In late May closed the Call "The European Union and the challenges of integration in the Balkans", under the section "Social Challenges" of Horizon 2020. The two-way process of enlargement / integration of the Western Balkans reported a clear deadlock. After more than a decade is necessary to review not only the Community approach but the way in which the countries concerned deal with the multi-year constraints of various kinds (political, social and economic) that affect them. Research proposals that integrate not only the different dimensions but also the double perspective enlargement / integration may be useful to review the EU's approach in order to make back the enlargement policy an effective tool.

The 28 May closed the call “The European Union and integration challenges in the Balkans” of the Horizon 2020 program – Priority Europe as a Global Actor (H2020-INT-SOCIETY-2015), which Informest participated as a partner in a project proposal. The topic was about the European Union and integration challenges in the Balkans, particularly Western Balkans as Eastern Balkans (Bulgaria and Romania) became members – with the Cooperation and Verification mechanism - in 2007.  The enlargement process, once considered for many respects the EU’s strongest policy tool, seems not to work for Western Balkans, as, since the launch of the Stabilization and Association Process (SAP) in 2000, only Croatia has become an EU Member State in July 2013.

The past fifteen years have seen, in addition to the transition from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to independent entities, the emergence and / or strengthening of a number of constraints and brakes to the process of integration in the countries concerned. On the other hand in the EU has been emerging a growing "enlargement fatigue"; it increased after the 2008 crisis and it is reflected clearly in the opinion polls (Eurobarometer) and (some analysis say) in the more  demanding pre-accession process’s rules and procedures. In recent years, a marked increase of public opinion against (or at least skeptical) integration was observed also in the Western Balkans and also in countries in the initial stages of integration. So the EU enlargement crisis feeds or is fueled by Western Balkans crisis of integration in a complex interplay of negative and positive feedback mechanisms.

This conundrum has driven more than one scholar to believe that Western Balkans will only be in the position to achieve the conditions for EU membership once they have become an integral part of the European Union countries.  This was in part the view of the International Commission on the Balkans’ 2004 report (“The Balkans in Europe’s Future”), pledging for the enlargement to all Western Balkans by 2014. This scenario is reminiscent of enlargement from 15 to 25 states in 2004, but it is not feasible for a number of factors of various kinds, some of them internal to the states of the Western Balkans, other regional or cross-country, other related to Community mechanisms.

Firstly it must be acknowledged that, despite a negative trend (according to some benchmarks as the governance indicators developed by Freedom House’s “Nation In Transit” reports) in terms of standards of democracy, rule of law and freedom of the press and opinion of some new member states of Central and Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans remain, with relevant differences and degrees, weak states with dysfunctional institutions.  In addition to the challenges of political and economic transformation, often formal and informal economic and political elites continue to condition economic and political institutions, often by means of the ethno-nationalist factor.

Strongly connected to the constraint just described is that of the civil societies’ regional weakness, as civil energies in the Balkan region are restricted by a lack of adequate resources and institutions, as well as to a prevalent culture that not gives top priority to self-expression values and aspirations. Meagre private and state-budget funding contributions to civil society leave civil society organizations (CSOs) in the region largely dependent on (bilateral and multilateral) assistance from foreign donors. European Union has made a substantial commitment to civil society projects in the Balkans under its Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA), and it has also developed the Civil Society Facility, focused on technical assistance (TASCO), exchanges (People Program) and Partnership Actions.

As for the structures of the economies, they remain undeveloped, dependent on aid, loans and remittances, and are prone to high levels of state intervention coupled with low levels of institutional complementarity with other EU markets.  Consumption in the area is often higher than production and has been financed primarily by remittances.  The private sector remains underdeveloped, while the majority of the working population of most countries is still employed in state owned enterprises or in the state administration.  The structural changes that have taken place have primarily favored the expansion of services rather than production.  The unemployment run at high levels, especially among the youth, and has further increased in the wake of the global and European finance and economic crises that deepened existing economic problems in the region by adding two further external shocks: reduced capital inflow from abroad and the collapse of (EU) export demand.

While country-specific and cross-country constraints and difficulties does not seem to have significantly decrease in the Western Balkans (indeed there was, according to many analyzes, a deterioration in the process of the democratization), EU adopted a tougher line to the democratization of the region. In fact, since 2011 aspiring countries must get a head start on rule of law reforms, develop a solid record of accomplishments and adopt inclusive democratic processes (accommodating Parliaments, civil society and other relevant stakeholders) to support their national European integration effort.

On the other hand, the EU’s enlargement approach has been analyzed in a critical manner from various points of view. Think-tanks and institutions such as the European Stability Initiative, the European Policy Centre, the Institute for Security Studies, the Centre for European Policy Studies, etc., have made proposals and policy recommendations with regard to enlargement. The widespread opinion is that major efforts are required to maintain the credibility of the enlargement policy and demonstrate to an increasingly skeptical public that the transformative influence of the EU still exist.

The policy recommendations concern many different aspects as: a) the timing and purpose of accession talks (the negotiations themselves have the potential to resolve some internal issues in the candidate countries); b) the role of the single Member States (member states should not pursue bilateral disputes with candidates during the accession talks and disputes should be resolved either through arbitration and mediation mechanisms or by a troika of EU member states); c)  the balancing within stability, political and economic conditions in order to allow economic policies enjoy full parity with good governance issues, with social aspects of the transformation not forgotten; d) a more consistent and determined approach on the accession criteria, in particular more fair, strict and clear criteria (allowing more congruent and consistent Progress Reports) and the shift of the focus from the opening to the results of reforms; e) the development of a more systematic approach to monitor and evaluate effective democracy in the region and not only formal/procedural democracy.

However, these policy recommendations often neglect the aforementioned feedback effects, inevitable in a two-way process that has lasted more than a decade and in which the components (enlargement-integration) affect each other. The Call of Horizon closed in late May aims to finance research “adopting both an inside-out and an outside-in perspective on the EU's relations with the actors in this region. The research should also enable a critical assessment of the Union's external policy - its overarching strategy, the tools it employs and their impacts - vis-à-vis the individual Balkan countries and the region as a whole. Research findings can ultimately be expected to identify best practices and shape the EU's enlargement policy and strategies vis-à-vis this region and to possibly include recommendations on how to further enhance their effectiveness for the benefit of both the Balkans and the EU” (excerpt from the Topic Description).

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