Western Balkans has traditionally been a troubled region – suffering from internal, often religion-based tensions, violent conflicts, and lots of external interference. Over the last few decades, when most of Europe has rather successfully integrated, the Balkans could not break with its past, experiencing also the painful disintegration of Yugoslavia.

Although with some economic and security improvements, the region is currently still not considered ready to join the EU. However, when this is reflected in EU politics, it creates frustration and disappointment in the countries of the region. Particularly among some young people, it even encourages extreme right-wing political movements – supporting the claims that conditions are not there yet for accession to the EU.

The European Resolution adopted at Brdo, Slovenia on 6 October by leaders from both sides, is a good effort to adopt a balanced approach to the issue. It reconfirms the obvious – that Western Balkans belongs to Europe, and will be eventually accepted into the EU – but only when the countries will introduce full rule of law, confirm their readiness to adopt the Acquis Communautaire and embrace key European social and political values. Demonstrating their determination to implement this strategy, the EU members have agreed to an important financial package (up to 30 billion € till 2030), in order to help Western Balkan countries to accelerate the adjustment process, including their economic consolidation.

Evaluating recent experience

All annual country reports from the European Commission since 2016 have highlighted that the region has witnessed little progress or even stagnation in democratic governance, human rights, and the rule of law. This has been contrary to the expectations that the EU’s enlargement and reform policies would progress in balance, and increase the growth rates of the whole region, and that NATO’s collective security policies would result in enhanced stability and peace. Slovenia (since 2004), Croatia and Albania (since 2009), Montenegro (since 2017) and North Macedonia (since 2020) are NATO members. Croatia is an EU member state since 2013, Montenegro and Serbia did an open negotiation process in 2012, and candidate status has been obtained by North Macedonia (2005) and Albania (2014). The recent proposal of the European Commission for changing the methodology of accession negotiations should lead to a faster, rather than slower process of accession negotiations.

Key regional issues

Over the last three decades, the six countries of Western Balkans have been going through six key complex processes of transformation. All these reform challenges and demands were happening simultaneously, which made them much more difficult to manage – particularly as the processes of transformation have been started after a decade of armed conflicts. These challenging processes can be summarised as follows:

  • post-socialist socio-political and economic transformation - including issues of national identity, territorial integrity and sovereignty, building a multi-party parliamentary system, transformation of the national economies, and reform of the judicial and educational systems;
  • the process of post-war reconciliation and building intra-regional trust, cooperation, and religious and ethnic tolerance, including the development of a number of regional cooperation networks, initiatives and organizations;
  • the process of negotiation on accession to the European economic and political union – the EU;
  • repositioning at the world market in response to the demands of global economic competition and extended economic crisis (started in 2008, and the recent crisis caused by the Corona pandemic);
  • challenges arising from exposure to the consequences of the conflict and tensions in the Middle East, and consequent refugee flows and economic migration (including rising of some radical and extreme religious and political organizations);
  • geopolitical transformation, positioning and building of new strategic partnerships in restructured international relations, involving countries with long-term geostrategic interests in the WB region (several EU members, Russia, China, USA and Turkey).

Numerous conflicts, uprisings and rebellions over the last century have left enormous consequences on the citizens of Western Balkans. After more than 20 years since the end of the last armed conflict, ethnic and religious intolerance and poor communication remain high (even with a tendency to increase, mostly among young people – which is particularly worrying). Probably it is not exaggerated to say that just a match could be enough and everything could get back on fire. Former president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, warned back in 2018 that there is a danger of new military conflicts in the Balkans. If the countries of the region are left without a European perspective, Juncker emphasized that the history of the 1990s still has not been overcome in the Balkans, because the past decades and centuries had not been dealt with properly.

Irrespective of great efforts since 1991 by the international community to stop conflicts and animosities, and to begin a process of reconciliation and progress, the area is still permeated with mistrust and tensions, mostly on an ethnic and religious basis. Troublesome war heritage easily lights up the flares in these societies. Open disputes about exact borderlines exist between Slovenia and Croatia, between Croatia and Serbia, as well as between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. Bosnia and Herzegovina is destabilized by Bosnian-Serb-Croats animosities and by a poorly functioning Dayton political system (adopted in 1995 under strong US influence). Bosnia and Herzegovina is often referred to as “a failed state”, yet it still keeps the inter-ethnic peace. But the relations remain tense.

