After the fall of communism and after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, succeeded by the Yugoslav war(s) of independence, collapsed because of the unprecedented past, the Balkan countries were trying to find their lost identity in the European Union. The common EU and Balkans commitment and willingness for EU integration was especially introduced and accented during the Thessaloniki summit in 2003. On the Thessaloniki summit, a special emphasis was put on principles of the highest importance, such as: the spread of democracy, the rule of law, respect of international law, inviolability of international borders, peaceful resolution of conflicts and regional co-operation, condemning extremism, terrorism and violence.
The political situation, the geography of the region (alluding on Kosovo’s independence from Serbia), and the geostrategic priorities of the main political actors have diametrically changed over the years. For example, the EU big-bang enlargement of 2004, and the 2007 entrance of Romania and Bulgaria, have intensified the EU pessimism to accept new member states; region was hit by the big economic crisis of 2008; the spread of terrorism, and threat of more frequent terrorist attacks in the Western European capitals and major cities have shacked the European security structure; the unresolved bilateral disputes among the Western Balkan countries, over their glorifying past(s), protection of the minority rights, border demarcations, etc., have increasingly diminished the EU interest in the region.
The EU absence and poor interest for the region have created a vacuum that was reasonably used by other international actors, such as Russia, Turkey, China. Russian influence, calling on common Pan-Slavic and Orthodox past and after that socialism and communist ideology, in the region was evident through the cultural propaganda, escalating towards direct interference in state regulation in some of the Western Balkan countries. Turkey on the other hand, based on Neo-ottoman tendencies, is increasingly striving to maintain its traditional, cultural and religious ties with its ethnic kin(s) in the region.
In the end, with the Sofia summit in 2018, the Western Balkan countries once again reassured their place on the Western European agenda. Even though the EU officials were not prepared to give a positive incentive for the Western Balkan track(s) in the EU, and in spite of the pessimistic discouragement by the individual EU member states, the newest events testify about the Western Balkan preparedness to fight the last, longest battle and finally to be part of the European Union.
The importance of the Thessaloniki Summit
With a common determination, in 2003, on the Thessaloniki Summit, the EU officials and the Balkan states announced and assured that the Balkans should trace their future in the European Union. Both the EU officials and the Balkan states adopted this statement with enthusiasm, which with a greater intensity continued after the EU readiness to enlarge with the post socialist Central European states in 2004. The South Eastern European region, experienced different historical past and is located on a different geopolitical position in comparison with the Central European countries, and following that, the procedure of EU enlargement towards the CEE was different than the SEE region. (Lothar- Altman, 2004). Thessaloniki Declaration put an accent to the necessity of democratic development of the civil society, for the promotion of important goals, such as reconciliation, peace, and prosperity in the region. The meeting in Thessaloniki was also important because it was a cooperation of justice in the fight against the terrorism, organized crime, drug trafficking, as well as weapon trafficking and human trafficking (Djuric, 2014).
During the Thessaloniki Summit in 2003, a special accent was put on the necessity of regional cooperation for securing external peace and negotiation among the states in the region. An important figure in the establishment of permanent peace and stability in this potentially fragile area was the German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who blamed the non-existing Balkan regionalism, as well as the inactivity and incapability of the European Union to establish peace and stability in this region, during the Bosnian crisis 1991- 1995 (Yalinkiliçli, 2014).
The Thessaloniki Summit confirmed that the “regatta principle” would be applied in the examination of each individual country’s performance. With this it was only confirmed that the EU still regarded the region as a whole; nevertheless, each country was given a chance to be individually rewarded for its progress. More precisely, the progress of each country would depend on its own ability and its own political will to accomplish the necessary and proclaimed reforms, as well as implement and to respect the proclaimed rules and standards. Acknowledging the individual component of the enlargement, the countries in the region were committed to enhance their regional cooperation (Petrusic, 2004).
