In June 2003, the first EU-Western Balkans Summit, held in Thessaloniki under the Greek Presidency of the European Union, catalysed hopes and political will. Its Conclusions sealed the EU unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans based on the shared values of democracy, the rule of law, respect of human and minority rights, solidarity and a market economy. The EU and the governments of the countries concerned reiterated their commitment to respecting international law, ensuring the inviolability of international borders, peaceful resolution of conflicts and regional co-operation. The Western Balkans committed to undertaking reforms to meet the EU accession criteria. The prospect of membership in a common family of European values provided enthusiasm and the impetus for change in the region. The EU perspective acted as a catalyst for addressing challenges and important progress was made. The Prespa Agreement between Greece and North Macedonia is an example. It was a complex process for both sides, yet the prospect of co-operation within an enlarged European family gave both countries the political leverage to make this difficult leap.
And yet, with the exception of Croatia, nearly two decades after the Thessaloniki Summit the Western Balkans remain on the EU waiting list. The initial years of enthusiasm were followed by a lack of momentum and a tough reality check, which gave way to disappointment, frustration and pessimism. Failure to reward progress along the path of EU accession contributed to fuelling ethnocentric impulses and nationalistic nostalgia, tarnished the credibility of the EU amongst the public opinion and led to the rise of anti-European sentiments in the region. Surveys show that an increasing number of people, especially amongst the youth, think that the EU perspective will never materialise. The European vision is losing its shine. In its place, nationalism has resurfaced. A trend not exclusive to the Balkans, nationalistic and xenophobic sentiment is found in many corners of Europe, if not the world, possibly due to similar reasons: the failure of global co-operation to deal with issues of inequality and social protection effectively, population movements, health and environmental crises.
In the Western Balkans, however, there is an important difference. The wounds of bloody conflicts are fresh and can easily be revived, if extreme nationalistic rhetoric prevail in the public sphere. Furthermore, the history of the Balkans has often been one of proxy wars fuelling ethnic division, dependency on protector powers and weak institutions feeding clientelism and corruption. While European prospects seemed to wane, we increasingly notice a new geo-politicisation of the region with third parties vying for influence and deepening existing fractures. This trend may become stronger as the Western Balkans, in particular following the consequences of the war in Ukraine, risk becoming a space of geopolitical antagonisms that could import instability in the EU. Thus, a number of players from outside the region are now using a mix of economic investment and soft power as a vector to accrue political influence.
As there is limited investment from EU countries in the region, Western Balkan countries in many cases try to attract investment from third countries like China. In the last decade, China has committed $2.4 billion in net foreign direct investment to the Western Balkans, along with $6.8 billion in infrastructure loans. China finances projects such as highways, railways, and power plants in the framework of its Belt and Road Initiative. It also purchases key stakes in several key transport and energy companies. In addition to investments and loans, China uses soft power tools such as academic cooperation and vaccination diplomacy to strengthen its position.
Although its economic footprint in the region has diminished since the illegal annexation of Crimea, the Russian Federation retains influence in strategic sectors such as energy, banking, metallurgy and real estate. In the past few years, Turkey has provided cultural and educational programs through institutions like the Maarif Foundation in countries with a large Muslim community and has invested in projects such as motorways, bridges, hospitals, schools, mosques and the restoration of buildings from Ottoman heritage. Turkey’s soft power in the region is also reinforced by the popularity of Turkish culture, especially TV shows and entertainment industries, among certain sectors of the population.
It is time for the EU to accelerate the enlargement process by relaunching the negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro, establishing them with Albania and North Macedonia, granting candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and liberalising entry visas for Kosovo. Focus on this region cannot be set aside, even if the need to support European aspirations of other countries, such as Ukraine, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova, has emerged in the meantime. In this new page of European history, it is even more clear that supporting democratic reforms and respect for the rule of law and human rights, reconciliation and good neighbourly relations is a geostrategic investment in peace, stability and security for the European continent. This is why responding to the Western Balkans’ aspirations for EU membership is so important not only for the countries concerned but for the whole of Europe.
Conclusion: Europe should not fail its historic responsibility to accompany the Western Balkans’ European integration process to the finishing line and to prevent the region from becoming a battlefield for geopolitical wrangling, to the detriment of its inhabitants.