The importance of the Western Balkans is primarily strategic and political. If the EU pushes the region away, it will turn towards Russia and China, which will bring many challenges for the EU
The troubled relationship between the EU and the Western Balkans comes as no surprise. After all, it seems as though the two sides have nothing much in common except mutual dislike.
The Western Balkans are disappointed by the EU’s broken promises and its constant shifting of the goalposts. They feel that the EU doesn’t really care about the region and views it only as a source of cheap labour that it can exploit even without granting membership.
The EU, on the other hand, isn’t too happy with the Western Balkans’ track record on corruption and is worried about rising authoritarianism in the region, which it sees as being a big problem if the region joins the EU. It also feels like the region is only interested in using the EU as a cash cow.
There’s some truth in those complaints, but the big question is: what happens if the two sides really do split up?
The Western Balkan region is heavily dependent on the EU for trade and investment. The EU buys around two-thirds of the region’s exports, contributes around two-thirds to foreign investments and provides hundreds of millions of euros annually to each of the regional economies through the IPA funds. If the region were to break up with the EU, it could face significant economic consequences.
While the western Balkan region is heavily dependent on the EU for trade and investment, the EU is already reaping basically all the benefits that the region may offer: brains and talented individuals, cheap labour and low taxes
For the EU, the economic incentives are far smaller. It is already reaping basically all the benefits it could from the Western Balkans: it is taking its brains and talented individuals, selling its products on its markets and taking advantage of cheap labour and low taxes. But the importance of the Western Balkans for the EU is not economic. It is primarily strategic and political. If the EU pushes the region away, the region will turn towards Russia and China, which will bring many challenges for the EU.
The EU and the Western Balkans therefore MUST understand that they need each other and that they will both be worse off if they separate.
The EU, as the bigger partner, should take the first step and show that it really cares about the Western Balkans by speeding up the accession process. While granting membership candidate status to Bosnia-Herzegovina and launching accession talks with Albania were good steps, more needs to be done to speed things up for the rest of the region. Moreover, the EU should provide greater financial support to the region, because the current support provided through the IPA funds is not enough to improve living standards.
The Western Balkan region needs to show its commitment to implementing the necessary reforms in areas like combating corruption, upholding the rule of law and promoting democracy and equality. It should demonstrate to the EU that the accession process is viewed as an opportunity to improve Western Balkan societies and provide a better life for citizens, rather than just a way to extract money and enrich corrupt elites. The time is now.