There are many factors pulling this traditionally troublesome region back into centuries-old divisions, mistrust and conflict, which could – in the worse scenario – erupt into open political, ethnic and even military confrontations. The Coronavirus crisis brought new challenges while the Balkans is still described as an unstable area – “the Powder Keg of Europe” that can easily trigger new armed conflicts.

Serious effects of the ongoing pandemics will by all means further weaken economies and societies of the Western Balkans, including the present level of reforms and regional cooperation. This will be rather difficult for the region but would affect negatively also wider Europe, particularly the European Union. Too little is being done to prevent it for the time being, and ECPD feels responsible to get involved in a more proactive and complex manner.

According to a recent World Bank Report, the economic situation of the Western Balkans region is still moderately optimistic, with an improvement in reducing unemployment and a moderate increase in domestic and foreign investment, as well as exports. The number of intra-regional multilateral economic, political, scientific, cultural agreements is increasing, which is a positive sign.

However, after more than two decades of reforms and implementation of the SLP transition model in the Balkans, some progress has been made in several areas: greater economic stability, financial and monetary discipline and inflation control, integrated market and global economic exchange, structuring of parliamentary democratic institutions, civilian control of security structure and cooperation, and compatibility with international institutions in the field of border control and organized crime (Europol, Interpol, OSCE). All WB countries are members of the Council of Europe, numerous EU working bodies and international organizations. Several of the candidate countries are gradually opening chapters of accession negotiations (Albania and North Macedonia have been approved to start negotiations). Moreover, Serbia has chaired the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). Montenegro has opened the last chapters, but has closed so far only three of them.

However, a number of potential problems and possible causes of destabilization of the region arise from the strongly delayed European integration of the WB region. This has been also the consequence of the violent disintegration of former Yugoslavia and the Balkan conflicts, as well as the "enlargement fatigue" in the European Union. While the average period of full integration of Central and Eastern European countries into EU membership was about a decade, in the case of the Western Balkans, that period has been already two decades - with still uncertain dynamics and timeframe. Due to the prolonged crisis (disagreements within the EU, geopolitical changes, including Brexit), the process of EU reform itself, on which the readiness for further enlargement of the Union depends, seems far from being certain.

The EU: key economic and political partner for Western Balkans

Undoubtedly, the most important economic and political partner for the entire Western Balkans is the EU. The whole region is developing all industrial and communication infrastructure and standards on the EU model, and the region receives most of the financial assistance from the EU. At the same time, however, there is strengthened Euroscepticism, while the whole region suffers from numerous potential and actual conflicts and remains strongly influenced by traumas from the recent and distant past. It is worrying that many young people demonstrate increasingly conservative attitudes, ethnic and religious intolerance, accompanied by inclinations towards extreme political ideas. Unfortunately, national education systems often fail to prevent the development of new signs of nationalism and mistrust - with long-term consequences for building regional understanding, collaboration and stability – as preconditions for the region's European integration. Under these conditions it is not surprising that countries are experiencing – massive "brain-drain", involving mostly educated young people. The civil society sector remains underdeveloped or has been weakening already for many years. Montenegro and Serbia (whose scores have declined each year for five years) registered a further decline in the Nations in Transit in 2020 and left the "Democracy" group in the 2019 Report.

In the recent Zagreb Summit Declaration of May 2020, the EU leaders have stated that the EU is determined to further intensify its engagement at all levels to support the region’s political, economic and social transformation, and welcomes the pledge of the Western Balkans partners to uphold European values and principles, and to carry out necessary reforms thoroughly and vigorously. Increased EU assistance is to be linked to tangible progress in the rule of law and in socio-economic reforms, as well as on the Western Balkans partners’ adherence to European values, rules and standards.

The EU membership remains a quick and universal solution to many internal and regional problems, and it at the same time represents an opportunity to articulate and develop relations between countries on a systematic, structured and long-term basis, with a positive cooperative agenda, similar to what happened also between the older members of the Union.

Therefore, European integration is undoubtedly the undisputed strategic option for each WB country, about which there is a relatively stable consensus in the public, as well as within most political groups in each WB country.

