- December 09, 2020
On December 9, 2020 the Aspen Institute Germany hosted its digital Western Balkans Working Group. The working group offered a closed-door and confidential platform for a select group of high-level decision-makers and experts from the Western Balkans, Germany, the EU and the U.S. to discuss in an informal setting the current state and key challenges of the EU enlargement process. The discussion was based on and informed by the results of Aspen Germany’s Western Balkan conferences and expert workshops which were organized throughout the year. Key issues addressed included the recent veto by Bulgaria against the negotiating framework with North Macedonia and its consequences for the EU’s credibility, the new enlargement methodology, progress in regional cooperation as well as the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Western Balkans.
Expressing disappointment with the Bulgarian veto, decision-makers from the EU and its member states emphasized the strategic importance of the region and reaffirmed their commitment to the enlargement process. However, many participants warned about long-term implications of the veto for the credibility of a merit-based accession process in the eyes of governments and citizens in the Western Balkans, which in turn lowers the incentives to implement reforms and decreases public support for EU integration. Better communication with citizens to explain the benefits of EU integration combined with clear messages by the EU on lacking reform progress were described as crucial to uphold public support in the region. Furthermore, the need for stronger EU visibility in the region (including high-level visits of member states), particularly in the light of growing influence of other international actors such as China and Russia, was underscored.
All participants agreed that EU accession presented the only valuable long-term plan. Yet, the question arose whether it was necessary to elaborate interim steps to provide more tangible rewards on the long way to full membership. The new Common Regional Market was collectively regarded as an important achievement with participants underlining its importance as an instrument to promote EU integration rather than being an alternative to the enlargement process. However, experts called to a realistic assessment of its economic potential.
The discussion also touched upon the various effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in the region. On the one hand, positive effects on joint regional agency and solidarity as well as economic windows of opportunity were mentioned. On the other hand, serious concerns were voiced concerning the pandemic’s impact on economic development in the region, resulting in calls for more EU engagement to prevent the development gap between the Western Balkans and the EU from growing. This was deemed as particularly relevant considering the ongoing emigration from the region towards the EU, including many highly-skilled young people.
The Western Balkans Working Group is part of Aspen Germany’s Regional Dialog Western Balkans Program 2020, which is kindly supported by the German Federal Foreign Office.