As the name of this tailor-made strategy for the Western Balkans clearly states, the goal was at first to stabilize and then to associate the countries on the EU membership track, a two-step policy which did not occur in the previous waves of enlargement. The European policy makers claimed that if there was not a serious commitment from the European Union, the Western Balkans will find itself increasingly isolated from the unfolding developments around it and this may endanger the stability of the entire continent. Subsequently from the governments of the Western Balkan states was expected to upgrade their institutions and governance to the European standards and to engage themselves in mutual cooperation. In the prism of the international relations, the Western Balkan region is perceived as a region with porous borders and gateway for criminal activities, illegal immigration, organized crime and, terrorist actions. Accordingly, the EU was pressuring for the implementation of the law enforcement in the countries of the region, promoting cooperation in the sphere of justice and home affairs, and clarifying that the political and institutional cooperation in the region will improve the prospect of closer integration with the European Union (Barbulescu, Troncota, 2013).
In that way, the European Union was using the enlargement scheme as a best self-declared foreign policy method. Using its soft powers, such as persuasion, simultaneously engaging the local actors in democracy building for a future EU accession, it was predicted the Europeanization of the Western Balkans to work as a successful ‘test case’ for the EU’s strategy to bring the Balkans “back to Europe” (Barbulescu, Troncota, 2013). From the Balkan states, it was also expected to get rid of and to change the nationalistic leaderships, because having and relying on the nationalistic authorities will only distance them from their roads into the European Union (Petričušić, 2004).
Regionalism as most often and most successfully played card in the Western Balkans
After the year 2003 and after the meeting in Thessaloniki, a great number of new supra regional and regional initiatives were launched. Adriatic- Ionian Initiative (AII), The Migration, Asylum, Refugees Regional Initiative (MARRI), Southeast European Law Enforcement Centre (SELEC)- its predecessor is SECI, Southeast European Prosecutors Advisory Group (SEEPAG), Police Cooperation Convention for Southeast Europe Secretariat (PCC-SEE), The Prague Process, The Budapest Process, are only a part of them.
After some period of discussions and consultations, in Belgrade in May 2006, it was decided the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe (SPSEE) to be transformed into Regional Cooperation Council (RCC). Founded in February 2009, RCC will be attached to SEECP in order to be implemented the process of “local ownership” (Ohanyan, 2015). Following that, from the Balkan countries, through the process of “regional cooperation” was expected to establish a common place that will help the countries to resolve their regional disputes and unresolved historical disputes from the past. The RCC strategy was signed at the RCC Annual Meeting and the SEECP Summit held in Istanbul in June 2010 (“Regional Cooperation Council, Strategy, and Work Programme 2014 – 2016”, 2016). In order, the RCC objectives to be implemented into practice were established local bodies and institutions that will bear the responsibility for the regional peace and stability and the economic progress in the region. (Tsardanidis, 2008). Mutual cooperation among the RCC countries helped them to establish an easier access for the stakeholders to meet their goals (Kušljugić, 2009).
The regional approach is also a Western European installment in order the related stakeholders to engage in the process of reconciliation: to apologize, forgive and finally forget. The regional approach functioned as a motivating force for stabilization and state- building. With the regional approach, was expected to be established economic growth in the region, mutual cooperation, and future, common membership in the international organizations (Demiri, Ivanovska, Koneska, 2008).
Quarter a century after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and decade and a half after the Thessaloniki summit, the regional cooperation in the Balkans is still a dominant precondition for the region’s path towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration. In spite of every single organized regional initiative, and in spite of the project they implemented and the progress they achieved, the general public in each of the Western Balkan countries is not recognized nor about the existence of the regional organizations, nor about the positive projects behind them (Bogatinovska, 2016). The discussion about the Balkan regionalism is not excluded from the Berlin Process. The Berlin Process is the most recent momentum for regional cooperation, again comes as an external top-down initiative. Top-down approaches (i.e. national government’s initiatives) created a multitude of new initiatives, but they lack commitment. Regarding this, Taleski objectively and critically states that A major risk is that the Berlin Process may become a paper tiger. (Taleski, 2016).
