move forward towards the EU, but the challenge lies in determining how and in which direction to proceed. He mentioned that there is a formal invitation from Brussels for all countries in the region, and there is a formal and open desire from the nations to join the EU. However, he highlighted that there is a loss of energy and time while trying to understand the current situation.
Stefanović pointed out that 44% of Serbia’s citizens support EU accession, even amid the challenging circumstances in the country. He expressed his surprise at this level of support, given the open autocracy, the facade of democracy, a lack of media freedom, corruption, and links to organized crime. He stressed the importance of a merit-based approach, indicating that both Serbia and the EU need to do their homework to ensure progress and accession. In essence, this requires substantial reforms in both Serbia and the EU’s approach to enlargement.
Borko Stefanović highlighted the importance of regional cooperation and reconciliation in the Western Balkans. He suggested the need to establish joint secretariats or similar structures to address mutual concerns and foster unity among the countries in the region. He emphasized that a collective voice and solidarity are essential, as standing together is crucial for achieving shared goals. He also emphasized the importance of not being divided by political differences, as this would only lead to mutual condemnation of each other’s governments and actions.
Elvira Habota, the Director of the Directorate for European Integration in Bosnia and Herzegovina, acknowledged the progress that Bosnia and Herzegovina has made in implementing important laws in priority areas, even before gaining candidate status for EU membership. She stressed the significance of political will in driving progress, as well as the need for a constructive approach to address technical and expert issues that sometimes become subjects of political contention.
Fitor Murati, Acting Director of the Directorate for Europe and the EU in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Diaspora of Kosovo, emphasized that Kosovo is committed to its path toward EU integration, as there is no “Plan B” or “Plan C” for Kosovo. He reiterated Kosovo’s strong desire to be part of the Euro-Atlantic community. He also addressed the geopolitical context and the role of geopolitics in the integration process, pointing out the challenges posed by the aggression of Serbia and Russia’s support for paramilitary actions.
Gazmend Turdiu, the General Secretary of the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs of Albania, underscored the importance of taking European Commission reports seriously, as they serve as indicators of real progress. He discussed the historical significance of the Solun Summit and the journey of the Western Balkans back to where they belong – Europe. He warned against the region being left in a vacuum, as other actors like Russia, China, and the Middle East are ready to fill any void left by the EU’s distance. Turdiu emphasized that a delayed EU engagement in the region would worsen the situation.
Josip Juratović, a member of the German Bundestag, mentioned the geopolitical and security significance of EU enlargement in the context of a relatively unstable political landscape within the EU. He noted the rise of right-wing structures and the growing importance of democratic values. Juratović emphasized that simply focusing on economics and economic questions will not resolve the challenges before Europe. He called for more solidarity and a shared political platform within the Western Balkans to make progress toward EU membership.