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On 24 February, Europe woke up in a new reality. The course of the war and the propaganda by the Kremlin show the extent of the attack on the free world. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a turning point for European history. In the first weeks of the war the West and the European Union presented themselves unexpectedly determined and unified. However, with every week and month of the war passing by the western unity will be more and more tested. The latest debates on the stop of the Russian energy imports and its consequences are thereby only the beginning.

As much as we hope that the human suffering of the Ukrainians will end as soon as possible, we have to accept that the process of dissolution of the European post-war order has only just started. The impact of the war is changing our continent and calls on the European Union, its member states and partner countries to see the bigger picture, to adjust to the new realities swiftly and to realign. One topic which has now returned to the top of the EU agenda is the enlargement of the Union that has been in a technocratic but also political stalemate for quite some time. The application for EU membership of Ukraine, of the Republic of Moldova, and of Georgia give evidence that the geopolitics of enlargement is gaining importance. Ukraine pushes for a clear European perspective rightly arguing that it is precisely them defending European values in their fight against the Russian invasion. The Western Balkan countries, that linger already for too long inthe waiting room of the Union, are of course also a part of this geopolitical equation. Non-democratic great powers such as China or Russia interfere in the region and challenge the EU and the West. Serbia’s strongman, Aleksandar Vučić, still manoeuvres between the pressure from the West to join the sanctions against Russia, the supposed sympathy of big parts of the population for Putin and his preference for the Chinese state model. The pro-Russian Milorad Dodik’s playing with fire in the Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina has become permanent and threatens the stability of the country.

It is definitely not a good moment for political sleepwalkers, but high time to prioritise the European integration project and radically re-evaluate the European neighbourhood policy and the stagnant EU enlargement process.  

A new neighbourhood and enlargement policy

For years the people in the Western Balkans have been waiting for progress on EU integration enduring a self-induced political standstill in many countries of the region, which often resulted in authoritarian tendencies gaining further ground. The blocking of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania has damaged the population’s trust in the EU. The latest opinion surveys in Serbia show that for the first time since the accession process of the country started, the majority of Serbs is no longer in favour of EU membership. The deadlock on both sides is a major risk to political stability. This is why a more credible EU accession perspective is needed overcoming the mental blockade of certain individual member states and ending nationalist blackmailing, such as Bulgaria in the case of North Macedonia. The Serbian acceptance of Russian narratives must be strongly condemned just as the ongoing attempts to undermine the territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The EU is currently learning to use its considerable economic power also politically, and these lessons should feed into a new and forward-looking policy stance towards the Western Balkans to avoid any destabilising developments in the region. The next Western Balkans Summit would be a good opportunity for this. It is a long overdue chance to start the EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania and to repeal the visa requirement for Kosovo.

Show courage

A credible signal of commitment from Brussels is needed, a wake-up call for the Union from its technocratic rigidity that lately very much characterised the EU enlargement and neighbourhood policy. The EU needs clarity of what can be achieved with the enlargement process. Any further drifting away of the Western Balkans from Europe would be more than counterproductive if not dramatic for the region and the whole continent.

A common geopolitical “Europeanisation” of the countries of the Western Balkans together with Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia must become a matter of priority of the EU. We have to get rid of postponing the bulk of political rewards until the very end of the process, and should instead enable a step-by-step integration in EU politics. This does not mean to abolish conditionality but to frontload more incentives while increasing the pressure for reforms. EU integration does not happen overnight and all the countries will need a long time until their integration journey will possibly reach the final goal – full membership to the EU. While membership in a European confederation, as proposed by Emmanuel Macron, could be offered rapidly and materialise in deeper cooperation with the EU, the perspective of actual EU membership at the end of the road should still be preserved, if and when countries choose to and meet the criteria. On this road to the EU visible and tangible results are necessary to improve people’s lives and promote political courage to take the right steps leading to further integration into the European Single Market and the participation in selected EU programmes and structural funds.

Today, the EU is learning the fast way that close trade relations do not automatically oust illiberal despots. Economic power must become a political tool, and a value based political vision must be promoted more decisively. At the beginning of the war in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990ies people believed that “Europe’s greatest hour” has come, but in fact it never did. In light of the most serious threat to peace in Europe since the World War II now Europe’s hour finally needs to arrive. The current momentum for an independent, a democratic and geopolitical Union, that welcomes its neighbours with open arms, should not be missed.

On behalf of the WB2EU network co-funded by the European Commission under its Erasmus+ Jean Monnet programme:

Vedran Džihić is Senior Researcher at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs, Co-Director of the Center for Advanced Studies (Rijeka), and Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Political Sciences, University of Vienna.

Paul Schmidt is Secretary General of the Austrian Society for European Politics since 2009. Previously he has worked at the Oesterreichische Nationalbank, both in Vienna and at their Representative Office in Brussels at the Permanent Representation of Austria to the European Union. His current work mainly focuses on the analysis and discussion of topical issues regarding European integration.

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