The lessons learnt

Although Western Balkans represents a very small region in relation to the EU in terms of population (about 2.5 %) or GDP (about 1% of the total EU GDP), the political relevance of the integration of Western Balkan partners is much larger, and complicated by the negative political dynamics that various phenomena (economic crises, populism, Brexit) have brought into the evolution of political relations and foreign policy positions in the EU. On the other hand, the structural weaknesses, political divisions and potential instability inherent in the situation in the Western Balkans after the break-up of SFRY, as well as the more dynamic GDP growth, cannot be overcome without the positive action of an external integrative factor, which is the European Union.

None of the international political and economic initiatives and strategies implemented in the WB over the last thirty years have been successful. These were, among others: Southeast European Cooperative Initiative 1996, the Stabilisation and Association Process 1999, Stability Pact for Southeast Europe 1999, Thessaloniki Declaration 2003, Regional Cooperation Council 2008, Brussels Agreement 2013, Berlin Initiative 2014, Regional Youth Cooperation Council 2016. None of their cumulative effects have been so far fully successful in reversing the tendency of further regional disagreements and disintegration along ethnic, religious and national lines. WB still has a number of open intra- and inter-state issues – suffers from the previous weaknesses, such as fragmentations, social and political differentiation, ethnic conflicts, autocratic thinking, militarization, etc. Disintegration inside the region continues to dominate at the political, cultural and educational scene, and it is unclear and uncertain when and how this trend will change if it is true that "the lack of stability and development means that the deep-rooted symptoms of malaise in the region were not given the attention they deserve, yet." (Fouere E., Blockmans S., 2017)

One of the missing key-steps is a long-term program of strategic resilience of the WB region, based on human resources, social cohesion and social capital, and developed on specific competencies for strategic peacebuilding, nonviolent conflict transformation, human security and human rights/freedom, and principal democratic values.

Closing thoughts

The broader picture of social, internal and geopolitical developments indicates a mixed situation, including destabilization threats in the region, with various challenges related to internal or external factors – all these making European integration prospects rather complicated.

However, the recent EU Brdo Declaration of 6 October states very clearly: “The EU reaffirms its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans, and welcomes the commitment of the Western Balkans partners to the European perspective, which is in our mutual strategic interest and remains our shared strategic choice.”

While this was certainly welcomed in Western Balkans, the question remains whether there is sufficient commitment and real political will to act accordingly – on both sides. The trouble is also that mutual trust between EU members and countries of the WB region has been weakened over years, and this is where people on both sides have reservations about how quickly can this commitment be fulfilled. And the worse scenario would be if each side would wait with their own action for the other side to confirm the pledge with its practical action first. Actually, mutual trust will be improved exactly with the opposite approach: encouraging the other side for a positive approach and productive action by initially fulfilling their own commitment on a proactive basis – and giving encouragement to the other side by their own performance. Since this can always be stopped, the risk of such a strategy is rather limited, while the potential benefits are important.

Many politicians in the Balkans feel that Bulgaria and Romania have been treated differently, being accepted into the Union, while not being much more advanced compared to their Balkan neighbours. Obviously, in this case some additional, geopolitical strategic considerations were taken into account – which is politically understandable.

How can the process of European integration be accelerated and improved? The answer is simple and obvious: primarily if it is not left only to politicians. Civil society will have to be much more involved, proactive and supportive. The opportunities for that are numerous, and – if properly designed and productively executed – politicians will have no other option than to play their part properly. This is partly already happening, and if properly upgraded, by 2030 all countries of Western Balkans can be part of the EU, enjoy the benefits and contribute to its further successful development.

Last but certainly not least, European Union is challenged at the global economic scene, and the stronger and the bigger it is, the better are its chances to protect its position and boost its international competitiveness which depends also on the size of its market and population.

(Article by Prof. dr. Ajda Fošner and prof. dr. Boris Cizelj).


Cashman, G. F. The Jerusalem Post, 29.07.2019.
Fouéré, Erwan and Blockmans, Steven. (2017) The 'Berlin Process' for the Western Balkans– Is it delivering?, CEPS Commentary, 13 July 2017.
Western Balkans Regular Economic Report, No. 17, Spring 2020.
UNICEF, Consultant to conduct a comparative review of the data collection and monitoring systems on Violence against Children (VAC) in education system, Serbia, 2017.