Loccum, Germany, 14-16 May: The six non-EU countries in the Western Balkans are back in focus. On several occasions the European Commission has clearly stated its intention to put the region on an “irreversible” track towards EU membership before the end of its mandate in 2019. Thus, 2018 looks to be a pivotal year for EU-Western Balkan relations: the new ‘Western Balkans Strategy’ was released by the Brussels´ executive last February and the Bulgarian EU presidency has set its non-EU neighbours as one of the top priorities in the Council´s agenda. Nevertheless, after years of being neglected, will this be enough to move things ahead for the aspiring EU members in the Balkans?

This and other questions were discussed at the international conference, ;Western Balkans Back in Focus: How to Shape Europe´s Reengagement with a Region in Crisis’. The event was co-organised by the Protestant Academy Loccum and the Southeast Europe Association (Südosteuropa-Gesellschaft – SOG). Experts from NGOs, think tanks, and universities from the Western Balkan region and across Europe gathered in Loccum between 14 and 16 of May, discussing how the renewed EU-Agenda affects Western Balkan prospects for accession to the EU and the challenges that this process poses for both the Union and aspirants.

The Western Balkan countries are, in fact, still facing a number of problems: demonstrating clear elements of state capture; lingering ethnic, political, and religious tensions; persisting bilateral disputes among themselves and with EU member states; and limited socioeconomic convergence towards the standards of more developed parts of Europe. At the same time, current problems within the EU (including Brexit, the migration crisis, protection of rule of law standards, and disagreements over the reforms of the Eurozone and over the recent proposals on a Transfer Union) have added further uncertainty regarding both the future of the EU and the readiness of the member states to engage in possible enlargement.

“The New Commission´s Strategy rests on a credible enlargement perspective. I think it can be seen as a maximum effort by the European Commission”, said Matteo Bonomi, Researcher at the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute who spoke in Loccum about the socioeconomic situation of Western Balkans.

First, there is a change in the rhetoric: the Commission has recognised the level of integration already achieved among the EU and the Western Balkans, and the fact that there is no strategic alternative other than to further advance their mutual political, security, and economic interdependence.

Second, through the six flagship initiatives, the strategy foresees how to advance sectoral integration in key policy areas – such as the rule of law, security, migration, economic development, connectivity, and the digital agenda.

Third, it provides a guideline on how to address the needs for funding of the region. It foresees a progressive increase of funds (attached with greater conditionality) that provides for a gradual transition from IPA to Structural Funds. Ideally, at the end of the negotiation process, the amount of IPA funds consumed by the candidate countries, should completely match the Structural Funds they could theoretically absorb on the day of accession.

Fourth, the strategy calls the Union and its member states to start internally preparing for the next stage of enlargement, asking them to invest their financial and political capital for the successful EU integration of the region.

“Overall, the strategy has a very constructive approach, offering strong motives to both the enlargement countries and the EU member states. However, at the end, it will depend on both the EU member states and the Western Balkans what use they will be making of the strategy, and how far it will or will not be implemented,“ concluded Bonomi.