The long anticipated new EU strategy for the region opens with the statement that “the six Western Balkans partners are a part of Europe, geographically surrounded by EU Member States.” The wording finally, in an inconspicuous way, recognises the six countries as partners rather than subordinate parties, the interaction with whom is mainly focused on the fulfilment of EU accession conditionalities. At the same time, it reminds us that the six countries are somewhat isolated island in the midst of European Union and they still have many open bilateral disputes with neighbouring Member States.
The new Strategy states that, in order to join the European Union and to meet all membership conditions, the six countries need to strengthen the rule of law, improve the region’s economies, and solve bilateral disputes. It makes a clear point that “the EU will not accept to import these disputes and the instability it could entail”. It further proceeds by insisting on “finding definitive and binding solutions that have to be implemented before the country accedes.” The resolution of bilateral disputes is seen as a prerequisite for the EU’s stability, while the facilitation of resolution is envisaged in the framework of good neighbourly relations and with the support of the European Commission. Although it sounds ominous, such requirement is not new, as the EU has always been wary of importing historic legacies of the unrecognised territorial or political sovereignty of states or the rights of their citizens. Nevertheless, fulfilling this is demand is not an easy task in practice as the previous enlargement wave in 2004 of the central European countries, has shown. The disputes were resolved only to flare up again once the countries were inside the EU, even were legally binding agreements were signed and ratified in the countries’ parliaments.
The Strategy specifically refers to border disputes resolution and suggests that, if not resolved bilaterally, the countries should submit the disputes unconditionally to binding, final international arbitration: accept the rulings and take them into account in preparation of the Accession Treaties. This approach, again, is not a guarantee for successful resolution and EU integration, as we have witnessed in the case of Slovenia obstructing Croatia’s accession for a number of years over a disputed maritime border in Piran bay. The dispute continued even after the final arbitration ruling in favour of Slovenia’s case in June 2017, which Zagreb refused to comply with, deepening tensions between the two countries to the present day. If the Commission really expects the countries to resolve outstanding border disputes prior to enlargement, it has to find a way of avoiding repetition of similar situations and spell out solutions for the loopholes in the situations that allow the dispute to be politicized.
The Strategy also highlights the importance of abstaining from misusing outstanding issues in the EU accession process, while the countries are expected to support the aspirations of their neighbours. Such commitment was already ratified in the Declaration on Regional Cooperation and the Solution of Bilateral Disputes at the Western Balkans Summit in Vienna in 2015 as part of the Berlin process. The Western Balkan countries agreed “not to block, or encourage others to block, the progress of neighbours on their respective EU path”. However, to the day, Slovenia, Croatia or other Member States with whom the six countries have open disputes failed to offer any such commitments, making the Strategy’s requirement quite problematic. The biggest victim to blatant use of asymmetric powers for blocking accession process is Macedonia, a country that has been held hostage both on its EU accession path and NATO membership for more than two decades because of the unresolved bilateral dispute with Greece. It is clear that without developing a mechanism that will allow leverage within EU over Member States who use asymmetric powers to block their neighbours’ EU accession paths, it will be impossible to resolve similar open or emerging situations . The wording of the Strategy is well intentioned, reminding the countries of their interdependence and the likelihood of faster progress if they decide to help each other along the way. However, a big question remains about the level of sincerity with which the six countries and their Member State neighbours will embrace this conditionality.
The only specific demand in the Strategy is for improvement of Belgrade-Pristina relations, stating the need for an effective and comprehensive long-term solution. The Commission is expecting a legally binding normalisation agreement, seeing it as crucial for Serbia and Kosovo to advance on their respective European paths. Given the stage of the Serbian candidacy status, this normalisation is a pressing issue for its government. For Kosovo, which still faces a number of other challenges, including demonstrating commitment to transitional justice issues, this is less urgent and brings into question whether its government will find motivation to commit. On a positive note, Mr Thaçi immediately expressed support for normalisation and expressed his hopethat the agreement would be reached and signed in 2018. Even if it creates a breakthrough in this case, the Strategy, nevertheless, failed to insist on the resolution of the Macedonian issue with Greece in an equally explicit way, which raises concerns over the proprieties and its focus.
When it comes to bilateral disputes and their resolution, the new EU Strategy is pick and mix. The fact that they have been given space in the document and the Commission promised to support resolution is a valuable commitment that we did not have before. On the downside, the wording of the possible solutions remains vague and generalised, where it should clearly avoid making past mistakes. Most notably, there is no plan to hold Member States accountable even though the future of the Western Balkans is very much dependent on its neighbours’ actions and the European institutions.