VISION WESTERN BALKANS 2030 – Europeanisation meets democracy, 28 October 2023
The final publication of the WB2EU project
Despite 15 contributions by the WB2EU Network members, it comprises selected op-eds by the WB2EU Network and the Network’s Next Generation Summer School participants. In addition, one article describes the WB2EU project, the WB2EU Network and another one outlines the results and highlights of the project.
The following publication gives the interested reader a very good insight into our journey towards a new European and democratic momentum for the Western Balkans. And what a journey it has been for our newly established network! 17 very different and mutually enriching institutions and organisations – from higher education and think tanks to NGOs and policy centres – from 16 countries, have been working together for three years. Experts, researchers, analysts, activists, diplomats, politicians, and stakeholders engaging with a broad and interested public in all the countries, exchanging views and focusing on the challenges we face regarding the rule of law, social questions, and democratic developments in the Western Balkans – each of us learning from each other and making friends far beyond this project. A network dedicated to analysis and advocacy but also to supporting the next generation of Europeans. A group of people that have worked and grown together. A ring of experts that will outlast these three years and which will be the basis for many more cross-border projects to come. Together, we have lived and worked through different project phases. Not only in terms of designated topics, but in particular regarding dynamic external factors, which have pushed us to improvise, inspired, and reenergised our discussions and made us revisit many of our ideas and arguments. In the beginning, the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible to meet in person, yet it offered the opportunity to adapt the project and even integrate new partners. It was followed by the terrible Russian attack on Ukraine, which quickly transformed into a historical turning point for European integration.
In fact, the Russian aggression has been a wake-up call for Europe. The political momentum and interest in EU enlargement are now back, and a window of opportunity for not only enlarging but also fundamentally reforming the Union is wide open. Only weeks ago, while the debate was gaining in speed and substance, Europe was on the brink of another armed conflict in the Western Balkans, triggered by a military attack by a Serbian paramilitary group in Kosovo with ties to an official EU candidate country. In January 2024, it will be ten years since EU accession negotiations opened with Belgrade. Today, Serbia is a warning example of what may happen if one does not speak the truth to power, and neither the EU nor this candidate country are taking the process of negotiating EU accessions seriously enough. Yet, waking up to a new geopolitical reality is not enough; one also has to get out of bed and make use of this wind of political change. If we do not manage to reap the benefits of this new situation in front of us, the tide may turn quicker than we think once the massive wave of public support for nationalistic forces celebrates its return.
Political dynamics may push the EU towards enlargement. However, enlargement is not only driven by foreign and security policy concerns but also entails a strong economic, financial, and social dimension. Thus, the EU needs to undertake far-fetched reforms. That is why the European Commission rightly initiated a review of all policy areas to already discuss how to make them ready for a bigger and better Union. This is why it is paramount to include the EU candidate countries in the yearly Rule of Law Monitoring of the EU, which is already at an early stage. The sheer impact of a possible next enlargement with nine countries, in particular Ukraine, currently fighting for its existence, has no comparison. Next to the special security dimension, the substantial economic differences between the EU-27 and the current candidate countries need consideration, as the nine potential new member states all belong to the ten poorest countries in Europe. Once tough questions of competition or the future financing of the EU are on the table, negotiations and political decisions will naturally become more complicated.
Building on the next generation
Besides internal EU dilemmas and necessary reforms, one important task for the Union is to intensify and widen its networks and partnerships in the candidate countries. Closer cooperation with civil society, pro-European and emancipatory institutions, and grassroots movements would indeed be a welcome and much-needed help to boost democratisation from below. Frontloading some of the tangible economic and social benefits and an early, gradual integration into the single market could give new hope and perspective to the people. More attention should be given to the dreams and needs of the next generation in the candidate countries. Young Europeans are the core constituency of the future of Europe, and it is them we have to inspire and engage with. In the end, it will be on them to secure internal democratic reforms and, with their passion and drive, to help hinder state capture.
Most importantly, all candidate countries and potential future members of the Union have to show full and honest commitment to reforms, which, in the end, they are not undertaking to please others but for their own wellbeing. They also must prove the will to adhere to European values and to follow up on their own sketched-out European ambitions. At the same time, the EU and all its member states have to raise their voices and take a clear and unequivocal stance vis-à-vis the volatile political systems seesawing between Moscow and Beijing. In the end, EU enlargement is and shall never be a process for the sole interest of political elites, but for the benefit of the people. It is the Union’s core idea to promote European values, human rights, rule of law, and liberal and democratic societies, which apply to all, including, of course, the candidate countries. The Western Balkans are therefore a litmus test for the art of the possible. Not succeeding in a region where the Union has invested so much is not an option.
The war has put EU enlargement back on the table and created a new political dynamic. We need to seize this momentum for European integration to reform and enlarge. Our network is dedicated to contributing its grain of sand. At the end of the day, every bit helps, and we will all continue raising our voices for the future of Europe, just like many of us do in this publication. One last personal remark. Each project needs at least one good soul that holds a group together. In our case, the good soul of our WB2EU Network is Susan Milford-Faber. On behalf of the whole group, we are grateful to her for meticulously managing the editorial processing of all publications and for her tireless logistical efforts to stay connected and make this team effort a reality.
Paul Schmidt & Vedran Džihić
Coordinators of the WB2EU project