• Losing Western Balkan hearts and minds

    Nothing new: European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, presents the 2023 Enlargement package and the new Growth Plan for the Western Balkans on 8 November. Photo: European Commission.

    Two decades ago in Thessaloniki, the EU promised the Western Balkans full membership in the political bloc. Fast-forward to today, and it seems nothing has moved on.

    Sure, last week Brussels uttered a conditional ‘Yes’ for Bosnia’s start of accession talks, while demanding more reform, and slapped the other five states on the back for their commitment to the accession process.

    The EU also launched its new Growth Plan for the Western Balkans with an aim to double the size of the economies of the six countries, bring their markets closer, and has pledged six billion euros for reforms.

    No one in the Western Balkans was excited. Here lies the catch. The EU has simply lost the hearts and minds of the region’s people.

    Bosnia remains stuck in an inter-ethnic and legal nightmare, Serbia and Kosovo feel they should cut off one of their arms and legs to progress, North Macedonia remains de facto blocked by EU member Bulgaria over sensitive identity issues, Albania is forced to wait for North Macedonia, and Montenegro has fallen victim to domestic political deadlock.

    People have already subscribed to the well-conceived anti-EU narratives. I hear many say “Brussels is hypocritical” and “The EU is on the brink of falling apart.”

    The EU needs to decide. Either they muster the courage to export stability to the region, and reap the long-term benefits of a greater union, or the region slips into disarray, and they must brace for importing instability.

    Brussels will need to show strategic forward-thinking, a vision. In the same way it did during its enlargement with eastern European countries in the 2000s. Or let’s stop sugarcoating the bloc’s lack of will or capability. In that case the EU will be thrown out on its own doorstep, and we will become the site of a shipwreck, where the EU values went to die.

    This article is part of the "The long road into the EU" edition
    Enlargement: not a done deal
    “Too little, too slowly” – Ukraine’s path to the EU
    Hungary’s enlargement double bind
    Losing Western Balkan hearts and minds
    Could Poland be an example for the EU?