Goodbye Balkans, Hello Adriatic Penninsula

The EU?s Western Balkans policy has had a mixed record since 2001 and new thinking is required in preparation for the next Commission

The EU’s Western Balkans policy has had a mixed record since 2001. The EU can claim successes in Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia – even if dangers remain – but ten years of European policy have reached a dead-end in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia. With little left of its mandate, the European Commission is unlikely to change policy. But new thinking is required in preparation for the next Commission.

Such new thinking must recognise the differences between two Balkans. On the one hand, the “Adriatic Peninsula” (Croatia, Albania, Montenegro and Macedonia) where progress has taken place and the current enlargement strategy – with some adjustments – is likely to work.

And, on the other hand, the “Central Balkans” (Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina) where intractable territorial and ethno-political problems have proven immune to the EU’s Stabilisation and Association process, the hands-on ESPD missions and light-touch protectorates.

Re-branding the region will, of course, not solve anything by itself. But the “Western Balkans”, a term invented in the late 1990s to describe the wedge-shaped Peninsula, has outlived its usefulness. Changing it would be a first, conceptual step towards a new approach. But other, more radical changes are required.

The Adriatic Peninsula

First to Adriatic Peninsula. Progress in Macedonia, Croatia and Albania has been considerable. Bureaucratic systems have shown a willingness to adapt and improve. Problems remain. Compliance with the rule of law and international obligations is lacking, and the respect for minority rights needs to be improved. Crime is also a problem, especially in Albania and Montenegro.

But despite this it is probably fair to assume that the EU’s strategy – of focusing on regional cooperation, conditionality and using country-based plans – is solid. The question is how to speed up progress and insulate these countries from developments in the Central Balkans?

First, the EU should give thee three countries of the Adriatic Region a date when they can expect to join the EU: Croatia’s could be 2010, Albania’s 2011 and Macedonia’s 2012. Though they would only be allowed at these dates if the aquis communitaire has been adopted.

This “reverse conditionality” should give an injection of adrenalin into the countries’ reform processes, inter alia, by putting to rest fears that the EU is pre-occupied with its “absorptive capacity” and frets over the links to Turkey’s membership bid.

Second, the EU should immediately allow access by the three countries to as many aspects of the EU as possible. This form of “enlargement without the institutions”, as my colleague Jose Ignacio Torreblanca calls it, could see the countries join e.g. the European Defence Agency.

Third, the EU should look for ways to tighten regional cooperation within the Adriatic Peninsula. Until now, the EU has made regional cooperation across the whole region a key part of its strategy. But today trade is easier between the EU and the region than between the countries of the region. At the same time, the EU must acknowledge that improved regional ties are unlikely to change dynamics in the Central Balkans. Regional cooperation should therefore shift towards the Adriatic Peninsula.

The Central Balkans

But what should a new approach to the Central Balkans contain? In this region the EU has spent billions of euros, dispatched almost half of its deployable military forces and seen only meagre returns. Zero growth and pervasive corruption vie for attention with high unemployment, renewed ethnic tensions, non-compliance with ICTY and popular disappointment with EU integration.

Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are unlikely to have the institutional wherewithal and human capital to implement even half of the SAA process in the next decade.

But if the European Commission will have to abandon its traditional approach, so does the Council Secretariat. The ESDP missions in Bosnia – EUPM and EUFOR – have done little to change dynamics and even assuming that the EU’s current problems in Kosovo – a lack of EU consensus on the country’s status, partition across the Ibar River, Serbia’s obstructionism and poor UN-EU cooperation – can be solved, there is no possibility of quick-wins.

In Bosnia, it is common-place to blame the Office of the High Representative, a UN-mandated quasi-protectorate, for the lack of progress. To be sure, decisions by international fiat have made it easier for the country’s politicians to shirk responsibility for their own destructive policies. But the High Rep’s powers are considerably less than most people realise and the idea that replacing the HighRep entirely with an EUSR will ipso facto make local politicians eager to reconcile their differences and push reforms, is not credible.

Finally in Serbia, there has been a hardening of anti-EU views following Kosovo’s independence and in the run-up to next month’s election. The tentative steps taken, including efforts to understand the country’s nefarious role in the break-up of Yugoslavia, are now imperilled.

The national mood – a mix of self-pity and an unrealistic sense of self-importance (“The EU needs Serbia more than vice versa”, a Serbian official recently told me) – is leading the country away from reforms and the EU and towards Russia, which is only happy to advance its geo-strategic and commercial interests under the guise of Slavic fraternity. Meanwhile, the EU’s effort to shore up moderates has come to naught.

The framework for the EU’s approach – conditionality and country-tailored plans – is probably right, but should be considered to make its application likely to succeed. A new EU Central Balkans policy should, in Bosnia and Kosovo, abandon the idea that the aquis communitarie is of any relevance for at least another decade. Instead, the EU should focus on two or three political steps needed by politicians both in Kosovo and Bosnia rather than the more than 100 requirements put down today.

This leaves Serbia, the EU’s most difficult challenge. The temptation is to live and let live. To allow Serbia to rage for a while and gradually come to her senses, as the population discovers Russia offers no alternative.

Such a containment strategy, to be employed if the nationalists win the forthcoming elections, could be complimented by granting Serbs as high a degree of freedom of movement as possible, allowing the young and disaffected to see that it can be so much better over the border.

In all three cases, EU funds should probably shift from capacity-building to infrastructure and other large-scale public investments. But these funds should at the same time be tied to clear conditions. The obvious temptation will be to pretend that an F performance is really a C. But being unserious about conditionality, applying varying standards and suggesting that policies are working when they are not is the fastest way to ensure the EU approach comes unpicked.

Changing the EU’s enlargement set-up

To oversee the relationship between the EU and the two re-named regions, DG Enlargement in the European Commission should be broken into two.

On the one hand, there should be a new DG – DG Integration – which would handle relations with Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania, work towards a new Integration Strategy and be staffed by existing Commission staff. On the other hand, there should be a DG Enlargement, which would cover the Central Balkans, Turkey, Ukraine etc., work towards a modified and more political “Enlargement Strategy”, and be staffed by Commission and Council personnel as well as seconded diplomats on loan from the EU-27.

In the Central Balkans, the EU needs to be streamlined with the ESDP missions and EC Delegations coming under one EUSR, who needs to be a senior political figure, not a bureaucrat. This, and the new DG Enlargement, will allow a more political approach than is the case, and perhaps be a test-case for how the new EEAS will function when the Lisbon Treaty is fully implementation.


Some analysts argue that there is no reason to change EU policy. Croatia, Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro seem to be making progress. In the Central Balkans, the billions of euros spent may not produce results, but they keep a lid on any fighting.

Besides, some analysts say, what is the hurry? If it takes another decade for the region to move towards the EU, then this may be a small price to pay for compliance with norms and values – like cooperation with ICTY – which lie at the heart of the EU. But progress in the Adriatic Peninsula is not yet self-sustainable while things can get a lot worse in the Central Balkans. To avoid both, new thinking is needed.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.