Swoboda: Western Balkans, new hope coming from Berlin, Vienna and Paris‏

Swoboda: Western Balkans, new hope coming from Berlin, Vienna and Paris‏

Analysis/ Dr Hannes Swoboda, former President of the Group of Progressive Alliance S&D in the European Parliament (EP) and member of IFIMES Advisory Board in his article “Western Balkans: New hope coming from Berlin, Vienna and Paris” presents new perspectives in the Western Balkans from Berlin, Vienna and Paris

Western Balkans: New hope coming from Berlin, Vienna and Paris

By Dr. Hannes Swoboda

There exists no doubt, that the integration of the Balkan countries faces difficult times. The Berlin Process, promoted by German Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Steinmeier, brought some hope and new perspectives. But recent events from the Ukraine conflict to the fragile situation in the Middle East and North Africa with a new surge in refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea was and is pushing the Western Balkans into the background of European Neighbourhood attention. In addition the present stalemate with Greece and the threat of a Grexit is also diverting the attention away from integration of the Balkan countries. Nevertheless the next follow up meeting after the Berlin conference in Vienna in August 2015 will be an opportunity to bring a new dynamic into the integration strategy. And after Vienna, Paris will host another conference and that could be another possibility for a restart.

But besides this change in the hierarchy of political priorities there are of course many reasons and causes in the Balkan countries themselves, which are responsible for the retardation in the integration process. Economic and political developments are not very favourable in most of the Balkan countries and the catching up process in both fields seems to be interrupted in many of the countries concerned. So we need a double and parallel restart for the enlargement strategy, in the Balkan countries themselves and from the side of the EU!

Economic development

In a report by the IMF staff on the “Western Balkans – 15 Years of Economic Transition” a mixed picture is presented:

“The countries of the Western Balkans have undergone a major economic transformation over the past 15 years, and many are unrecognizable compared with where they stood at the turn of the century……The result of these efforts has been robust economic growth, a significant rise in incomes and living standards, and enhanced macroeconomic stability……..However, the process of structural transformation began to stall in the mid-2000s, in the face of vested interests and as reform fatigue set in, and remains incomplete.”

These conclusions are supported and underlined by the researchers of the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (WIIW): ” Growth is hardly accelerating in the – current and potential – EU candidate countries. Output in these countries is not expected to grow faster than in the New Member States. Turkey, Macedonia and Kosovo may fare slightly better than the rest of the group with growth rate above 3% in 2015… Nonetheless their unemployment figures continue to be dismal.”

In fact unemployment and in consequence a continuing brain drain are the biggest problems which block the catching up process of the countries of the Western Balkans. And in many countries the poverty rate is still unacceptable high – and not only among the Roma population.

Of course, part of the problem of the interrupted catching up process lies in the economic crises of the European countries themselves. The policy of extreme austerity with budget cuts and high unemployment has prevented to draw the countries into a growth path of the EU. There was no growth strategy of the EU, which could do that. A joint economic strategy with the necessary reforms in the Western Balkans countries themselves is the only possibility to restart the catching up process. And this could give a new impetus for the enlargement and integration process.

It is highly appreciated, that in the Berlin initiative the economic and social issues play a bigger role. Without neglecting the human rights question, without some decisive economic and social progress the European Union would on the one hand loose attractiveness inside the Western Balkan region and on the other side the EU itself would lose interest in the integration of the Western Balkan. And the EU citizens would resist accession by countries with a high degree of poverty and unemployment.

But balanced growth needs a comprehensive approach. One has to warn, that a simplistic strategy of promoting the construction of the necessary infrastructure will not succeed, unless it is complimented by a strategy to support small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). Yes, the region needs an improved network of roads and rail, because this would enhance regional cooperation and integration. But the economic development cannot be based only on the construction sector, building roads (publicly financed ) and houses ( often financed by remittances ). In addition, the close relationship between politics and the construction sector needs careful observation and scrutiny to avoid wide-spread corruption. Some political forces would like to overemphasize the visible construction of highways in order to demonstrate their modernization strategy. But the region needs more.

