Igor Lukšić is a former Prime Minister of Montenegro, having also formerly served as the country’s Foreign and Finance Minister.
Back in 2011 and 2012, I had the honor of leading the Montenegrin government. In a relatively short period of time, despite significant doubts, we managed to meet the requirements set out in the EU’s so-called seven criteria in December 2010. As a result, we received the European Commission’s recommendation to open accession talks in October 2011. In June 2012, we had our first accession conference in Brussels, which at the time made everyone enthusiastic and optimistic. During a series of interviews, I was frequently asked about the date of accession. Mindful of the complexity of the tasks ahead, particularly given the then-new ‘fundamentals first’ approach—which mostly pertained to the issues of the rule of law, and other countries’ past experiences—I would normally reply that either 2020 or 2021 made sense, considering the 2021-2027 budget perspective as well. However, at the time of this writing, Montenegro has already been negotiating for 11 years. All the negotiating chapters have been opened, and three have been provisionally closed. Serbia began its own accession process in 2014, and only recently did Albania and North Macedonia begin their long overdue negotiations process. The case of North Macedonia is particularly compelling, as the country even changed its name after settling the decades-long dispute with Greece, only to find itself at risk of having its accession talks halted indefinitely due to cultural and historical issues with Bulgaria.
The English language has benefited from new words crafted in Southeast Europe, such as balkanization. Those cynical enough may even use the term turkishization (due to the seemingly never-ending process that began with Turkey’s application in 1987) to refer to the accession process that became even more complicated with the new methodology put in place at the French behest in 2019. Are we stuck?
A New Cold War Emerging
To many observers, the entire world as we knew it was dramatically shaken in February 2022 with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing war. Although the conflict in Ukraine is a so-called hot war with devastating consequences in terms of destruction and loss of life, it also appears to mark the formal beginning of another cold war, this time between the West and Russia. At the end of the first Cold War and the symbolic fall of the Berlin Wall, the world was a vastly different place. The G7 dominated the world economy, and intellectuals discussed the “end of history”—in the philosophical sense of the term, of course. Thirty years later, at the beginning of what appears to be a second cold war, the West, in broader terms than just the G7, accounts for around 50 percent of the global economy. Meanwhile, the other countries, including the developing world, account for the other 50 percent. The rise of China is the most obvious change, but ASEAN countries, India, Brazil, and the Arab world, among others, are also on the rise. How long will the new cold war last and what kind of impact it will have remains a great unknown. However, while the first cold war was waged between not very interconnected economies, today’s globalization has taken global trade to unprecedented levels. Should that help allay fears and concerns? As the previous Cold War’s intrinsic characteristic was ideological, what would trigger the unfolding one? A showdown between democracies and autocracies and which one is truly more efficient and effective, or is it also climate change and decarbonization that will play an important role?
Interestingly, despite the fact that the Russian aggression has received near-universal condemnation, things are not as straightforward when it comes to severing ties with the Russian economy. This is another telling example of how the world has changed over the past decades. While the impact of the war has been severe for Ukraine—and is increasingly taking its toll on Russia as well—in terms of the loss of life and the significant brain drain, the external impact has been enormous and has gone in the opposite direction. While the impact on Europe was evident in the energy sector, the devastating effect caused by the weaponization of food and fertilizers has been tremendous elsewhere, exposing all the fragilities of the global food security system. Careful scrutiny would reveal that what has made matters worse are distorted agricultural markets, with a relevant percentage of grain production in Western countries going to the production of biofuels based on subsidy schemes. While the poor in underdeveloped countries suffer from rising costs of food, those who are quite well off continue to enjoy their expensive fuel-powered vehicles.
Europe on the Run
Narrowing down the theme of this essay, it is worth mentioning that the consequences of the war in Ukraine continue to be revealed, and Europe finds itself grappling with a cluster of crises. As already mentioned, soaring electricity, gas, and oil prices—a consequence of economic sanctions imposed on Russia—were the most evident early outcomes of the war. It seems, however, that the problem has since been alleviated to a certain extent. The supply has been diversified, and countries like Azerbaijan have used the opportunity to expand their gas supplies through the TANAP and TAP gas networks, sending larger quantities of natural gas to Europe. There may even be a quicker energy transition as the installed renewables capacity is set to rise by 2,400 gigawatts between 2022 and 2027, which is 30 percent more than envisioned by the International Energy Agency’s 2021 forecast. Retrofitting and energy efficiency also contribute to this. This energy crisis is compounded by an already rising inflation, a lingering consequence of pandemic efforts to inject money into domestic economies and keep sinking economies afloat. The scale of the impact of rising interest rates is yet to be seen, as the buffers that were put in place after the 2008-2009 recession become increasingly tested.
