The opening of the so-called Western Balkan route in the summer of 2015 brought the region back to our living rooms and to political boardrooms. One could sense relief and hope among those long advocating for increased efforts on the side of the EU for the Thessaloniki agenda to reach its finalité. Relief because it looked like the immense strains the refugee wave put on the countries along the route did not seem to endanger the regional stability still feared to be fragile. Hope because it brought the region back into the EU spotlight after years of falling into oblivion.
But both, relief and hope were short lived. A closer look revealed that those few (member states) which had long kept an eye on the US presence in the region and occasionally voiced concerns over the deteriorating economic situation, the state of democracy in the region and the broader security concerns were right about the need for a steady and comprehensive progress towards the accession of the countries of the region to the EU. Not because the bellical situation of the 1990s was feared to return, but because of the importance the region holds for the security of the EU and its citizens and for geopolitical standing of Europe, including for the EU’s capacity to promote peace, its values and sustainable development of Earth (to use the Treaties’ language).
The (initial?) response to the migration wave focused on the security of the EU and its citizens and demonstrated the EU’s weaknesses precisely with regard to its geopolitical standing. It was not until Ms Mogherini’s statement upon her return from the region on 6 March 2017 saying that “/t/he Balkans can easily become one of the chessboards where the big power game can be played,” followed by a European Council discussion on the region and President’s conclusions of the 9 March 2017 recommitting the EU to seek a comprehensive progress on the region’s path to the EU, demonstrated that the gravity of situation really sunk in in Brussels. Still, the Rome declaration of 25 March 2017 felt short of reassuring the Western Balkans countries (formally) aspiring to join the EU that they are also seen as a soon-to-be part of the family.
That the region is part of the Euro-Atlantic security space, however, has not been doubted in Europe since long. The region had been surrounded by NATO members since 2004, Albania and Croatia joined the Alliance in 2009 and Montenegro as the youngest member acceded in June 2017. The other countries participate in its Partnership for Peace Programme since at least a decade. Numerous EU-lead and funded processes, projects and programmes are under way to support the humane and dignified approach to migrants and to strengthen the borders of the Western Balkan countries. Progress, praise and success are far more common than criticism. Numbers of foreign fighters coming from the region and joining Daesh or Al-Nusra in Syria and Iraq as well as either side in the conflict in Ukraine; investigations into weapons used in terrorist attacks in Western Europe showing origin in the region, and reports of Islamic fundamentalism on the rise (especially home-grown as opposite to imported) have led to an expanded and strengthened EU’s anti-terrorist focus on the region and increased intelligence cooperation.
While the challenges are common, their depth and the depth of what is common, remains to be tackled. First, in the current geopolitical situation the regional leaders balance between the Moscow-Ankara axis and the Euro-Atlantic shield on the chessboard that seems too big for concerns of millions of people on the ground and in which the leaders rip off benefits from both sides. Fragile regional security serves the nationalist card. Second, even if the numbers of first-time asylum seekers from the region in the EU member states dropped sharply (following change in policies e.g. in Germany), the problem of migration from the countries of the region (as opposite to ‘through’ them) is not sufficiently and comprehensively addressed. Third, while foreign fighters from the region have various reasons for leaving for Syria, Iraq or Ukraine, their age shows that little can be explained through their experience and involvement in the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The hypotheses related to socio-economic reasons and lack of perspective have more ground.
The common thread linking the EU and the Western Balkans on the three issues of security, migration and terrorism is perspective: perspective of joining the EU, perspective of economic progress the proceeds of which would be shared across the population, and perspective of freedom of state from (one) party politics. Closer ties forged with the security sector from across the region in the framework of migration wave management and broader security cooperation must be made to support these three perspectives. But the perspectives must be renewed by unequivocal political commitment and innovative economic approach of the EU.
Sabina Lange, Senior Lecturer at European Institute of Public Administration, Maastricht, and Senior Associate Analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies, Paris.