Internal and external barriers on the Western Balkan roads towards EU integration
The Western Balkans’ road towards the European Union was accompanied by number of obstacles. Although after the year 2003 and with the Thessaloniki agenda, the Western Balkan countries were confidently encouraged by Brussels that their place is future guaranteed in the European Union, every single individual of the Western Balkans can testify about the “clear fading” of the European perspective of the Western Balkans. The imposed obstacles on the Western Balkan road towards the European Union can be separated into obstacles of internal and obstacles of external character. The first and still ongoing internal barrier on the Western Balkan road towards EU is the “process of transition”
“Ongoing” process of transition
After gaining their independence, the Western Balkan countries were/are still found in a “perpetual period of transition. The economic transition was subsequent by the Western European preparedness to include the Balkan countries to take a part of the open economic market The period of political transition challenged the countries in the region to transform their political system from uni-polar and communist into multipolar and democratic.
The Balkan states, and especially the Western Balkan states, experienced different and unique state building and ideology transforming processes. In the sphere of the international relations they are also recognized as states found in a continuous process of transition. The first transitioning period for the Western Balkan states was after the Second World War and within the Tito’s Yugoslavia. The second transition was characterized by the process of the fall of communism in 1991, while the third and still ongoing transition is the transition followed by the process of EU enlargement and the period in which the Western Balkan states were tracing their roads into the European Union. The political transition was of a particular importance because it was connected with the process of Europeanization. Europeanization of the Balkans itself, is a process based on two intertwined processes- the process of transition and process of EU integration. The process of Europeanization also presents the necessity of change that each country has to bring or to accommodate on the Western European values. If the country presents is a readiness to transform the domestic legacies to the Western values that mean that the country achieved its “Europeanization” (Babic, 2014). An important question is whether the process of “Europeanization” is achieved with the country’s entry in the European Union? A contemporary reality demonstrates that some of the EU member states, although sharing the European values sufficiently long period of time, can once again transform their legacies, relying on everything for what EU was always striving against for. The Western Balkan countries followed a different path of political and economic independence and period of transition, in spite of their Eastern European neighbors.
Florian Bieber, a professor at the University of Graz, Austria, BIEPAG member and contributor and expert in the field, during his talk on a very recent discussion about the Western Balkans and the EU in Copenhagen, Denmark, critically stated that transition and economic crisis is a normal thing in every society, but in this case unfortunately there is no ending point (Bieber, 2018)
After the biggest enlargement in the history of the European Union in 2004, and the inclusion of new 12, and most of them Eastern European countries, EU dramatically changed its polices and prerequisites towards any future enlargement (alluding specifically on the Western Balkan enlargement). This was an obvious response and action regarding the fact that the Western Balkan countries followed a different path of political and economic independence and period of transition, in spite of their Eastern European neighbors. EU was not interested in building efficient democratic states, but it was interested in supporting and building more progressive place for future EU member states. It is obvious that the enlargement has to be previewed as a process involving elements of continuity and change. The Western Balkan states were very much seen as the east mosaic in the complete unification of European continent (Arkan, Soeren, 2015).
The Western Balkan countries have developed a lot in every aspect of their individual political and economic progress in the Stability Pact, transformed into Regional Cooperation Council. Moreover, it was demonstrated that the task of “unifying Europe”, will not be complete until it also integrates its South Eastern neighbors. In addition, the promised possibility for future joining in the European Union was an incentive for the Western Balkan countries to reconcile and to cooperate among themselves (Busek, 2010).
An important element regarding the relationship between the Western Balkan countries and the European Union is the “EU conditionality”, which was used as a highly necessary mechanism with which the Western Balkan countries were strengthened in their goal of achieving greater regional, neighboring relations, finding their modus of reconciliation (Busek, 2010). Enlargement conditionality has never been static, it has evolved. Also, after the “big bang” enlargement of 2014, the European Union became more cautious in its enlargement program and priorities. Simply, the European Union, after opening its doors to Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, learned the lecture from the mistakes that it made- that the EU enlargement is not something that it can, or should be rushed (Arkan, Soeren, 2015).