The region needs a parallel development of the infrastructure including better and faster rail connections and local public transport on the one hand and a re-industrialization in connection with digital services on the other hand. Only such a balanced development may foster economic growth and create jobs for the younger, often better educated and trained generation. Hopefully the Vienna meeting in August 2015 will take up these issues and will design a strategy which will learn from the Austrian experience of a reasonably well balance industrial development.

Political development

The picture of the political, developments of the Western Balkans countries is also a mixed one and somewhat depressing. On the one hand the EU member countries do not enhance the accession negotiations, on the other hand many countries do not really engage in the necessary reforms. One could mention Bosnia & Hercegovina, but also Macedonia, which is already a candidate country.

Besides the continuing blockade and veto by Greece, the present government seems to have other priorities than to start membership talks. Nikola Dimitrov, a Macedonian Diplomat who recently resigned, sees his country stepping backwards. He deplores that accession negotiations had not been allowed to start because of the Greek veto. But he also expresses criticism of the Macedonian government: “The European Union must take a tougher line. It must make clear that Macedonia is no longer a functioning democracy, call for the government to resign, and support the formation of an interim government.” The Macedonian wiretap scandal is one of the symbols of a very fragile democratic system in Macedonia.

Some countries, especially Serbia seems also to have some doubts which way to go. Besides a strange media policy, we find a strong Russian presence in this country. This disturbs some EU countries especially in connection with the attitude of the new Syriza government in Greece. As such, good relations with Russia, including in the energy field should not be an obstacle towards integration into the EU. But there are doubts on the reliability of some countries in the region by some New Member Countries especially by Poland and the Baltic countries.

Besides these two specific issues, the transformation of the economic and political systems is not proceeding with the necessary speed in many Balkan countries.  Corruption affects both spheres, the political and the economic one. And sometimes there is a lack-luster fight against it. Discussions with the younger generation and journalists are always full of stories concerning the in-transparent ties between politics and some businesses. Some of these stories only express some rumours, but too many seem to express reality.

Again the forthcoming Vienna summit must take up these points and address especially the civil societies of the countries concerned. They should act in a sound regional cooperation to enhance the processes of modernization and democratization. These processes do not always go hand in hand, but for the near future they may support each other. And civil society in each countries and in a regional network should be watching and accompanying these developments very carefully.

How could the European Union help?

First of all, the European project must gain momentum and new attraction. Since the last Big Bang enlargement, there is no overriding vision, to where the EU should go. This lack of vision and the rise of populist movements, especially on the right, support each other. Fighting against the “arguments” of the right will not be successful without offering a new vision for the future of the EU. And of course this vision must be based on real and effective policies to enhance growth and job-creation. Only an attractive EU with a convincing vision and successful policies will be attractive for the citizens inside the EU and the enlargement countries. But we need also a transparent enlargement strategy as such.

The European Stability Initiative presented recently a proposal for a new, more transparent and helpful procedure for the accession process. It takes up procedures for the visa liberalization process and transfers it to the more complex and comprehensive accession process. A list of all obligations and necessary reforms for the countries in the accession process would be set up and published. This list would regularly show how far the accession countries respective their governments and parliaments have done their homework and have decided and implemented (!) the necessary reforms.

For everybody inside the EU and the countries concerned the progress – or lack of progress – would be visible and could be subject of a public debate. This transparent process could stir the necessary discussions in the political circles and the public not only in the accession countries. It would also give the European public and their representatives an opportunity to  be always aware of the progress of accession. To make the accession process transparent and to create an objective basis for expert and public evaluation would be the biggest help EU countries could give to current and potential member countries.

The German/British initiative and the Berlin meeting created new hopes and chances. It will still be a long way until the next accession can take place. But the summits in Vienna and Paris could be important steps on that way – if all are participants are ready to do their job.

* Former President of the S&D Group in the EP, member of the IFIMES Advisory Board