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A second chance for the Balkans in the EU

It is not a myth, Serbia and others in the Balkans have already been on the threshold of joining the European Union. They even grabbed the doorknob to open that door, behind which the Euro-hosts were waiting for them with a welcome, dinner and wine. But, half a step beyond that threshold, they were pulled back by their adored leaders and instead of Europe, they were taken to create nation-states, over thousands of dead, millions of refugees, shattered economies. Slovenia will wait 14 years for a new chance to join the EU, Croatia 23 years, and Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia are still waiting today, 32 years later.

Ukraine’s request to join the EU in the middle of the war with Russia, by a political decision and accelerated procedure, bears some resemblance to the case of the former SFRY in the early 1990s. Although many things have changed in the meantime, and most of all, the EU itself, both the SFRY and Ukraine today were entering the EU under the pressure of war. Both countries should have received European membership by a shortened procedure and a political decision. In both situations, EU membership was seen as entering a zone of stability, in which war would be ruled out. But one huge difference still does not allow for further analogies. Europe called the former Yugoslavia to be a member of the EU (then the European Economic Community), offered it a fast track for membership, even big money ($ 5.5 billion), but the Balkans refused. On the other hand, Ukrainians are seeking Ukrainian membership in the EU today, but Europeans are shaking their heads.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has encouraged the country to seek urgent membership in the European Union. A decisive, non-standard decision by EU political leaders is being sought, to quickly integrate Ukraine in order to pull it out of the zone of Russian influence and ensure its lasting peace. Georgia and Moldova have the same motive, and they submitted an official application for membership to the Union on February 4. In the midst of Russian aggression against Ukraine, these former republics of the USSR rightly feel threatened, they fear that they may be the next to be attacked by Russia, and that is why they are seeking shelter under a European umbrella.

Under the emotions of war, and with the desire to show more solidarity with Ukraine, its request for membership was immediately supported by several Eastern European countries of the Union, even if it was granting the status of a candidate country and opening accession negotiations. However, such expectations were immediately cooled by the “bosses” of the Union, first German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and then the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. With all the support for Ukraine to get rid of Russian aggression as soon as possible, EU leaders still remind that membership in the Union is demanding, and that order must be respected, even in conditions of war.

Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova have never had an open so-called EU membership perspective. The EU has never said that it wanted them in its membership. These countries are part of the “Eastern Partnership”, a belt on the periphery of the EU that has never been “planned” for full integration, and the maximum of their ties with the Union is somewhat privileged economic relations, use of some European funds and participation in some joint projects. Things are different with the Balkans, the region is “planned” for EU membership, which the Union declared itself in 2003, and its countries are already in some phase of accession, some closer and some further.

The German Chancellor and the head of the European Commission only reminded that even the occupation of Ukraine cannot change the long-established European enlargement strategy. “The reception of the countries of the Western Balkans is on the agenda, at least those that are seriously working on it,” said Olaf Scholz, cooling Ukraine’s overheated ambitions.

This is not a common and many times seen message of the EU to the Western Balkans, although it reminds of all previous ones. It was said by the new German chancellor, who in just a few weeks turned his country’s policy upside down and seized leadership over the European Union, for which he also has big plans. Under the pressure of the Ukrainian crisis, Scholz hints at faster integration of non-integrated areas, just as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are demanding, but applied to the Western Balkans. The idea is clear, to complete the European area within the borders that were drawn a long time ago and as soon as possible. Before the wave of Russian destruction hits the Balkan states harder than ever in order to unburden the Ukrainian “front” and spread the energy and resources of the West to as large an area as possible in Europe.

The integration of the Western Balkans, that is, “those who are seriously working on it”, and obviously only Serbia and Montenegro are meant, can be performed quickly, and Scholz and his partners suggest that they have such intentions. Fast, in the sense much faster than dictated by the current model of enlargement, by opening and closing negotiating clusters. Ukraine has opened a new stage in the history of the EU, and for now, Europe shows that it has understood that well. The political determination, speed and intensity of the measures it imposed on Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine astonished the world, and the Union itself. Most of all, its united voice impresses, which has not been seen for decades and which many thought the EU would never have again.

The integration of the Western Balkans is one of the major unfinished businesses of the European Union, and the Ukrainian case should only speed up its resolution. At the center will be the political decision of the members of the Union to do so, and not bureaucratic inertia as has been the case so far. After all, all the previous waves of enlargement were the result of a strong political decision of the members of the Union, and not the true readiness of the candidates to become its members at that moment. Precedents already exist, historical circumstances are opening the door, and political determination has already been demonstrated. The Western Balkans is in the middle of a new chance to cross the threshold of the European Union, and this time both sides have the opportunity to correct an old mistake from three decades ago.

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