Rise of a regional stabilitocracy
While the EU is formerly sticking to its position to keep the Western Balkan countries closer to itself, but not giving any positive membership incentives, relying on positive EU conditionality, the academic circles which developed its research in this field, inspired by the contemporary events in the region, coined a new term in the political terminology- “stabilitocracy”. According to BIEPAG analysis, the rise of a regional “stabilitocracy”, is characterized by weak democracies with autocratically minded leaders, who govern through informal, patronage networks and claim to provide pro-Western stability in the region. The status of democracy in these states is weak, and declining. The safeguards, such as independent media and strong institutions, are failing, and clientelism binds many citizens to ruling elites through cooptation and coercion. (BIEPAG 2018, p.7). This negative example can be particularly recognized in the autocratic governing of the previous Macedonian right wing, conservative government, explicitly demonstrating its nationalistic tendencies, implementing strong nationalistic feelings in the country, spreading homophobia, fear and distrust among the opposition parties and civil sector in the country and distrust and meaningless quarrels and burning of unnecessary unsolvable identity truths, with the neighboring countries, especially with Greece and Bulgaria. In that way, until the Macedonian right wing, populist government glorified the myth of the antic, glorious past, the state lagged behind the track to progress in EU integration. But this is not the most grave evil compared to the dissatisfaction of young generations who are more likely to find various ways to leave their country. The EU finally heard the preparedness of the Macedonian citizens, and the voice of the Macedonian youth and the civil sector which through the uniting forces of Colorful demonstration, succeed in the mission to change the autocratic government of Macedonia. Thanks to these events, but also to the positive reforms and efforts to change the new Macedonian, pro-democratic and pro-liberal government, Macedonia is recognized as a harbinger of the new, positive, liberal and democratic future, accenting that spirits of Macedonia are spreading through the region (Ifimes, 2018). The immediate success of the Macedonian government can be recognized by the Treaty of friendship with Bulgaria, in which both the Macedonian and Bulgarian sides commit to mutual and mutual respect, as well as joint celebration of religious and state holidays, and historical actors whose sacrifice has done a significant impact for the present existence of the two neighboring countries.
The rise of the trend of “stabilocracity” is particularly evident in the political governing of the Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who through control of the media spreads homophobia and threat of potential terrorist attacks, negative campaign against the migrants and the neighboring countries. Much staggering is that the EU in spite to curb this Vucic’s nationalistic tendencies, the recent visits of Angela Merkel and Donald Tusk in the Serbian capital, contributes to Vucic's even stronger determination to stay on this political stance (Bieber, 2018). Without a doubt, the Serbian stubborn position, as well as the Serbian neglect easily to adopt on the EU mosaic of Western European values is the EU preparedness to accept the Kosovo self-determination act and to accept Kosovo, as an independent country in the arena of the international relations. On the other hand, the political and the academic experts claim that Serbian authorities have to find a way to adapt and to accept the contemporary and political realities, as they are. Bianchini states that if one leader wants to clear up the image of the country and to demonstrate its pro- democratic orientation than it is very important that leader is prepared to make some compromises. Hence, as Bianchini states, the Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica it supposed to agree for Kosovo's independence (Bianchini, 2007). In the latest terms, all expectations are pointed to the Serbian prime minister, Aleksandar Vucis who has a chance to be recognized as a Serbian politician who is prepared to make a compromise.
The Western Balkan countries by different extend were heated by a couple of significant contemporary global phenomena, which indirectly slower the Western Balkan road(s) into the EU. Retrospectively, they are following this line:
Economic crisis 2008 from the Economic crisis in 2008, from the EU countries was mostly hit Greece, a country that had gone into deep bank debts and economic turmoil. The rest of the PIGS countries: Portugal, Italy and Spain have also greatly felt the destructive economic consequences.
