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The EU Commission wants to explain on Tuesday how it envisions the further path for the Western Balkan countries, in particular Serbia and Montenegro, up to possible EU accession. Dušan Reljić, Balkans expert and Brussels office manager of the Science and Politics Foundation, explains what the region is hoping for from accession and what is at stake for the European Union there.
SZ: Serbia and Montenegro could join the EU as early as 2025. Critics say the Western Balkans are not ready and complain about rampant corruption and the lack of the rule of law.
Dušan Reljić: The Balkans are corrupt: that is what it has been said for 150 years. Corruption can arise wherever the state can distribute too uncontrollably. So it is not only south-eastern European countries that are suffering from this. The other problems are the lack of rule of law and declining freedom of the press in Serbia and Montenegro. Regimes with a Janus face have established themselves there: They tell the West and the EU what the governments there want to hear. They present themselves as carriers of stability. But there is little sense of democracy in their own country. The media cannot report freely, the awarding of construction contracts by government agencies is not transparent.
That sounds like a lot of construction sites. Why is the region so important to the EU anyway?
Nowhere else has the Union invested so much political capital. After the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1990, efforts were made to exert influence to ensure peace in the region. It is important for the entire continent that there is stability there. In addition, a quarter of the region's population lives in the EU. And the Union wants to show that it is a strong player despite Brexit. After all, Russia, China and Islamic states are also fighting for influence in the region.
If the EU gets bigger, there are dangers: for example, that not all member states have the same conditions. It is also said today that Bulgaria and Romania joined too early.
That is snow from yesterday. Romania can point to a decent economic development, Bulgaria has a very low external debt. These countries cannot make giant leaps at once. But they have in no way compromised the security of the European Union, nor have they led to impoverishment. The EU is not a fair weather association, on the contrary: It was founded to ensure security and progress on the entire continent. If you no longer live these principles, then you no longer believe in the European project. And that destabilizes Europe and creates new trouble spots.
But is the EU really ready for another enlargement?
This question was never asked in previous accessions. There was simply a strategic interest: Spain, Portugal and Greece were admitted early to prevent them from falling back into dictatorships. When the eastern member states were admitted, the aim was to quickly create geopolitical facts after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The security aspect is also in the foreground in the Western Balkans. The Union wants to ensure peace on the continent. And the Western Balkans has always been the touchstone for the EU as to whether it can transform poorer states through its work.
So far, the commitment has not brought what you wanted. The Western Balkans are not very far socio-economically today - the people are still struggling with great poverty. And this even though 85 percent of trade is already conducted with the EU and most direct investments come from the EU countries. The banking system is now also firmly in the hands of the Western European countries. So here the Western Balkans are almost like EU member states. But only almost: You have no say and no access to the funding. This leads to a large trade deficit. Between 2005 and 2016 this deficit reached 97 billion euros. This by no means small amount was transferred from the gross national product of these countries to the EU, especially to Germany and Italy. The Western Balkans must take out loans to make up for this. It is no accident that they are grappling with mountains of foreign debt.
The EU now wants to present an accession strategy for the Western Balkans. What should change?
Economic and social development must be accelerated. No democracy, no rule of law, can flourish in poverty. Whereby joining the EU alone does not decide whether the press is actually free, see Hungary. But structures must be created that can prevent the state from abusing power. In countries where there is little to distribute and where the state has a lot of control points, an independent society simply has no economic basis.
Another big problem is that the middle class is emigrating.
Yes, you have to stop the exodus of the population - and that is only possible if you create prospects at home. For the Western Balkans, this is about economic survival.
So far, these countries only have a competitive advantage if they offer cheap labor. In Serbia, industrial workers get maybe 400 euros a month. If the labor force becomes more expensive, Western investors could move on. That is why there are mainly jobs in the low-wage sector where no great qualifications are required - and the educated middle class is emigrating.
However, joining the EU would not automatically help here either.
But there would be structural funds, more opportunities to move freely and acquire knowledge. That would strengthen the societies there. Romania, Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic were in a similar situation and clearly benefited from joining. By participating in European programs and values, society was made fit for the future.
The EU is already looking very battered by the refugee crisis and Brexit, and nationalist parties are gaining support among the population. Is the EU still this peace project that it once wanted to be?
There is no other. The results are very positive in many areas, for example when it comes to funding in science, in the area of trade. And Europe would never be able to hold its own against the USA if it did not appear as a confederation.
Nevertheless, there are different positions in the EU. Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker, for example, wants to introduce the euro everywhere, while French President Emmanuel Macron represents a two-speed Europe and advocates a core Europe. In which direction will it go?
I dare to doubt that a five-year plan can be developed in Europe. Who would have thought a year ago that it would soon take Germany six months or more to get a new government? And Juncker will no longer be the head of the Commission next year, so some things can change in the strategic direction.
What is clear, however, is that Europe will always live at different speeds, after all, the states are different. Europe will never become a nation state.
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