Brexit has forced the European Union to do some serious soul-searching. But as the union squabbles over its identity and future, the Western Balkan states that have been angling for a way in are turning instead to each other to create their own common market.
Western Balkans states—including Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo—have long wanted into the EU, but progress has been slow. Britain’s decision to exit the union only complicated the accession process for these countries; the Western Balkans already felt sidelined by the halt to all new EU entrants laid out by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in 2014. Now these countries are even lower on the bloc’s priority list, given the focus on coping with Britain’s exit. In December, former EU enlargement commissioner Štefan Füle said it’s becoming increasingly difficult to argue the Western Balkans are truly “part of Europe.”
But the EU has reason (pdf) to pay more attention. Füle also warned that backing away from Western Balkan states would leave them vulnerable to the non-Western influence of countries like Russia and Turkey. This month, Russia accused NATO and the EU of pushing a pro-Albanian government on troubled Macedonia. Montenegro has accused Russia (paywall) of backing an alleged coup to thwart its entry into NATO. Meanwhile, these states are a key factor in managing Europe’s migration crisis.
No wonder then that the EU now believes a common market in the Balkans is a winning idea. At a Western Balkans summit of state officials on March 16, EU commissioner for enlargement Johannes Hahn pushed a plan for the free flow of goods, services, capital and labor to promote regional stability. Albania and Serbia were reportedly keen to lead the group, comparing themselves to Germany in the EU; Kosovo and Montenegro worried more about their eventual accession into the EU.
The EU insists the pact will help speed the countries’ entry into the bloc. Hahn told reporters the Western Balkan common market could create more than 80,000 jobs regionally and spur foreign investment.
But Western Balkan citizens aren’t so sure. A report (pdf) released this month by analysts covering the region noted that 26% of Balkan citizens believe that their country will never join the EU, despite their desire to do so. In the meantime, Russia and Turkey have been touting their cultural ties to the region, according to the report, selling their partnerships as more fitting and less demanding than chumming with the EU.