EU clout in Western Balkans: predictions for 2016

EU clout in Western Balkans: predictions for 2016

Amid concerns over increased Russian influence in the Western Balkans, the progress of two countries – Serbia and Macedonia – in early 2016 will act as a good indicator of EU clout in the region.

Last month, Montenegro was offered membership of NATO, drawing an icy response from Moscow and heightening fears that Russia will attempt to block further movements towards Europe in other countries in the Western Balkans. The NATO issue has caused some soul searching and many in neighbouring Serbia – notably religious leaders – are urging the Montenegrins to hold a referendum on membership.

Tensions with Russia, as the crisis in Ukraine has demonstrated, are most acute over security. The European Union, however, still has much to offer the economies of the countries in the region. This will be tested in the coming months for at least two reasons. Serbia has recently opened the first two chapters of its EU accession talks while Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski – if he complies with last summer’s EU-brokered deal – is due to step down by 15 January ahead of fresh elections in April.

Serbia officially became an EU-candidate country on 14 December 2015. It opened two of the 35 chapters then, with two more due to begin in January 2016. To the surprise of many, the Serbian government almost immediately launched an anti-corruption drive and arrested 79 officials. Nevertheless, the accession process promises to be long and drawn out. Serbia faces numerous obstacles to membership, as well as rooting out corruption.

These include reforming public finances and – most intractably – normalization of the country’s relations with Kosovo. There have already been widespread opposition protests in Kosovo in 2016, by ethnic Albanians, over the agreement made last year with Serbia, as well as a border dispute with Montenegro. The European Commission will be monitoring events closely over the coming years. The early moves against corruption – an issue that has dogged the region – is part of this process. European leaders praised Serbia’s actions in its approach to the Kosovo issue in 2015. Previously, the carrot of EU membership had forced Serbia to give up military leaders such as Ratko Mladic to war crimes tribunals concerning the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s. How these reforms progress will demonstrate the urgency and effectiveness of the accession talks, and as a result the pull of the EU.

Slow progress in Skopje

More urgently for EU observers will be events this month in Macedonia. All eyes will be on Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski to see if he steps down – as agreed in last summer’s EU-brokered Przino Agreement – by 15 January. As a crisis threatened to engulf the country last year, EU interlocutors stepped in to stabilize the situation.

Gruevski’s government was accused of staggering levels of wire-tapping and corruption, and subsequently agreed to a transitional period including a unity administration and relevant reforms before new elections on 24 April 2016. Passing the necessary legislation, however, has been tediously slow. In particular, a new media law has stalled, much to the annoyance of the European Commission. With only three months for an interim leader to rush through reforms before the election, regional analysts believe the poll will be delayed until later in the year. Whoever takes over faces a difficult task.

Gruevski was recently given the dubious honour of coming third in the 2015 Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project ‘Person of the Year’ list. If the country is to build upon its economic achievements of the past years, it will need a leader to pursue economic and governance reforms rigorously. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has forecast some moderate growth in the region this year as Balkan economies benefit ‘from QE in Europe, the weaker euro and lower oil prices’. This would certainly benefit from stronger political tailwinds and less domestic graft.

Johannes Hahn – EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement – is due to visit Skopje this month. How he responds to progress in Macedonia will be a good indicator of EU clout, or lack of it, in the region. Many now believe that the real driver of pro-European change in the Western Balkans comes from Berlin, and not Brussels. Angela Merkel may have to find a space in her increasingly busy schedule to make a return visit to this still unstable part of South Eastern Europe.

Categories: Europe

About Author

Robert Ledger

Robert Ledger is an analyst on European affairs, with a particular focus on the Balkan and Caucasus regions. He has an MA in International Relations from Brunel University and a PhD in political science from Queen Mary University London.