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Region, EU leaders must now seize the geopolitical moment to revamp the integration of Western Balkans into Union

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has finally awakened the European Union to the strategic importance of the Western Balkans and the potential for Moscow to exploit unresolved disputes in the region to undermine the West.

EU leaders must now seize the geopolitical moment to revamp the integration of the six small, economically fragile countries with a total population of fewer than 18 million into the Union, or risk seeing them used by Russia and China in their power games.

Despite deep disillusionment at the snail’s pace of progress since the EU officially gave them membership prospect back in 2003, EU accession remains the best imaginable outcome for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, and for the rest of Europe.

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If the EU continues to keep them at arm’s length, the alternatives could be closer alignment with Russia, the emergence of an illiberal, non-aligned zone that could stretch from Hungary to Turkey, or — worse still — a downward spiral into fresh armed conflict, involving a toxic mixture of organized crime and weaponized migration.

There is a complacent assumption in some western European capitals, notably Paris and The Hague, where EU enlargement fatigue is the most intense, that the status quo is manageable and poses no serious risk to European security. To be sure, people in the Western Balkans are war-weary after the horrors of the 1990s.

The situation may seem under control, but it is not sustainable indefinitely. There is no guarantee that unresolved conflicts within Bosnia or between Serbia and Kosovo will stay frozen with minor flare-ups, or that localized political violence will not escalate, drawing in outside players and fueling new flows of refugees, arms and drugs into the EU. Recent clashes over car license plates for Kosovo Serbs show how a tiny spark can ignite dry tinder.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine has put many people on edge in the region, fueling ultra-nationalism among hardline pro-Russian Serbs, and bringing back searing memories of death and destruction among those who lived through the 1990s Yugoslav Wars.

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Moscow is trying to fan pan-Slavic Orthodox nationalism and exploit divisions wherever it can. It has lent support to Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik in his threats to secede from Bosnia and has spread disinformation to amplify Kosovo Serbs’ hostility to the Pristina government.

China, for its part, has mostly pursued economic investments, using the 14+1 framework under its Belt and Road Initiative to engage with local leaders looking for ambitious infrastructure and defense projects. It follows Russia’s lead on the Western Balkans in the UN Security Council and uses its financial muscle to dissuade Balkan states from backing critical resolutions on human rights violations in Xinjiang or Hong Kong.

Serbian pro-government media relay the Russian narrative about the war in Ukraine, and Russian-owned media contribute to anti-Kosovo war hysteria. Russia and China have both contributed to Serbia’s rearmament. Moscow also has a powerful energy lever since Serbia gets 80 percent of its gas from Russia while Bosnia is 100 percent dependent. Partly as a result, Serbia has refused to align with EU sanctions against Russia, causing irritation in Brussels.

The EU has the more powerful long-term levers, if it is willing to use them, given the widespread public aspiration to join the bloc across the region, except in Serbia. However, France and the Netherlands have led resistance to further enlargement ever since mainly over fears of migration and organized crime.

Neighboring EU members Greece and Bulgaria long obstructed the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s candidacy for the EU and NATO to demand that it change its name and accept Sofia’s narrative about its own history and its Bulgarian minority.

Even after it agreed to change its name to North Macedonia in 2018, France vetoed the opening of negotiations with Skopje and Albania to demand a reform of the accession process to include the principle of reversibility where there is backsliding. The talks finally began this July, but North Macedonia is still required to change its constitution next year to incorporate the terms agreed with Bulgaria, a potential political bear trap since the government lacks a super-majority.

When EU leaders rushed to grant Ukraine and Moldova candidate status in June in response to Russia’s aggression, Western Balkan elites understandably feared their countries were being pushed further back in the line for membership. Likewise, when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz demanded that the EU reform its decision-making system to scrap national vetoes on sanctions and taxation policy before new members are admitted, that sounded like an even longer wait.

So, what should the EU do now? First, more visible political engagement.

The EU has made a better start this year at paying attention to the long-neglected region. There have been two EU-Western Balkan summits — one in the region for the first time — plus a revival of the Berlin Process to support regional economic integration in preparation for joining the EU’s single market. Western Balkan leaders attended the inaugural summit of a new European Political Community in Prague in October, dreamt up by French President Emmanuel Macron.

This engagement must continue.

Second, bring forward accession benefits and participation.

The EU needs to reshape its cumbersome accession process to distribute more of the financial and market access benefits of membership up-front as candidates progress with reform. At present, they receive only a trickle of pre-accession assistance until they join.

The EU should invite ministers from the region to attend informal council meetings on issues of common concern. It should encourage Western Balkan countries to elect observers to the European Parliament at the same time as the 2024 European elections, so they have a voice, if not a vote, in EU lawmaking.

Of course, the brunt of the hard work needs to be done in the candidate countries, most of which are far from meeting the basic conditions of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and the fight against corruption to qualify for membership.

As always, it’s a chicken-and-egg problem. Why would Balkan politicians make painful reforms that could loosen their hold on power and money for such a distant and uncertain prospect? The EU will need to work harder from below, supporting civil society, women’s organizations, and small businesses as drivers of change, while offering incentives and applying pressure from above.

At this geopolitical moment, the EU simply can’t afford to leave the region to fester, Politico writes.

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