On the occasion of the release of the new EU progress reports on the Western Balkans, the Heinrich-Böll -Stiftung North America held a roundtable discussion on the EU’s accession process and the future of transatlantic cooperation in the region. The roundtable was held in cooperation with the Centre international de formation européenne (CIFE) at the University of Nice and the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). Participants included officials from the embassies of several Western Balkan states in Washington, senior officials from US government institutions, and experts on the region.
In his opening remarks, Tobias Flessenkemper, Senior Fellow and Balkans Project Director at CIFE, assessed the achievements of the Berlin Process. The intergovernmental process was initiated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2014 with the goal of reinvigorating the European integration of the Western Balkans. While the Berlin process has been criticized as “just another regional cooperation initiative,” as Flessenkemper noted, it did advance some progress in intergovernmental cooperation such as improved relations between Serbia and Albania. Unfortunately, the Berlin Process was unable to stimulate significant economic growth in the region. As a recent World Bank report illustrates, it will be difficult for most of the Balkan states to reach the same level of economic prosperity as most EU member states.
Given the uncertainty over the shape of the future European Union (particularly after a potential Brexit) and the European security architecture, it remains unclear what sort of EU the Balkan countries will eventually join. In parts of the Balkans, the EU is increasingly seen as an exporter of problems than as provider of stability. In light of declining attraction of the EU and ever-shrinking enthusiasm over potential EU membership, Russia has increased its engagement in the region. But as commentator Ivan Vejovoda, senior vice president for programs at the GMF, noted, the EU is still the most influential external actor in the Balkans.
There is a growing concern in the EU and the U.S. over democratic backslide, manipulation of the media, and state capture in the Western Balkans – trends that the Berlin Process was unable to stop. On the other hand, there is also growing frustration in the region over the often changing EU conditionality. The opposition within the EU’s Northern member states against further enlargement might change slightly if the accession process with Turkey is suspended. If the accession process with the Balkans indeed gains momentum in the next years, existing problems in the region need to be transparently reflected in the EU progress reports on the region.
While there has been close transatlantic cooperation in the region under the Obama administration, which supported the EU’s role in the driver’s seat, it is unclear to what extent the United States will remain actively involved in supporting the region’s accession to the EU. President-elect Donald Trump does not have ties to the region in the way that Hillary Clinton would have. The future of U.S. policies towards the Balkans and transatlantic cooperation in the region will need further examination in 2017.