Maria Simeonova: Brussels is determined to uphold the European perspective of the six Western Balkan countries

The European Council on Foreign Relations’ Sofia-based expert on Western Balkans spoke to Cross-border Talks about the December 2022 EU-Western Balkans summit, held in Tirana: its geopolitical, energy and migration implications

Maria Simeonova is the programme coordinator for the Wider Europe programme and ECFR’s Sofia office. She focuses on the Western Balkans and Turkey.

Simeonova has previously completed internships at the Bulgarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Permanent Representation of the Republic of Bulgaria to the EU, and the European Commission as a Blue Book Trainee at the Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development. Prior to joining ECFR, Simeonova was a civil servant at the Bulgarian Ministry of Finance.

Simeonova holds a BA degree in International Relations from Sofia University and an MA degree in European Studies: Transnational and Global Perspectives from Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium. Her master’s thesis focused on coherence issues in EU external energy policy and relations with Russia.

The EU-Western Balkans summit’s message

In the first week of December 2022 the EU-Western Balkans summit took place in Tirana. Previous events of this type were criticised that they demonstrate the reduced interest of the EU in the region. To what extent this summit shows EU remains engaged with the region? 

Western Balkans countries have often felt disillusioned with the demanding EU accession process. Frustration was felt additionally after the granting of candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova in June 2022. In comparison, Montenegro and Serbia have been negotiating with the EU since 2012 and 2014 respectively. North Macedonia waited for 17 years to start accession talks. These long periods started posing reasonable questions about the relevance of the EU enlargement process. 

Against this backdrop and amid Russia’s war in Ukraine, the EU-Western Balkans summit in Tirana was supposed to deliver tangible results to demonstrate the EU’s continued commitment to the stability and the prosperity of the countries from the region. It was the first-ever summit to be held in a country from the region. This act alone shows that Brussels better understands its strategic interests and speaks of a determination to uphold the European perspective of the six Western Balkan countries. 

The Western Balkans and migration

Following the 2022 summit, Frontex will deploy for the first time its border guards outside the EU in the Western Balkans. That happens as the EU complains that citizens from third countries reach its territory because of its visa-free agreements with the Western Balkan countries. Austria and other countries have been strengthening the border and migration control in countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina. To what extent the EU views the Western Balkans as some kind of a buffer or large area for control of migration flows? To what extent such policy, if existent, could create social problems and anti-EU sentiments in the mid and long-term? 

The irregular arrivals via the Western Balkans migration route have been increasing since 2019. This inevitably puts pressure on the asylum systems of the member states. The issue is additionally related to arms and human trafficking and organised crime. 

Ahead of the Tirana summit, the European Commission presented a new action plan for the Western Balkans which focuses on border management, fighting smugglers, readmission and returns as well as visa policy alignment. To successfully implement the measures in the plan, Frontex will deploy officers to joint operations in the region. Frontex is thus increasing its powers by deploying officials at border crossings within the region which is a sign of both urgency and determination to strengthen the capacities of the Western Balkan countries to fight illegal migration. 

In the context of a future EU accession, migration cooperation between the EU and the Western Balkans countries should be seen as an important sphere of joint actions. The migration issue is publicly sensitive within the EU as well and should therefore be addressed in full coordination with all relevant stakeholders. 

The Western Balkans and energy

The EU will be investing 1 billion euro in energy-related issues in the Western Balkans. Also, The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has so far invested nearly €16.5 billion in the Western Balkans region and continues to invest more than €1 billion there each year. How significant is this commitment, given that Serbia for example has huge Chinese investment, Turkey is a big investor in many of the countries in the region, and Russia is also traditionally influential in the energy domain in Southeastern Europe? 

The Tirana declaration contains 15 mentions of the word “energy” in different contexts and initiatives. In comparison, the Brdo declaration (communicated as a follow-up of the EU-Western Balkans summit held in October 2021 in Brdo, Slovenia) contains only one mention of the word. Russia’s war in Ukraine highlighted Europe’s dangerous exposure to Russia’s natural gas deliveries. It also revealed that energy decoupling from Moscow can be achieved sooner than planned through partnerships with more credible suppliers of energy resources. 

The European Green Deal provides the framework to include the Western Balkans in the EU’s ambitious plans for achieving climate neutrality by 2050. It could serve as a guarantee that the region will not turn into a black hole in the middle of Europe, dependent on unreliable suppliers and relying on coal-powered industries. On the other hand, the countries can be crucial interlocutors in securing Europe’s decoupling from Russian energy resources by participating in the European energy markets and/or by “hosting” strategic infrastructure aimed at securing Europe’s energy independence. 

The Open Balkans initiative

Three countries of the Western Balkans established in 2019 the so-called Open Balkans initiative, which is some form of mini-Schengen area. What is your assessment of the results of this initiative for the time being? It gives its members – Serbia, Northern Macedonia and Albania, additional economic dynamism, while also seen by some as an alternative or even rebellion to the distant perspective of the region’s accession to the EU… 

The Open Balkans initiative comprises only 3 countries which for the time being clashes with the EU’s idea of a fully inclusive Common Regional Market. The CRM is seen as a vital stepping stone towards full-fledged EU membership. 

In November 2022, Germany demonstrated strong leadership with regard to its support for regional economic integration by announcing the re-energised Berlin Process – an initiative set up in 2014 to promote regional cooperation and the European perspective of the Western Balkans. The summit of the Berlin Process – held on 3 November in Berlin, saw the signing of important agreements related to freedom of movement and the recognition of diplomas and professional credentials. 

As EU membership is still far, regional economic integration will play a vital role in reassuring the region stays on the EU path. It will make sure the countries from the region are better equipped to meet the competitive environment of the Single Market while at the same time creating sustainable economic conditions and growth. 

Bulgaria’s role in the Western Balkans

What were the developments at the summit in Tirana that matter most from the Bulgarian point of view? To what extent Bulgaria remains an Europeanizer in the Western Balkans in the conditions of its disputes with Northern Macedonia?

Bulgaria’s veto over the start of EU accession talks with North Macedonia severely damaged Sofia’s image of a “Europeaniser” in the Western Balkans. The deadlock in the accession process that followed decreased the EU’s credibility in the region as well. The veto power is now seen as a tool at member states’ disposal which can be conveniently used for twisting hands and for delivering on narrowly defined national interests.   

The efforts of the Bulgarian diplomacy should now be directed towards strengthening bilateral cooperation with the WB6. Bulgaria has untapped potential in the region so the European perspective of the Western Balkans should remain high on Bulgaria’s foreign policy agenda. As a neighbouring region, Bulgaria has strategic interest in keeping good relations with the WB6 supplemented with concrete joint initiatives in the areas of economy, trade, digitalisation, migration, energy, to name a few. 

Photo: Maria Simeonova (source: Center for Liberal Strategies)

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