Brdo Declaration 2021: New Hope for Western Balkans or just a promise of the “European perspective?“
Petra Bošková

The EU-Western Balkans Summit in Slovenia on 6 October ended with a feeling of impatience with the blockades in the accession processes of the six candidate or candidate-hopeful countries. However, it is crucial to realize that the economic and investment plan proposed precisely a year ago is implemented, which manifests the EU’s unanimity on the region’s strategic importance.

First of allthe integration process of the Western Balkans has already been a “phenomenon” in the international environment, which is still in the process of stagnation, despite negotiations and political dialogue. Moreover, the European Union does not seem willing to accept new members, as evidenced by France’s or Netherlands’ positions. France fears further enlargement, so it is unlikely to make the EU accession a priority during its next presidency of the EU Council in early 2022. However, the Czech Republic could “shuffle the cards,” taking over the succession after France.

On the other hand, the European Union’s accession criteria might alter for each country due to their different development. This “differentiated integration criteria” policy has become a contentious issue in the Balkans and is considered a double-edged sword. On the positive side, the approach is “flexible,” which allows each country to meet its accession standards at its own pace. The downside, however, is that this policy is perceived as unpredictable at best and inconsistent and discriminatory at worst.

Kranj, Slovenia; Photo: SonsArt/Shutterstock

„To date, the EU’s support for the fight against the pandemics in the Western Balkans has been EUR 3.3 billion and has promised to increase it by another EUR 1.1 billion by the end of the year.“

Concerning the declaration, its grounds differ from the others in several key points. First, it is a more robust language beyond the softer diplomatic terminology used in recent years. Second, the declaration also pointed to the economic and environmental future of, in this manner, a widely underdeveloped region.

The EU has focused on future investments as part of a support package for the region. The box, known as the Economic and Investment Plan (EIP), represents support for the area of EUR 30 billion. Investment in the Western Balkans will focus mainly on the EU’s green plan and improving infrastructure. Also, to date, the EU’s support for the fight against the pandemic in the Western Balkans has been EUR 3.3 billion and has promised to increase it by another EUR 1.1 billion by the end of the year.

The Brdo summit also raised the issue of bilateral relations between Bulgaria and North Macedonia. Not so long ago, Bulgaria introduced six requirements that ask Skopje to meet before the accession negotiations could begin. Once the requirements are met, the situation could lift the Bulgarian veto over Skopje, which has lasted since November 2020. The EU Commissioner Von der Leyen highlighted Skopje’s efforts but warned that delaying the start of North Macedonia’s accession negotiations also delayed the start of accession negotiations with Albania and subsequently threatened Europe’s position and influence in Albania.

The Brdo summit declaration also highlights the growing influence of other actors in the Western Balkan region, such as China, Turkey, the Russian Federation, and the Gulf States. The European Union’s strategic policy towards the Western Balkans would require decisive action against Russia’s and China’s growing influence in particular. Another problem in the accession negotiations is the ethnocentric thinking of states, which is at the core of political decision-making at the moment.

The Union also points out that the countries of the Western Balkans should be more vocal about the European Union’s support in the debate and in their media. The Union is a partner, major investor, and donor for the region. However, the free media and the level of freedom of expression are nowhere close to European standards.

It may seem that the Brdo declaration is just a “supplement” to the EU enlargement, which is not of profound significance for the Western Balkans. It is more about broadening the European perspective than about the membership of the region. That causes frustration at the stagnation of states, as well as the possible strain on relations. Finally, the suggested date of the enlargement – 2030, generates new hopes on one side and disappointment on the other that Brussels is weakening the reliability of its word and also provides space for third actors to gain even more influence in the Western Balkan region.

„The European Union’s strategic policy towards the Western Balkans would require decisive action against Russia’s and China’s growing influence in particular.“

Petra Bošková is a student of the Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic and a participant of the Strategic Analysis’ Young Balkanist Programme.

Disclaimer: Views presented here are those of the interviewee solely and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Strategic Analysis.

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