Skip to content

Western Balkan countries’ integration in the EU: the case for Kosovo

    • Meeting in digital format
    • 27 October 2021

          The process of EU enlargement has been a major political and strategic success, but it is facing growing problems such as capacity for integration and political consensus among current members. Indeed, previous enlargements are making it more difficult to complete steps in that direction, particularly in light of the ongoing situation with Hungary and Poland.  With France having already expressed reservations about further adhesions and the new German government coalition seemingly disinclined to propose an alternative, Italy remains among the countries on the whole most in favor of proceeding – albeit gradually – along the path to enlargement.

          Strained relations with the some of the Balkans’ external, yet nevertheless influential, actors like Turkey pose ulterior challenges for the EU and its regional partners. Given the dynamic and highly competitive international context, the Balkans nations are forced to seek out other diplomatic shores and forms of reassurance, in addition to economic relations. Meanwhile, Covid-19 has added its impact: in addition to the persistent influence of Russia, the pandemic has boosted China’s already growing presence, in particular, as a possible economic partner of increasing prominence in some sectors. In any case, the continued spread of the virus remains a serious threat to regional economic prospects, with the concomitant risk of socio-political repercussions.

          The case of North Macedonia is symptomatic of unresolved issues. After making a significant effort to respond to various European demands, France’s decision to block the country’s accession in 2019 (along with that of Albania) sent a negative message to the entire region. In the meantime, many are watching Serbia today with concern over a possible regression in terms of domestic stability, but also over its attitude toward its neighbors, not least, Kosovo.

          A serious social and political problem is the “brain drain” associated with the fact that many young people are leaving for European countries. The risk is that European soft power may be sufficient for generating these flows but not strong enough to stabilize the region. On the other hand, visa liberalization has proved a valid instrument for solidifying a broader concept of continental integration in lieu of full adhesion.

          In general, terms, in the opinion of some the prevailing European attitude toward the Western Balkans is essentially a violation of the solemn pledges taken over the years. The implication being that Brussels is contradicting its own insistence on respect for the rule of law as the overarching principle on which to found constructive and cooperative relations.

          The case of Kosovo remains the most complex in terms of full European integration. Kosovo’s entire process of association and cooperation with the EU has special significance, given that its status depends to a large extent on active international and European support. Despite persistent difficulties, it is essential that the objective of further integration remain in full view of the people and neighbors of Kosovo, as an instrument for encouraging the necessary steps forward on the path to the rule of law and fundamental freedoms. Unfortunately, European credibility has waned over recent years in the eyes of the Kosovar leadership as well as rest of the region.

          In any case, the current network of agreements with Kosovo show the EU’s capacity to define various forms of gradual association and collaboration, but the stance taken by Serbia has halted any further progress by thwarting the fundamental step of mutual recognition. Indeed, that bilateral dispute takes precedence over any multilateral framework. European pressure has certainly yielded some results but, at the moment does not appear capable of leading to a decisive solution. Moreover, it is fundamental that Brussels and Washington continue to coordinate with a view to creating more effective and consistent local incentives and disincentives in both diplomatic as well as economic terms – not least given of the continuing reassurance of NATO.

          Given the unresolved problems in the Balkans region and the indisputable deficit of European action, the debate should adopt a more flexible vision of integration. In particular, federal and confederal integration models are not necessarily alternatives, but may be considered successive stages in a complex, and not entirely linear, historic process. As was pointed out, democracy and the rule of law are not an easily exported pre-packaged commodity, but rather a process that takes time and compromise.