As the war drags on, the security and foreign policies, especially of European states, will face increasing pressure. The overall sentiment of renewed insecurity has reignited the debate about the future of the European Union—a debate that predates the Russo-Ukrainian war but is heavily linked to Ukraine’s long-established preference for close ties with the EU. As a result of this debate, there have been various calls for reform that would make the EU more resilient, competitive, and globally relevant.
This piece, however, focuses on the future of the EU as it relates to the relationship between its neighbors. The policy of enlargement—frequently dubbed the EU’s greatest success story—has become stagnant. There are a number of countries, referred to as candidate states (many of which are in the Western Balkans), that aspire to become full-fledged members of the Union. I have already referred to the lengthy nature of the process in the previous section of this essay. In the meantime, the EU has decided to grant candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, confounding advocates of the detailed technocratic process. While the decision to support Ukraine and Moldova is justified, it was peculiar to see that Bosnia and Herzegovina, another decades-long aspirant, was granted the same status only after such news arrived in Kiev and Chișinău. To some, the recent decisions serve as proof that the EU should accelerate enlargement.
The EU, however, has not expanded in 10 years since Croatia’s joining in 2013. In this new context, enlargement is a test of vitality, and the EU must employ new methods of integration with urgency and prioritize discussions surrounding its enlargement policy. Although the EU’s strength and security have been challenged in recent years, steps have already been taken to strengthen Europe’s development and security. One such example is French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative for a new European political community. This community is being created with the hope of facilitating more efficient coordination and integration between European states. The initiative is forthcoming, but will it be enough?
In my opinion, the Ukraine war is the clearest indication of the various challenges that the EU is facing in the political arena. However, there are other challenges such as structural socio-economic problems and the pressing issue of climate change that demand a renewed approach. This may include accelerating the green transition and taking further steps to politically unite the EU with the Western Balkan countries. These changes will require strong leadership, courage, and vision.
A New Vision
Regional cooperation in the Balkans received a new boost with the WB6 framework, which I had the pleasure of initiating in 2013 as a non-paper. Soon thereafter, shaped with the help of colleagues from the region and the European Commission, our initiative became a transformative cooperation model in 2014. The model was largely inspired by the success of the Visegrád Group, and was designed to help countries create and implement regional cooperation policies, demonstrating their ability to assume the responsibilities of EU membership and gain the moral legitimacy to pressure the EU to act towards enlargement. However, nothing was that straightforward. While some countries complained that there was no need for any new initiative, others were reluctant to support it as their sympathies lay with other signature frameworks. There was no unanimity among the Western Balkan countries either. However, the framework gained strong support from the European Commission, and when it became an integral part of the Berlin Process, everyone was awakened to its true value.
The goal of the WB6 framework was to strengthen regional cooperation in the Western Balkans in areas such as the rule of law, infrastructure development, and trade facilitation. The aim was to improve the level of each country’s preparedness for eventual EU accession. The framework contributed to existing coordination platforms such as the South-East European Cooperation Process. Again, the WB6 framework became an integral component of the Berlin Process in 2014, which aimed to improve cooperation between the EU and its potential candidates in the Western Balkans. Some progress has been made as a result of the WB6 initiative and the Berlin Process, but momentum towards the EU membership of these states has largely faltered, despite the signing of new agreements in late 2022. The enthusiasm and optimism that existed 10 years ago has all but evaporated, with much homework left undelivered, and appetite for enlargement sorely lacking.
To make things even more complicated, Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia started their own Open Balkan framework in 2019, fueling a fresh—and at times heated—debate about the motives and ulterior motives of this effort. Unlike the Berlin Process, which fosters a functional common regional market based on European standards, the Open Balkan initiative advocates immediate market integration. This has undoubtedly raised many eyebrows both within and outside the region.
I thus firmly believe that the time has come for change, particularly when it comes to EU membership. My recommendation is that the EU restructures its membership policy to include a new category of associate members. I am fully aware that the mere mention of half membership as an associate may provoke discontent. After all, this would not be a full-fledged membership. There has been a mantra that Western Balkan countries should not accept anything less than full membership. Furthermore, they should not yield to any pressure, including that of associate membership, which may bear the omen of a never-ending status. However, the more one insists on the old-school approach, the greater the distance will be between the region’s reality and its stated political and economic goals. An additional impediment is that such an approach probably requires changing the founding EU documents. However, we should ask ourselves an honest question: are we willing to close our eyes to the potential benefits and game-changing impact because it requires fine-tuning in the system? And isn’t this exactly how the political systems of modern Europe have evolved over the centuries?