Migration (but still ongoing crisis) of 2015- A great number of refugees from the Middle East European countries (dominantly from Syria) in 2014,5, looking for better living circumstances, choose the “Balkan route” as a path towards their final desired destination- the Western European countries, or most relevantly in Germany, Austria, Sweden. Apparently, the resolvment of the Migration crisis was a problem of a greater urgency and a greater importance rather than the “new wave of EU enlargement”.
Intensive terrorist attacks and spread of terrorism- the rise and the spread of terrorism, especially the dangers caused of the existence and the fast dissemination of ISIS was particularly concentrated after the terrorist attacks in the European capitals and some of the biggest EU cities: Paris (13 November 2015), Nice (14 July 2016), Brussels (22 March 2016) Manchester (12 June 2017). After these terrorist attacks and after the clear omission in the security structures of the EU, NATO, but also each country individually, the EU devoted its energy, time and material resources to tracing and tracking any possible movement that could turn into a terrorist threat, once again, or leaving it to be resolved further date the Western Balkan integration into the European Union.
Brexit and Great Britain leaving from the European Union
After the state referendum in 2015, the majority of the population in Great Britain declared their willingness and a positive vote for a departure from European Union. Taking into consideration the historical perspective, the population and the political elites of Great Britain were nor particularly enthusiastic to enter in the European Union (UK entered in the EU after the 3rd attempt in 1973), neither particularly enthusiastic to be a part of the union, during the last 40 years. This response on the referendum up to some extend was justified, because of the burden that the Great Britain was wearing. Indeed, the pools it had demonstrated that the population of Great Britain was feeling under threat because of the migrant workers; people coming from former Commonwealth or former colonies in Great Britain. GB was also losing a lot of money from its national treasury to some other European countries (monthly Eastern European), and most important, GB was over peopled with population from the Eastern European countries.
Political trend of “Illiberal democracy”
Today’s process of Europeanization, as well as “democratization” of the Western Balkan States is challenged by the contemporary Eastern European (or more precisely Hungarian) trend of “illiberal democracy”. Initially, a trend created and practiced by the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the illiberal democratic practices are very well accepted in the political programs of the dominant political parties and elites in Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also in Bulgaria and Romania. Simply, the pre- accession countries, but also some of the Eastern European EU member states, being dissatisfied of EU policies and mechanisms in their countries, show greater willingness to turn to some other, authoritarian practices, rather than to wait for their “moment in the European Union” (Balfour, Stratulat, 2015). Not being capable to construct a strong and sustainable foreign policy and not being able to quench the passions of the different political figures and authorities, regionally, some part of the European Union, more precisely the Eastern European authorities, turned into different, non-democratic perspectives, promoting autocracy and totalitarian behavior, involving in many scandals and iniquities in the region (Elbasani, 2015).
The last few years, culminating with the period of the migration crisis almost all of the the CEE countries, more precisely the Visegrad (V4) states: Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary (without the Czech Republic), follow the trend of illiberal democracy. This was a new trend of political ideology, promoted by the Hungarian Prime Minister, Victor Orban during the Congress of the Romanian right wing political party in 2013. With the new established trend of “illiberal democracy”, Orban openly opposes to the democratic and liberal values of the Western European society, especially criticizing the open economy (opposing the Hungarian economy to be a marionette in the IMF and WB hands), freedom of movement within the European Union, LGBT rights, feminism and other civil and social rights movements. Since the parliamentary elections in 2011, and subsequently in 2018 and the Orban’s win, he continuously tries to strengthen the Hungarian political individualism and self-potential and economically self-sufficiency, opposing to the market and open economy methods, promoted from the European Union. The Western Balkan countries or South Eastern Europe is not excluded from practicing and following this political trend. The Western Balkan political leaders showed huge enthusiasm for the Orban’s illiberal democratic tendencies. For example, these policies are/were already established and practiced from the Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, and the previous Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, but also from the Romanian prime minister Sorin Grindeau, implementing the same political practices in the states. This is a clear illustration that the SEE part of Europe is following the illiberal democratic path of the CEE countries.
