Ah, the Western Balkans — a smartly devised nom de plume (or, dare I say, nom de guerre), conjoining West and East in a single, sweeping phrase.
In practice, though, things are a bit less graceful — the Western Balkans signify a waiting room on the South-Eastern side of the European continent for those countries that have been promised EU membership, but are not there yet. Case in point — Croatia, which became a member in 2013, is not part of the Western Balkans anymore. So the idea is that the waiting room will keep shrinking in size, until it completely disappears one day.
2018 promises to be an important one for the region. A flurry of texts, initiatives, events and summits is coming —a Strategy Paper, a Commission Communication, a high-level EU-Western Balkan summit in Sofia (as part of our Presidency of the Council of the EU), a European Council in June and a summit of the Berlin Process in London.
All of this comes in the face of the murder of Oliver Ivanovic, a prominent Kosovo Serb politician, shot four times in the chest outside his party offices in North Mitrovica on January 4th. The event was a stark reminder of the biggest problem in the Western Balkans — breaking free from the chains of the past.
This problem, of course, is widely discussed and recognized. What is not widely discussed and recognized, though, is EU’s own inability to break free from the old paradigms and notions of the enlargement process. There are no visible signs of introspection on what went right and wrong in the last 15 years since the Thessaloniki Agenda. Among the majority of policy experts, the same old prescription is advised — send clear political signals, increase financial assistance, strengthen monitoring of the rule of law, support civil society. New programs on top of the existing programs, only better and more efficient. Keep doing the same and eventually it will bring results.
If the EU plans to use the same old carrots and sticks to push the region further into enlargement territory, we are all in a situation ripe for disappointment.
And we only need to take a look at Bulgaria to find out why.
Bulgaria has serious, endemic, persistent problems — not with petty things, but with the serious stuff, the core values of the Union. Weak democratic institutions, widespread lack of respect for the rule of law, lingering corruption, dormant civil society, increasingly monopolised media.
All of these issues were duly recognised by the Western (European) media on the eve of our Presidency, painting a grim picture of the poorest EU country, lying on its Eastern fringes. Of course, we are not the only ones in trouble — and not everything in Bulgaria is all doom and gloom.
What is unique about our situation, though, is that we can provide a glimpse into the future of Western Balkan countries.
“Greetings, fellow neighbours — greetings from Bulgaria! We assume the EU Presidency while still on a monitoring mechanism for judicial reform, corruption and organised crime 10 years after our accession. What is cool, though, is that pressuring us to do reforms became much harder since 2007. It might sound like a paradox, but peer pressure within the Union is nothing compared to the prospect of membership (look at our Polish friends, too). Having this in mind, you still have a long way until you get in — and “in” might be a different notion altogether with all of these ideas for an increasingly multi-speed Europe floating around. If we can give you a recipe for success, it will look something like this — stay low, do something important from time to time to ensure momentum, bet on your geopolitical importance and on the turn of events, and eventually you might get lucky. All the best!”
Irony and sarcasm aside, one day we will (and we should) welcome all of the Western Balkan countries in the EU. The danger is that we might welcome six more Bulgarias — countries that have managed to wobble forward somehow, but largely the same as before.
Unless the EU decides to take a sober look at past mistakes, failed policies and inadequate instruments before recycling them once again for future use under a different name.
Unless the EU takes into account the journey towards membership of countries like Bulgaria, full of worst practices to avoid and very few best practices to emulate.
Unless the EU makes good use of a public secret known to all sides of the negotiating table — that adopting legislation and absorbing funds does not mean true social transformation.
And, finally, unless there is a truly fundamental rethink of EU’s leverage and actual capacity to reform political elites, economic elites and societies through enlargement and the membership perspective.
This is a good time for the EU to demonstrate that it can channel creativity and innovation where it’s needed the most — not only to data protection, digital services or energy efficiency, but to the good old Balkans as well.
In 2003, we had the “Thessaloniki Agenda for the Western Balkans”. In 2018 in Sofia, fifteen years later, let’s create an “Innovation Agenda for the Western Balkans”:
- focused on developing the future potential of the region, rather than playing “catch up” with the rest of the EU;
- designed with forward-looking solutions for public service innovation, business innovation and social innovation, not simply reiterating on values and principles;
- encompassing the whole range of EU policies towards the region, instead of confining novel approaches to particular areas and mechanisms (like the WB EDIF initiative for financing SMEs);
- co-created with well-minded government officials, business owners and civic leaders, not put together in isolation;
- implemented with a flexible, agile and human-centered approach, rather than rigid multi-annual frameworks that leave no room for adaptation.
We have the opportunity to turn the story of the Western Balkans on its head — from “EU’s waiting room” to “EU’s innovation space”.
Хайде. Let’s make it happen.