EU on brink as ‘alternative to accession’ in Balkans after creation of new economic zone

European Union 'empire should be disbanded' says expert

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Brussels is currently struggling to get a hold on events unfolding in Afghanistan, racing to evacuate as many EU nationals as possible before the August 31 deadline. Many have criticised the bloc’s efforts, or lack thereof, in the region, its influence falling far short of the mark. This is, analysts say, because it lacks geopolitical power; its policies, rules and voice ending at its borders.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says the failure proves the need for Brussels to develop its own military capacity independent of the US.

Yet, even if this does materialise, it may prove too little too late to woo important and prospective nations to the bloc.

Many countries in Europe have not yet had their membership to the EU accepted, some having been on the waiting list for years.

Once a much sought after prize, countries in the Balkans are now looking to their neighbours for economic and political integration, tired of what appear to be empty promises from Brussels.

Benjamin Haddad, the director of the Future Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, recently noted: “The Balkans don’t believe in the EU anymore.”

In a piece for Foreign Policy, he said: “The EU’s next candidates for accession have realised the process is leading nowhere—and are acting accordingly.”

Three leaders in the Western Balkans – Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic, Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, and North Macedonia’s Prime Minister Zoran Zaev – came together in 2019 to launch the Open Balkan initiative.

An economic and political zone between those states, with a combined population of almost 12 million, the project hopes to abolish border controls between their countries by January 2023.

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Washington and Berlin both met the news with “cautious support”, stating that regional economic integration is an end that all in the West support.

Yet, as Mr Haddad noted: “In private, however, there is more hesitation. European diplomats wonder if this effort could short-circuit the EU’s established efforts at fostering regional dialogue and cooperation (the so-called Berlin Process) or, worse, create an alternative to EU accession.”

He said a trip to the region this year saw local policymakers and business leaders “disillusioned” with the accession process.

One leader said “enlargement has not stalled—it has stopped”, referring to becoming part of the EU.


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Brussels has promised the Western Balkans their future in the EU since 2003, but so far to no avail.

Having been described as a mini-Schengen, Open Balkan seeks to offer countries there an alternative.

Yet, it won’t be easy.

Uncertainty in the region and decades-long political, religious and ideological conflict mean many neighbouring states dislike each other.

Noticeably absent from the 2019 pact are other Western Balkans nations – Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo.

Vladimir Gligorov, senior research associate at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies told Emerging Europe: “Politically, Montenegro does not want to take what might appear to be a detour to EU accession.”

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