Interference of external forces
Russian influence in the Western Balkans
EU hesitance to develop a clear perspective for the Western Balkans, Russia got more space to spread its interests. Throughout the last 20 years, Russia mastered the art of soft power, adapting it to its political structure. The historical events testify that the Russian interest in the region precedes ideologically flourish, initially Pan-Slavic and Orthodox and after that a socialist, communist past. However, the Russian interest and domination in the region can vary from country to country. Within the Western Balkan only in Serbia and Republika Srpska, one of the entities in BiH, is there a wide spread political support for Putin, seeing him as a strong leader and a friend, while in the other countries it is more divided with one side supporting him and the other perceiving his leadership is as a form of authority. In the end, the Balkans is an area of Russian influence through which Russia can play games to oppose the West in the geopolitical rivalry. The Russian goals in the area are mainly classifiable as attempts to slow and obstruct democratization processes or to exploit the weak existing democratic institutions. Russia can both play the card of self-determination and Slavic brotherhood relying on political and social structures which lend themselves well to manipulation.
As aforementioned, references to the common Orthodox and Slavic roots are at the core of Russian strategy in Serbia. The Russian way to exploit soft power in Serbia is driven by different measures: intensive bilateral relations at the highest level, strong cooperation between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Serbian one, media outlets, etc. (Stefano, 2018) These relations are specifically represented through different organizations created such as the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Niš, southern Serbia, set up in 2012. Montenegro took a huge step towards integrating with the West when it became the 29th member of NATO despite Moscow's strong opposition. Before the Montenegrin entrance in NATO, on the day of the 2016 parliamentary elections, the Montenegrin authorities stopped an alleged coup plot to violently remove the then prime minister, currently president Milo Djukanovic. Serbian and the Russian authorities were accused by the Security services of Montenegro of setting up a criminal organization in the territory of Montenegro, Russia, and Serbia aimed at carrying out a terrorist attack. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the closest force to Russia is represented by Republika Srpska (RS), more specifically Moscow’s fruitful relationship with Dodik, a long-lasting relation, considered in the international political arena as destabilizing for BiH stability and integration. As in Serbia, Russia also opened Russian Centres in the RS. The Republika Srpska and Moscow axis can seriously jeopardize BiH affiliation to the West, threatening its European integration and NATO membership. Anyway, Republika Srpska is not the only Russian ally in BiH. The Bosnian Croat leadership maintained good relations with Russia. In this way, they can avoid backing Bosniaks and Serbs trying to earn more concessions from the central state. Because of the divided and fragile ethnic society, Macedonia is an easy target for Russian influence. As in the other Western Balkan countries, in Macedonia also is notified intensive cultural influence, though the opening of Russian centers and Orthodox Churches in Russian style. On the other hand, the Russian political influence in the country is a lot more intensified. Personnel from Russian security service and Russia diplomats have been involved in a long-term mission to spread propaganda and provoke discord in Macedonia, according to a flow of classified information from the country’s intelligence agency.
Turkish influence in the Western Balkans
EU hesitance and reluctance to support the Western Balkans to continue developing its pro-European ideas and identities, based on the Western European values, and finally to give a promise date for entrance in the union, has reasonably reflected into greater economic, social, cultural and political influence of other international actors. Turkey’s influence has increased during the last years, also. This was an obvious reaction taking into account that the Western Balkan states, around four or five centuries were living under Ottoman yoke. Without considering whether some of the people living in these countries today, obeyed the Ottoman influence or not, and whether they received some privileges from the Ottoman rulers, each of them, still shares some traditional and cultural values and linguistic premises. These paradigms were/are used by the Turkish authorities in order to get closer to the Western Balkan countries. This situation is especially dominant in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or more precisely among the Bosnian Muslim population in the Federation of Bosnian Muslims and Croats. In this particular case, Turkey clearly by using the glorious Ottoman past, spreads its influence in the Western Balkans. More precisely, Turkey focused on setting up networks of NGOs, religious centers, schools and colleges, mosques, and renovating Ottoman buildings, providing student scholarships, trade agreements and economic investments, organization of Turkish festivals and the export of soap operas to most of the Western Balkans (EPRS, 2018).
