In 2020 the European Union (EU) and the Western Balkans (WB) have a new chance to address low levels of mutual engagement and grow closer together. Considering the shared problems and interests of the EU and the region, a deeper engagement is paramount. The pervasive effect of the issues at stake – from climate change and air pollution to economic opportunities and security challenges – makes the discussion about possible benefits of the region’s EU accession a matter of absolute necessity.
Inviting the WB’s political elites and citizens to take part in the announced Conference on the Future of Europe makes a perfect opportunity to start building “the same future together” for the EU and the WB, in the words of the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, as declared in her Agenda for Europe. Regular exchanges within this format would increase mutual understanding and raise the quality of the dialogue. EU leadership would be able to demonstrate its political commitment to integrating the WB into the EU. Likewise, for the WB counterparts, participating in the design of EU policies would increase their ownership of the conducted reforms, given that most policy areas to be covered by the Conference also fall within the EU enlargement framework.
Inclusiveness and engagement with all societal actors should equally be the key principles of the revised EU accession methodology for the WB. Meeting the membership criteria and securing the irreversibility of reforms will not be possible unless the ownership of the transformative processes in the WB is extended to the wider society and the national parliaments. The EU should do more to empower the region’s parliaments to exercise their legislative and controlling functions, as well as civil society in the region, which has so far shown the potential to hold the authorities accountable, reach out towards citizens and provide valuable input to the EU integration process. Eventually, it will be up to domestic forces to drive the sustainable democratic transformation, and thus allow the WB countries to fully benefit from future EU membership (and be rule-abiding, viable, EU members). Besides empowering the controllers of the executive, political leaders of the EU member states should be more outspoken about the failures of the region’s authorities to address issues which prevent transformation into fully functional democratic societies, such as state and media capture, fairness of elections, and fighting corruption.
The revised accession process should thus deliver for the people and make the transition from candidate country to EU member less intimidating both for the EU and the WB. Socializing through the Conference on the Future of Europe would be favourable in that respect. Phased access to EU membership is a way forward to render the process tangible to citizens and rewarding for incumbent governments. The experience of Montenegro and Serbia in their EU membership negotiations reveals that the current logic of opening and closing negotiating chapters neither yields expected results nor incentivises leadership to implement politically costly reforms, when the ultimate membership perspective stretches far beyond their political mandates. Instead, what is needed is a roadmap for gradual EU membership, including straightforward conditions and corresponding rewards and penalties, achievable within 3 to 4-years, to fit into the short-term political cycles in the region. As proposed by the European Policy Centre - CEP, gradual accession would be possible by signing tailored (accession) treaties that would specify conditions and milestones for each phase of membership. However, this proposal must not be confused with Macron’s one, as candidate countries would be allowed to fully exercise EU membership rights and obligations within the given sectoral policies (upon meeting specific conditions) and the European Court of Justice would have jurisdiction over the matters covered by the given policy blocks. Allowing access to EU sectoral policies without voting rights, clear legal basis and reachable EU membership perspective may not suffice to secure necessary commitment from the region’s political elites.
To make the best of the present momentum, the EU and the region’s community of experts, including specialists in EU constitutional law, should come together to conduct systematic legal analysis, examine the feasibility of phased EU membership and design corresponding legal and policy options. To boost the region’s economic and social convergence and ensure that WB citizens truly feel accession-related benefits along the path, this gradual and incentive-based scheme needs to be accompanied by more generous EU financial support for the region through a phased opening of European Structural and Investment funds. The revisions to the EU accession framework need to be ambitious and fundamental for the accession process of the WB to be successful. Should the new enlargement strategy boil down to yet another paper exercise, reform fatigue and disillusionment in the WB region are likely to mark the new decade and yield new uncertainties in Europe’s inner courtyard.
 M. Lazarevic, S. Maric, “Curbing the Executive Bias for a Stronger Democracy in the Western Balkans”, Think for Europe Network, November 2019.
 A. Abazi Imeri, S. Kacarska, “Effective Benchmarking for Concrete Rule of Law Reforms in the Western Balkans”, Think for Europe Network, October 2019.
 M. Lazarevic, “Away with Enlargement Bogeyman - Reforming the EU Enlargement Policy for a prompter acceptance of the Western Balkans”, European Policy Centre – CEP, July 2018.
 M. Lazarevic, “From crisis to opportunity - Harnessing the potential of the French proposals for the benefit of the Western Balkans”, European Policy Centre, 18th November 2019.