The Open Balkans is improving the region and is not a substitute for the EU

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The countries of the Western Balkans have been on their European path for more than two decades, but with no prospect of successfully reaching their goal, membership in the European Union. The problems are in the insufficient readiness of these countries to implement the necessary reforms and resolve their bilateral issues, but also in the insufficient determination and sincerity of the EU members to accept this region as their full part.

A regional initiative whose members are Serbia, Albania and Northern Macedonia was launched in 2019 under the informal name of mini-Schengen to change its name to the Open Balkans. The most important goal of this initiative is to connect citizens and their businesses. The immediate effects of this initiative could be the long-term provision of peace and a departure from any kind of nationalism.

One of the failures of the European integration process lies in the insufficient motivation of domestic political leaders to be the bearers and owners of this process together with the citizens. Instead, European integration was often seen as meeting other people’s needs and formally ticking squares on paper. Such an approach has led to the fact that most of the countries of the Western Balkans stand still when it comes to European integration. And that’s just one part of the problem.

Although the leaders of the Open Balkans initiative explicitly said that this initiative is not an alternative to the EU accession process, it seems that it did arise from the insight that one cannot wait forever for the EU to do something with this region. The advantage of this initiative, unlike the process of European integration, is that it was designed by political leaders in this area, and there is a greater role and interest in developing this idea in order to succeed. When you are the owner of a process or the founder of an idea, your motivation for success is much higher than when you have to meet the criteria set by someone else. This still does not mean that the countries of the Western Balkans do not need to implement the necessary reforms in order to become members of the EU, but perhaps the Open Balkans is a way to get even closer to the EU.

We have heard criticism from the EU many times so far about bad regional relations, but because of that, the Open Balkans can be a way to achieve better relations in the region with the goal of stronger economic connections and freedom of movement of goods, people and capital. If in the future the region shows a higher level of political maturity and seriousness towards overcoming differences and using the region’s capacities, then the region will be looked at with greater seriousness from Brussels as well. The stronger and more connected a region is, the stronger its negotiating position.

The corona virus pandemic was a good example of how important regional cooperation and assistance is, when countries could not rely on the EU but turn to themselves and each other. Although perhaps more marketing than real, by donating vaccines to the countries of the region, Serbia has shown that it is possible to pursue a policy independent of Brussels. Turning to regional cooperation should not cause fear in Brussels, so that the EU’s influence in the region could be lost. The open Balkans and EU integration should not be mutually exclusive but complementary processes. Even if the process of European integration today remains only a fiction.

Although businessmen are reacting positively to the attempt to create a larger market in the Balkans, the question arises as to why Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina do not see themselves in this initiative at the moment. It is no coincidence that those three countries that have complicated relations with Serbia are missing: BiH, where Republika Srpska flirts with separatist intentions, Montenegro, which is strongly influenced by Belgrade politics, and Kosovo, whose independence Belgrade does not recognize.

The main criticism from these three countries is that the Open Balkans was created as a consequence of large-scale projects of Serbia and Albania, or that this is Vučić’s project of creating a “Serbian world”. Then the question arises as to what is the interest of Northern Macedonia to be a part of this initiative if Serbian and Albanian nationalism were to eat it.

BiH and Montenegrin political leaders said they did not see concrete benefits from joining the initiative because travel and trade are already regulated by the CEFTA trade agreement between Southeast European countries, while Kosovo’s prime minister said he would rather see an improved version of the CEFTA agreement. However, joining the Open Balkans would make the transport of people and goods even easier, as controls at border crossings would be abolished.

However, the Open Balkans initiative can be seen as the way of the autocrats Vučić and Rama that they do not have to implement reforms that would endanger their government and that are necessary in the case of European integration. If the EU loses its power in the region, then it will be even easier for political leaders to do what they have done so far, and that is the collapse of institutions and the concentration of power. However, there can be no long-term economic development if there is no favorable political and legal climate where investors will be confident in their investments and the possibility of legal protection.

The Open Balkans can also be seen as a step closer to the European Economic Area as a substitute for EU membership. Belonging to this area is the highest possible degree of economic cooperation and integration with the EU without being a member. This area implies the same freedoms of movement of goods, services, people and capital as in the internal market of the European Union. Residents of these countries are free to move around the territory of other EEA countries, to study or work in them without a work or residence permit, there are no customs or other barriers to exports and the like, Talas writes.