On 20 November, The Hague Institute hosted a high-level panel discussion titled “What the refugee crisis reveals about EU integration of the Western Balkans.” The panel discussion was hosted in cooperation with the European Fund for the Balkans, the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group and the Austrian Embassy in the Netherlands.
Ambassador Druml of Austria welcomed the panelists and guests in his opening remarks, underscoring the influence of the prospect of EU integration on reform processes in the Western Balkans. Ambassador Druml addressed the challenges posed by the current refugee crisis in Europe, calling the situation a major test for the EU and its founding principle of solidarity on the one hand, and the regional cooperation of Western Balkan states on the other.
After the Ambassador’s welcoming remarks, Nikola Dimitrov, Distinguished Fellow at The Hague Institute, moderated a discussion between the panelists. The panel was comprised of Thijs van der Plas, Deputy Director General for European Cooperation, the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Lawrence Meredith, Head of Unit, Directorate General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations, European Commission; Florian Bieber, Director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz; and Hedvig Morvai, Director of the European Fund for the Balkans. The panel discussion took place under the Chatham House Rule.
The panel aimed to assess the current status of European integration of countries in the Western Balkan region, particularly after the publication of the 2015 European Commission Enlargement package. The panel explored whether the EU integration process still functions as a tool for democratic development in the Western Balkans, and how to enhance its functionality. Furthermore, the panel examined what the effect of the refugee crisis is on various aspects of the EU integration process and discussed the key findings of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group’s latest policy brief, Western Balkans and the EU: Beyond the Autopilot Mode.
The panelists agreed that there is a historical and moral duty to integrate the Western Balkans into the European Union. Additionally, the integration of the Western Balkan nations is a strategic objective for the EU, and may help to address challenges such as migration. However, it was noted that support for enlargement is not a given, either in the Netherlands or in other EU member states.
In order to counteract anti-integration sentiment, the Netherlands maintains a rigorous “strict but fair” policy towards EU enlargement. The Netherlands attempts to address public sentiment that the EU sometimes compromises on the criteria for integration for reasons of political expediency, by ensuring that these criteria are transparent, but not derogated from. This approach does, however, entail an obligation to help Western Balkan nations in achieving these criteria. The panelists agreed that further assistance must be given to Balkan states in order to facilitate the implementation of the necessary reforms.
The recently published European Commission (EC) Reports represent a deepened approach to the EU enlargement process. The recalibrated reports aim to better incentivize and accelerate reforms. To this end, the Reports are guided by 3 principles: strengthening support and credibility of the enlargement process, increasing its transparency, and enhancing comparability of reforms in order to recognize that certain reforms are more difficult to achieve in certain countries. Central concerns to the progress reviews remain the rule of law, economic growth and stability, and good governance and public administration.
The panelists mentioned that the integration process appears to have stagnated, with the EU promising to facilitate integration and Western Balkan states promising to implement reforms, neither of which are progressing. The panelists agreed that the EC Reports illustrate that concrete steps are once again being taken to counter this trend.
While the process continues, the panel conceded that it is unlikely that integration will occur within the next few years. However, the change in attitude, brought about by the new approach in the Reports as well as the Berlin Process – a five-year process that underscores the EU’s dedication to the enlargement process – show that there is light at the end of the tunnel for Western Balkan nations. While the panelists disagreed about who needs to make the push for reform and where the responsibility for progress lies, it is clear that cooperation and discussion to enhance the process must continue.
On the topic of migration and the refugee crisis, which has severely affected the Western Balkan nations due to their location on the route taken by many refugees through Europe, the panelists recalled the notion of European solidarity. While there has often been solidarity on the topic of distribution of funding, the topic of migration is a divisive one among EU member states. The panelists noted that the mixed signals sent by the EU are causing increased instability in the Balkans.
According to the panel, two essential elements of an effective response to the refugee crisis are: major assistance to frontline states, including Greece, Turkey and the Balkans; and an effective relocation mechanism. Ultimately, however, this approach only deals with the consequences, rather than the causes of conflict and migration. More importantly, the underlying drivers of migration must be tackled to stem the current influx of refugees.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees have been leaving the EU (Greece) to cross through two non-EU countries to re-enter the EU. Hence, the panel noted that it is important for EU member states to show solidarity with the Balkan states in dealing with the flow of migrants. While the Western Balkan states are not currently members of the EU, they are bearing the burden of the refugee flow. The Western Balkan nations must be seen as equal partners in finding answers to the situation at hand, as well as other questions of security.
The discussion concluded with questions about the definition of the borders of Europe, how to increase interest in the enlargement process in Western European countries like The Netherlands, and whether the enlargement process should prioritize economic concerns to appeal more broadly to a European audience.