By January 2027, the EU should grant associate member status to qualified applicant states and specify the necessary regulatory tasks that need to be completed by prospective applicants well before. Of course, the list of requests should not be overwhelming as it would only weaken the intention. Inviting all Western Balkan states to the family as early as 2027, corresponding to the new budget framework, would be a very important and magnetic political impulse—one that would be almost impossible to resist. Let me share some elements of this new model.
Such a membership formula would, for example, enable Western Balkan states to fully participate in the work of the European Parliament, adding around 50 MEPs to the House. Taking part in the European elections, and being fully integrated into the mechanism, changes the political perspective of all applicant countries. This would entail new political obligations as the scrutiny surrounding the electoral process inevitably grows. These new associate member states would, therefore, be able to take part in most steps of the legislative process as full-fledged members but, for the time being, would not be able to nominate commissioners or block European Council decisions. The ability of associate members to take part in the legislative process—albeit not in the final decisionmaking—would give the EU additional time to implement the necessary internal reforms without slowing down the enlargement process. One of the key reasons why some of the founding member states grumble at the prospect of an expanded EU is that it would make the Union unwieldy. Although I cannot share such a rigid position, it makes sense to take these concerns seriously and try to provide a reasonable enough window to address this challenge.
A very important element of this approach—especially considering the current geopolitical context—is that the future associate members would have to adhere entirely to the EU’s foreign and security policy, helping to pacify some of the existing political tensions. Naturally, the new associate members would not be able to join the Schengen Area before meeting all the necessary requirements. They would, however, be required to comply with the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital—as is currently the case with Romania and Bulgaria within the European common market. Going back to the confronting views about the merits of the Berlin Process and the Open Balkan initiative, it is clear that the solution offered would reduce even the most acute, although politically relevant problems in the region, to a mere squabble.
Last but not least, by becoming associate members and gaining full access to the EU’s development funds, the Western Balkan countries could finally break from their own barriers to economic development. The region is inhabited by approximately 17.5 million people, similar to the population of Romania (around 19 million). According to the EU’s current policy, candidate countries of the region (including Turkey) are entitled to approximately €12-14 billion of pre-accession support. According to World Bank data, Romania’s GDP per capita in 2001 ($1,800)—which has been an EU member state since 2007—was roughly the same as in Montenegro, Serbia, and North Macedonia ($1,600), although considerably higher than in Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina due to the turmoil and conflicts that these countries had gone through.
However, in 2021, Romania’s GDP per capita had skyrocketed to $15,000, while the WB6 average rose to about $7,500, indicating a significant loss of economic power for the Western Balkans. As of 2023, the Western Balkan economies are small, and the regional market remains weak.
On the other hand, Romania has been an EU member state for 15 years, enjoying numerous benefits, such as the net €4 billion in economic assistance it received in 2021. Romania could receive €30 billion of net inflows from the EU’s 2021-2027 budget framework, having previously received about €40 billion from the same framework between 2014 and 2020. Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that the Western Balkan countries—should they become associate members—would cumulatively benefit from similar amounts of economic assistance, given the wider gap with the average EU GDP per capita. What a boost it could be! The quicker and more tangible economic development of the region can be one of the key ingredients to its lasting stability. Additionally, the evident demographic problem could be better handled, as shown by other EU member states that are starting to see the return of their compatriots from other countries as they are willing to take up new opportunities in their homelands.
Meanwhile, the EU would need to ensure that during this critical time, reforms are executed in line with the rule of law mechanism, by which the European Commission would be able to block disbursements of funds in case a country exhibits lower standards of the rule of law. This mechanism has proven to be effective.
It is worth mentioning that such a new formula could also be used for other countries that, despite political support, are unable to continue the EU accession process due to an ongoing conflict or lingering territorial disputes in the future.
Don’t Forget about Climate Change!
A new and courageous approach towards consolidating the EU would not only promote economic and political security but also be important in ensuring climate change resilience in the Western Balkans. The more resilient the Western Balkans is to climate change, the more resilient the EU can be. Only by fully integrating into the Union will the countries of the region be able to truly contribute to the European Green Deal and the Western Balkan Green Agenda.
Historically, technological change has been more or less a spontaneous matter. It was a gradual process in which economic and technological developments overlapped without a predetermined course. However, the decarbonization agenda, or the 2030 Agenda, has imposed a cap on greenhouse gas emissions. This means that for the first time ever, a common direction of economic, social, and technological change has been imposed globally. Although legitimate in terms of the planet’s habitability, we do not know what the unintended consequences of such a course might be and whether the international community will be able to successfully maneuver the colliding economic, social, and technological change.
For all the aforementioned reasons, this new approach is a much-needed long-term investment. Tough and uncertain times require out-of-the-box thinking and solutions, and expanding the EU membership policy to include associate states is one such example.