A long-awaited green light for Albania and North Macedonia to open EU accession negotiations has come in the wake of coronavirus-induced crises that have halted normal life all over the world. While it is arguable whether such a decision came at the right time, since it should have happened much earlier and especially not in the midst of a pandemic, there can be no doubt that the European Union sends a number of messages through it. First, regardless of the crisis, which threatens to further shake the foundations on which the European project rests, there is a desire at the EU level to further spread European values. Second, the EU wants to repair the possible damage it has done by previously blocking the opening of negotiations with these countries to its liberal reform agenda implementation, especially in North Macedonia, which has made a huge concession to a European perspective with changing its name by signing the Prespa agreement in June 2018. Third, this is a necessary move to show solidarity and strengthen Western influence in the Balkans to the cost of Russia, Turkey and China who hope to increase their engagement in this extremely sensitive region.
Another clear sign that the EU does not want to leave the Western Balkans in limbo has come in the form of 38 million euros in immediate assistance to address the emergency issues and reallocation of 374 million euros from the IPA funds to speed the socio-economic recovery of the region. Although such support was received with varying degrees of enthusiasm, it overshadowed all others not only by weight but also by the messages of partnership and the Western Balkans as part of the European family. In addition, the Western Balkan countries are participating in the joint efforts to procure protective personal equipment and medical supplies with the EU member states, Iceland and Liechtenstein. This should be a test of what the European Commission announced in its revised enlargement methodology in February – gradual integration into EU programs and merit-based advancement towards full-fledged membership in the block. To remind readers, the new methodology envisages a whole set of tightening conditions and criteria, a new framework for the negotiations along with incentives and sanctions in line with progress or lack of it achieved on the ground. Even if there were concerns about a new approach and stricter conditions two months back, the Western Balkans should now hope that the methodology will be developed and implemented as soon as possible. Next week's EU-WB Summit - in teleconference - will be another chance to set concrete commitments.
The post-crisis conditions will be even more challenging. The pandemic has sidelined the reform agenda and shaken the economy not only in the Balkans but also across the Union, while democracy has suffered the most during the crisis. Adopting measures beyond the constitution and other legal norms, amending laws through fast-track procedures, restricting freedoms, including media and freedom of expression, changing electoral rules, marginalizing the role of parliaments, are just some of the issues faced by the citizens in the region these days. As the pandemic cannot be an excuse for suspending democracy, the crisis has only further illuminated the true faces of the Balkan leaders. Similarly, even if the countries return to the previous state of democracy overnight, it has never been at a high level.
Following the crisis, as recommended in the new Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group’s (BiEPAG) brief, the EU needs to include all Western Balkans countries in assistance and post-emergency reconstruction plans, irrespective of the stage of their integration process. Furthermore, all human rights abuses and violations of rule of law principles during the pandemic must be addressed no matter where they occurred – in the EU’s own yard or in the neighborhood striving to be part of the club.
The EU needs to re-commit itself to its own consolidation, but should not prioritize the economy over democracy in that effort. Economic and democratic consolidation should go hand in hand and take place at all levels. Through developing instruments for the Western Balkans, the EU should adapt them to address democratic issues in the member states and vice-versa. Equally, by adjusting programs and integrating the Western Balkans into it, the EU will stimulate and heal the countries in the region while dealing with a unique strategy inside and out.