Eventually, because the EU is not playing a role in the WB a new vacuum in the Western Balkan area is created. This situation can be strategically used bvy international actors space to enter, namely Russia and Turkey. If the EU considers SEE of strategic importance, then it needs to show that by continuing the accession talks and providing more support to the region (Ioannides, Isabelle 2018).
Interpretation of Sofia Declaration and EU hesitancy for new enlargement
Undoubtedly, since 2003 at the time of Thessaloniki Summit, till 2018 and the Sofia Summit, EU was faced with many turns and downs. The years that have passed- (precisely 15), cannot completely justify the EU reluctance, the Western Balkan countries to take a part in the European Union. The EU by giving priority to the above presented political happenings, is only distancing by itself the Western Balkan region, which patiently waited its momentum in the European Union. The Sofia Summit which was initially framed as “Thessaloniki 2.0”, was definittely a positive exprerience, challenge and effort by the Bulgarian government, and the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, especially because the Sofia summit happened during the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the EU (Bassuener , Vogel, 2018).
Many political and academic experts working in the field expressed their positive opinion about the Sofia summit. One of them was Marko Kmezic, describing the Sofia summit “good family photo opportunity” and said significant progress towards accession required “more time and honest engagement” by both sides (Buckley, Peel, 2018).
The only new positive decision, derived from the Sofia summit, was the decision regarding the change of the name of Republic of Macedonia, after the goodwill and series of meetings and compromises by the Macedonian Prime minister Zaev and the Greek Prime Minister Alexi Tsipras (Gray, 2018). However, neither this “announced progress” was not accepted with the same enthusiasm among the political elites and the general public from the opposing parties in Greece and in Macedonia. Nevertheless, the recent events testify that after 25 years of cold and strained relations, many debates, turns and downs, on June 12, Macedonia’s Zoran Zaev and Greece’s Alexis Tsipras succeeded to compromise over the new possible name of the country to Republic of North Macedonia, with Macedonian citizens and Macedonian language, as a language from Slavic origin. This historic agreement was especially supported and welcomed by High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini and Commissioner Johannes Hahn concluding that: Together, we must now make good use of the window of opportunity that has been pushed wide open to accompany and consolidate the winds of peace and cooperation in the entire region.(Morgherini, Hahn, 2018) A similar statement was announced by Goran Svilanovic, the Secretary General of the Regional Cooperation Council: This historic agreement gives a fresh impetus not only to the cooperation, but also to further economic development and EU integration process of the region (Svilanovic, 2018)
Although some other experts refer to the fact that on the Sofia summit, plan of action and strategies were also approved, comprise a number of important proposals to strengthen cooperation with the countries of the region, to support democracy, rule of law and fight against corruption, to increase collaboration in areas of energy, connectivity, digital economy, to increase investment and trade, tracing the period now and the future (From Thessaloniki to Sofia and beyond, 2018), all of the mentioned priorities, are not something new, in spite they were already strengthened or re-established with the launch of the Regional Cooperation Council, as a regional organization among the Western Balkan states.
One of the most important characteristics that can be noted from the Sofia summit is the lack of political cohesiveness among the individual national EU leaders. Considering the geographical proximity, cultural and neighboring ties, as well as the economic connections, the Western Balkan neighbors, such as: Austria, Croatia, Bulgaria, are more willing to support and to accept the Western Balkan countries to become a part of the European Union. The EU is a dominant trade partner of the Western Balkan states, some 75% of trade in the region, in global terms is conducted by the EU.EU is a major donator, is a major investment. The region is already integrated in the area of transport, energy (Majstorovic, 2018).On the other hand, the French and the Dutch political authorities are traditionally recognized as “EU pessimists” and they continuously and openly are expressing their reluctance for new EU enlargement. In that way, during the Sofia summit, the French president Macron, expressing his opinion that EU needed to reform its internal governance before adding members (Buckley, Peel, 2018) Simply, France is not that deeply integrated with the Western Balkans. In spite of France, Germany it is because of the economic connections and economic partnership (Tobias Flessenkemper, 2018).
