Western Balkans European Integration: Challenges and Opportunities of Today

In September 2019 within the framework of our joint initiative Young Generations for the New Balkans 2030, a group of young leaders from the region visited Berlin where they met German government and civil society representatives in order to promote their vision of the Western Balkans. Hannes Swoboda, the president of the IIP, shares his thoughts on the political situation in the Western Balkans, the state of the European integration process, and offers recommendations of where the EU should go next. Young leaders from the Western Balkans express their views on the region in short interviews that will be available soon.

Panel Discussion at the Austrian Embassy in Berlin

Panel Discussion at the Austrian Embassy in Berlin


The Western Balkans is a part of Europe. Thus, bringing the countries of the Western Balkans closer to the EU is imperative. It is essential for building a new Europe, Europe beyond the existing borders that separate the “ins” and the “outs”, however, hard it might be. There are also other important reasons why European integration of the Western Balkans is important for the EU. With the support of authoritarian and extreme right movements rising virtually across whole Europe, counter forces to these movements must unite themselves as well. Step by step integration of the Western Balkans would also facilitate this process.

Authoritarian populism

There are some important differences in implementation of authoritarian vs. anti-democratic policies. Nevertheless, there are strong similarities between these concepts and they are being actively (mis)used by extreme right wing movements. Many of these forces identify themselves as centre-right groups but in fact their practices entail many elements of the extreme right, one of them being strong authoritarian rule. Certainly, authoritarian practices can be found among some left wing forces too, but for the moment it is much more characteristic of the right wing groups.

These authoritarian and populist forces usually put the blame on an external ‘enemy’, for example refugees, ethnic minorities, aggressive neighbors and other. These elements are believed to undermine stability and peace, as well as to weaken one’s nation. Under such authoritarian ideology, media are to be controlled or put under pressure to enhance certain agendas and refrain from criticism. The work of NGOs is seen critically, they are often regarded as instruments of foreign actors. Authoritarian populists always speak in the name of „the people”. What they say is an expression of the will of “the people” and thereby of the nation. The opposition is seen as unpatriotic and as traitors. On the other hand, if populists are in the opposition, it is the ruling elite which is accused by them of being estranged from the people and their true national aspirations. In this case the governing elites are the traitors. With these demagogic and divisive rethoric dominating the political discourse, the important issues, such as strategic development of the country and social inequalities, are neglected.

Trends in today’s Western Balkans  

In the Western Balkans, populist nationalist narratives are strongly present. This presence of authoritarianism and its seeming traction has to do, among other things, with still fresh memories of recent wars and relatively young democratic institutions in the region. Serbia’s president Vučić is an exemplary authoritarian leader. He has established a thorough system of media control. In the West, he is nevertheless seen as the guarantor of Serbia’s path towards the EU. In addition, he is expected to resolve the political stalemate with Kosovo, however improbable it seems to be if one considers his views and policies on this issue so far. Because of these (false) hopes, Vučić is widely exempt from criticism concerning his domestic policies. He skillfully utilizes the leverages he has, playing the ‘EU card’ and ‘the Russian card’ at the same time and, if necessary, also the ‘Turkish’ and the ‘Chinese’ cards. Serbian parliament does not enjoy genuine independence, merely rubber stamping the government’s decisions. The opposition does not have much chance to voice their arguments either. The limited space that it has got is further restricted by its questionable activities in the past. In addition, whenever it suits the authoritarian forces, the polemics against the Croatian neighbors is strengthened.

Unfortunately, Croat authoritarian and nationalist forces react in the identical manner to the statements of their Serb counterparts, thereby promoting themselves (and the nationalist groups in the neighboring country) and striving to gain more votes. Reconciliation seems to be less of an issue for them, if not an obstacle in itself to win elections. What is neglected on both sides are problems with the Serbian and Croatian minorities that reside in the two countries. Their situation should be taken into account and managed decently and with respect to human rights standards.


Similar tensions are especially poisoning for the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo. Members of the authoritarian Serbian government privately admit that if a referendum on the status of Kosovo were held in Serbia a vast majority of people would not want Kosovo back as a part of Serbia, as it would only generate further problems, from civil unrest to financial burdens. Despite these views in the Serbian government, recognizing the independence of Kosovo is nevertheless seen as a loss that needs to be compensated. However, it has never been clearly articulated what this loss is, nor what  the compensation for it should entail. Furthermore, until today no sincere discussion has taken place in Serbia regarding the responsibility for what happened in the past.

At the same time, no such discussion has taken place in Kosovo. Kosovars see themselves solely as victims of the war and reject any wrongdoing during their fight for independence. Additionally, stubbornness and levying taxes on Serbian goods does not encourage Belgrade or some EU member states, who have not done so yet, to recognize Kosovo’s independence. Instead of fostering a strong economy and jobs for all - irrespective of being Kosovo Albanian or Kosovo Serb - the nationality card is played with here too.

The real positive exception from these backward tendencies is North Macedonia. The agreement with Greece concerning the name issue – the Prespa Agreement - was a clear step forward and required courage from both sides. That does not mean that all reforms will go smoothly though. Setbacks are always possible, including in the relations with Greece. But for the moment, the new government in Greece, who opposed the agreement while being in the opposition, seems ready to accept it, but will ask for precise implementation in North Macedonia.

How will the new EU Commission deal with the Western Balkans?

What is required from the EU is strong engagement in the necessary democratic reforms in the countries of the Western Balkans. As all of these countries are willing to join the EU and were recognized as potential candidates for membership already in 2003, the EU has this right, as well as an obligation, to actively engage in the region. Certainly, the EU should not behave as an arrogant teacher towards unwilling pupils. Unfortunately, one can have serious doubts that the concerns of civil society about undemocratic developments will have a sympathetic ear in the new EU Commission. This is especially concerning in light of the nomination of the former minister of justice in the Viktor Orbán government in Hungary as the Commissioner for Enlargement. While László Trócsányi’s candidacy has not yet been approved by the European Parliament, his negative record with respect to democratic principles and the European law is worrisome. How could someone who has himself disrespected the basic principles of the EU demand from candidate members to genuinely implement these principles in their countries?

Meeting at the German Federal Foreign Office

Meeting at the German Federal Foreign Office

EU accession must continue but with new approaches

In view of these negative developments and meager outlooks into the future, progressive forces in the political and civil society field should agree on common action to enhance an open-minded, democratic, responsible and respectful Europe. A common strategy of what I call “progressive forces” does not imply a halt in bringing the countries closer to the EU. On the contrary, while negotiating chapters of the European acquis are still under implementation, the governments of the respective candidate states should already be included into decision making processes, at least in the role of observers. To achieve a democratic, responsible and respectful Europe a double track approach should be introduced. While strengthening the progressive forces in all European countries through closer ties and common action, the EU should also gradually introduce future members to the European community – a new approach that might be termed progressive accession.

During the discussions of young people from the Western Balkans with the representatives from the German Federal Chancellery and the Federal Foreign Office, one could see the strong willingness of the German government to promote further steps of EU integration for the region. Opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania were especially high on the agenda. Nevertheless, some hurdles in the German parliament would have to be overcome in the next days to move this process forward. But our interlocutors were optimistic. It was good to realize that the long-term strategy of integration still works and the inclusion of the Western Balkans stays on the political agenda. The EU and the candidate states must bear in mind though that it will require a lot of time and energy to reach full membership. Therefore, intermediate steps prior to full accession must be seriously discussed.



The Western Balkan initiative 2030 will meet with French officials in October to promote the vision of young people for the region and get a better understanding of how the enlargement process is viewed from Paris.