What’s next for the Western Balkans?

The participants in the West Balkans conference pose for the group photo at the chancellery in Berlin on April 29, 2019. Michael Sohn / POOL / AFP

For the first time since 1999, the two most powerful leaders in the European Union, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, displayed a united leadership concerning the future of the Western Balkans. It is the first major attempt in many years to ease tense relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

On April 29 in Berlin, the Franco-German duo pledged their support to the region through the reinforcement of the rule of law, security and migration assistance, socio-economic development, and peace and reconciliation efforts. Further talks will take place at the Paris summit on July 1.

The Western Balkans, racked by war and tragedies throughout the 1990s, has recently seen a surge of significant political, social and economic progress. Yet the need for reforms and transformation is still crucial.

This is why heads of state and government from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia, as well as the EU’s foreign policy high representative Federica Mogherini, gathered with Merkel and Macron in Berlin. One of the central subjects at the extraordinary summit will be discussing the road ahead for Kosovo and Serbia and the possibility of their normalising their relations.

Kosovo and Serbia at the crossroads

This summit came at a time of tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. Relations between the two countries collapsed again last year after an initial attempt of a EU-led dialogue for normalisation. One of the main issues at stake has been a possible adhesion of the two countries to the European Union.

European Union leaders Jean-Claud Junker and Donald Tusk during an EU–Western Balkans Summit in Sofia on May 17, 2018. Ludovic Marin/AFP

Despite an agreement by the two countries to not undermine each other’s prospects to integrate the EU, Serbia has lead continuous campaign against Kosovo’s international recognition, most recently against a bid by the country to join Interpol in November 2018. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tax on goods coming from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A demonstration of Franco-German diplomacy

The complex nature of European integration requires leadership and the ability to negotiate agreements, solve disputes, and bring people and countries together.

Chancellor Merkel talking about the summit stated that it was not meant to make decisions but as “an open discussion”, while President Macron stressed the importance of “security and stability in the region, and progress on reforms”.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron shake hands after addressing journalists in Berlin on April 29, 2019, prior to the West Balkans conference. Odd Andersen/AFP

The meeting was led by Merkel and Macron with the aim of breaking the deadlock in the region. Taking the initiative showed true leadership, and it has been evident that in recent years that both Germany and France are actively engaged into shaping EU policy, and together are becoming a powerful force in global diplomacy.

Among many examples, they jointly led the UN Security Council, recently signed a new cooperation treaty in Aachen and displayed a shared diplomatic stance on the Ukraine-Russian tensions.

A future in the EU?

The Western Balkan countries believe that their future lies in the European Union – even if the Union is itself entangled in a number of issues such as immigration, security or populist movements. To the Balkan countries, it is literally a question of war and peace.

As European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker stated on April 17:

“If we don’t succeed in making the Western Balkans new member states, we will again experience the same problems we saw in the 1990s.”

As Junker stated in February 2018: “The Western Balkan countries now have a historic window of opportunity to firmly and unequivocally bind their future to the European Union” and that their integration “is an investment in the EU’s security, economic growth and influence and in its ability to protect its citizens”.

However, an integration also means to meet the goals and agenda set by EU strategies, as he recalls:

“For the countries to meet all membership conditions and strengthen their democracies, comprehensive and convincing reforms are still required in crucial areas, notably on the rule of law, competitiveness, and regional cooperation and reconciliation.”

When peace is threatened by foreign interests

The ongoing conflict-resolution effort in the region will also contribute to peace and security in Europe. For countries such as Russia, China and Turkey that are working to spread and assert their power, the Western Balkans occupy a strategic space, with a range of opportunities, stiff competition and potential clashes.

Russia’s involvement in the region was particularly pointed out. A May trial revealed the implication of Kremlin military intelligence agents in a coup attempt in Montenegro that could endanger the Balkans stability.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, ethnic tensions remain the main vulnerabilities, a situation that could serve foreign agendas.

Ethnic distribution in the western Balkans, 2008. CIA Cartography Centre/Library of Congress

The question of Kosovo’s independence shows how foreign states have divergent visions: it is recognised by more than 113 countries, including the United States, Germany, France, the UK and Italy, while Russia, China and Serbia, among others, oppose such recognition.

Looking back on the 1990s, the role of an EU–United States alliance to bringing peace in the region was vital. According to observers, it is perhaps as crucial today as ever.

Starting afresh: the road to Paris

The Western Balkans summit in Berlin ended with Kosovo and Serbia agreeing to work together. Though the meeting itself was not meant to come up with substantial, concrete results, it sent important messages.

Furthermore, in midst of the debate about the idea for land swap between Kosovo and Serbia – an ethnically based proposition – Angela Merkel torpedoed the partition plan. The message conveyed to the summit was that in a free-market region, no ethnic border changes should happen. Multi-ethnic societies are a value to the entire region, as Gerald Knaus from the European Stability Initiative asserted, not a liability.

Calling the Balkans summit “a courageous step”, Christian Schwarz-Schilling – a former German minister and EU High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina – declared:

“Now, the people of the Western Balkans are waiting for their chance to join the European Union as well.”

Despite some changes in the EU parliament after the 2019 elections, the pro-European forces will continue to be the majority. However, it is clear that the key word in the coming period is negotiation. Discussions among the political groups in the European Parliament will determine many aspects of the European vision, including the Union’s enlargement question.

Even if the people of the Western Balkans show a strong desire to join the EU, how and when the concrete integration would happen remains an open question. Which path will be chosen, how trust will be built and which actions will follow will much clearer after the July 1 meeting in Paris. Should such a vision fail, the Western Balkans will probably remain just a geographical and historical term with a tragic history and identity.