Amid general pessimism caused by covid-19 crisis, the last few days brought some good news for the Western Balkans, as the European Union (EU) green-lighted the launch of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. The long awaited and overdue decision is an indisputable step towards fulfilling the EU aspirations of the Western Balkans, a decision that will definitely inject some optimism in the region. On the other side, such decision heralds the fact that the EU can take strategic decisions, even in the midst of a big crisis, although it did not set a date for the formal start of negotiations, and adds additional conditions for Albania. Another positive signal for the entire region, was the raising of the North Macedonian flag in front of NATO´s Headquarters in Brussels, officially becoming the 30th member of the Alliance. It rewarded the success of the historic Prespa Agreement that solved the 27-year-old name dispute between Athens and Skopje, an example of demonstrated political courage in the region.

Timing matters. Several times the EU doors were slammed to the Western Balkans. The French driven refusal, last October, was labelled as a “historic mistake”. To be clear arguments supporting Macron’s decision, and the subsequent non paper presented in February 2020 suggesting a seven stage conditional process to EU membership, based on conditions to keep candidate states accountable to avoid backsliding, all hold true, in the letter, but less in the spirit.

It is commendable that despite all internal problems, the EU focused on a visionary and pragmatic calculation on benefits and costs, as a rational base for a revitalization of the enlargement process to include its front yard, the Western Balkans. Any further delays would have allowed for the decline of the natural power of attraction of the EU and the creation of competing visions for the about the future. As such, it was not a charitable decision, but in the vital self-interest of a geopolitical Europe.

In a world of great power competition, grafting and grifting external players have amplified their engagement and illiberal influence in the Western Balkans through a higher economic and political visibility. In recent years, Russia’s aggressive interference in the Western Balkans has increased with the aim to raise the costs of the region’s integration into NATO and the EU, acting as a spoiler and exploiting the internal political and economic vulnerabilities. China is peddling its dubious financial and economic deals and debt traps to gain economic and geopolitical control in the region.

Too often lost in the noise of political discourse, the EU’s dedicated considerable efforts in fostering good governance in the Western Balkans have fallen short of any expectations. This point is driven home by the fact that countries in the region have lost ground across the board on improving the rule of law, ensuring media freedoms, and democratic accountability. This, in turn, has created space for populist leaders who declaratively continue to promote the European idea without changing their usual political habits.

The revised enlargement process that will focus on fundamentals, rule of law, fight against corruption, and economic development, will bring a much needed dose of realism into the Western Balkans and EU institutions, alike. Sustaining the political momentum is key.

Perhaps, the decision was also of a symbolic one, a symbol of European solidarity. Europe is battling the pandemic of the century with the public health crisis it has created, and is bracing for the economic recession that will follow. It will take a long time to get back to normal. The pandemic crisis will bring unforeseen consequences for the free market economy, open societies, and security and defense of the continent. The real stress test for the EU would be managing the economic recovery.

The Western Balkans should not be left out from the joint European response. The economic damage that the coronavirus crisis will bring to the poor region will be huge, considering that the average income per capita in the region is less than USD 5000, only the 14% of the EU. To make things worse, the Western Balkans could get hit from an economic recession that will cause a collapse of government revenues and welfare, increase of sovereign debts, decrease of remittances and foreign investment, and deeper economic and social inequalities. The EU will need to support the region with a comprehensive economic and investment plan.

Another area for the EU to take greater and more coordinated action would be strategic communication, to increase public trust in both member states and aspirants, and counter Russian and Chinese propaganda aiming to damage EU´s soft power. For the Western Balkans, the EU announced a EUR 410 million assistance plan, to address the pressing medical needs, and long term economic recovery. Despite this, the narrative is slowly building in the region that China, specifically in Serbia, is real partner helping in times of need.

Opportunities come out of every crisis. The Western Balkans, a market of 18 million consumers, easily connected to the common market of the EU, has real economic potential. In times when globalization will be revised, and production networks will be re-dimensioned, new opportunities will be created for the attraction of Western investment in the Balkans. But the conditions for friendly and attractive business environment need to be in place.  Again, timing matters.

Chair of the Strategic Initiatives Department at George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies

Dr. Valbona Zeneli is the Chair of the Strategic Initiatives Department at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent views and opinions of the Department of Defense or the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

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