The EU-Western Balkan summit in Sofia made no significant steps forwards even in the rhetorical sense on the dedication and reaffirmation of the membership perspective for the region (Balkan Insight, 2018) Kurt Bassuener and Toby Vogel state that With this EU indifference and outdated rhetoric, EU once again risks the Balkan states, to what this means for those citizens frustrated by the endemic poor governance and lack of political accountability in the region is, unfortunately, clear: EU and Western policies will not change until failure becomes so stark as to be impossible to ignore draw on their oriental roots and to remain stuck in their internal Balkanism (Bassuener, Vogel, 2018).
According to Hedvig Morvai, Executive Director of the European Fund for the Balkans, Sofia summit did not bring anything new, but only reaffirmed the European perspective of the Western Balkans. She also states that the international society needs a new kind of togetherness between the EU and the Western Balkans, and that the EU institutions should commit themselves this to happen and particularly a renewed commitment of the European Union and the EU member states is necessary for further support and reforms in the region Morvai alludes to the fact that The Balkans, must be the new European project. The enlargement reconfirms the founding values of the union and that is an opportunity for the future of the EU (Morvai, 2018). On the same panel discussions From Thessaloniki to Sofia , organized by AII, Marko Kmezic, explained that there is a nationalization of the enlargement policy, that the EU lacks safeguards and mechanisms for the already established and emerging problems, problems that will not go away without the EU efforts (Kmezic, 2018).
Among the other already said things from the past, and in spite of the pale and repeating vocabulary, during the Sofia summit it was reaffirmed the position of the Western Balkan states in their track towards EU integration: Serbia and Montenegro are the frontrunners towards future, possible EU enlargement year- 2025, although, the newest statement of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, testifies about the opposite Seemingly, Macedonia and Albania go in the second package, after receiving a new recommendation for opening of the membership negotiations.
Fifteen years after the EU commitments to include the Western Balkan states in the big European family, and after many internal crises and external turmoil, the newest events, followed by the Sofia Summit, once again reassured the European perspective of the region. From the overall political atmosphere and the decisions delivered in Sofia, can be concluded that:
- EU should provide greater support, and should consider more seriously the process of EU enlargement towards the Western Balkan states. Obviously, neither one of the six Western Balkan countries is prepared after one, or two years to join the Union, but 2025 is a reasonable and viable time framework;
- Some of the Western Balkan countries had put a lot of efforts to satisfy the prerequisites given by the European Union. Macedonia and Montenegro are good examples for this statement. Macedonian citizens with united effort, found a mechanism in a democratic way to change and move the Macedonian authoritative government out of power, while the new Macedonian government, after the Friendship Agreement with Bulgaria and the Historical agreement with Greece, over the name of the country commits towards building new positive neighboring atmosphere;
- EU hesitance to open the door to the Western Balkans on a time-reasonable date, can cause a destruction not only among the relations among the EU officials with the Western Balkan countries, but the dissatisfied public may once again (in the case of Macedonia) give its vote to the government of nationalistic aspirations;
- Clearly, there is a lack of consensus among the national leaders of the EU. In that way, while Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Germany, perceive and accept the EU enlargement with enthusiasm, the French and the Dutch authorities, are traditionally stocked to their pessimistic tendencies, alluding to the fact that EU should first restructure itself, before being able to accept new member states;
- Today, some of the Western Balkan states are more prepared and more prone to democratic tendencies, in comparison to some EU member states. The Orban’s illiberal democracy not only that rapidly spreads in the region of Eastern Europe, but more importantly, also finds ways to root firmly on that soil.
After a decade, the Western Balkans once again, deserves their attention in the sphere of EU enlargement. This Western Balkan momentum is a historical chance for both- the countries of the region and its EU counterparts. This is a project with great challenges, but with mutual support, mutual trust and reform, the stakeholders have a chance to be the creators of the common European future.
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