Western Balkans and the EU CEE initiatives –the importance of an enhanced cooperation

01.12.2016 | By Igor Novaković

Western Balkans and the CEE

Is the Western Balkans a part of the Central Eastern Europe (CEE) or not? This is a difficult question to answer, since it depends on the position of the beholder. In the CEE, EU member states, especially in countries like Poland, the whole area between Baltics, the Black Sea and the Adriatic (+/- Ukraine and Belarus) is considered to belong to this wider region. In the Western Balkans, both the people and the elite consider these countries to belong, at best, to South Eastern Europe (SEE) or more customarily, to the area of the former Yugoslavia (except for Albania). Two countries that consider themselves more to be a part of the CEE, Slovenia and Croatia, are already EU member states.

The reasons for such attitudes are numerous, but there are two apparent historic reasons. First, there is a historical heritage of the Cold War years, when the former Yugoslavia was out of the Soviet Camp and had close economic connections to Western Europe. The second reason has to do with the result of the Yugoslav wars and the its aftermath, which resulted in the situation where the area of the former Yugoslavia (together with Albania minus Slovenia) was treated as a special case in the process of European integration. It was treated differently than the rest of the CEE due to the war crimes, the lack of regional cooperation and unresolved issues (Kosovo, Bosnia, and until 2006 relation between Serbia and Montenegro).

Due to the fact that the region was treated as a “special case” where “big players” like USA, UK, Germany and Russia are extensively involved, little room was left for the real improvement of contacts and bigger presence of the CEE EU members. However, times change, new challenges arise such as the economic crisis, Eurozone crisis, Ukraine and Syrian (Middle Eastern) crises, Brexit, etc. resulting in the Western Balkans no longer being one of the focal points of the “big players.” Hence, there is space for a greater presence of the SEE countries and reshaping of identities.


The Western Balkans and the EU integration process – prospect for a greater role of the CEE cooperation initiatives

The Western Balkans region is for more than 25 years one of the biggest neuralgic points of Europe as a whole. With the enlargement of NATO in 1999 and 2004 and the EU enlargement in 2004 and 2007, the Western Balkans was strategically isolated from the rest of non-EU Eastern Europe, and, as Adam Balcer dubbed it, the “belt of instability stretching from the Kola Peninsula to Albania”[1] was broken into two parts. The Western Balkans now stood at its own, left only to the shaky EU integration process without stronger, more political initiative to bring this region closer to the EU. The political dimension was concentrated on the issue of Kosovo, while the accession process was conditioned with fulfillment of the Copenhagen and Copenhagen plus criteria and political will of the elites in these countries.

Strategic isolation of the Western Balkans through its detachment from the “belt of instability” was challenged by the new dynamics in the wider region, namely the Ukraine crisis and the migration crisis which have shown that the Western Balkans still hold some strategic importance. The Ukraine crisis demonstrated that the Western Balkans, with “hot spots” like Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia could be a fertile ground for “power projection” of states outside the EU, such as Russia and Turkey. While these two states have neither a geopolitical position nor sufficient means or interest to offer a strategic alternative to the Western Balkans, they do have means to influence the policy dynamics in this region and to use it as a leverage in their struggle with “big players.” Therefore, the EU is trying to formulate a new political and structural approach to candidates and potential candidates from the Western Balkans alongside the  accession process to counter other influences. It should also be complemented by the improved communication strategy, an aspect which the EU and its member states have lacked the most so far. People of the region must be aware of the benefits that the cooperation with the EU has already brought and continues to bring.

It is maybe “a distant shot” to talk about EU enlargement in the post-Brexit period, however, the EU should improve its efforts to stabilize the region, to incite further reform processes and the regional cooperation. The Berlin process, initiated by Germany, represents a first step, but there is a vast space for further improvement of cooperation and new initiatives. Hence, there is a space for other initiatives from the CEE countries to supplement the Berlin process, both to achieve regional stability, to strengthen the ties between the countries in the region and to forge a new partnership with rising EU countries.


What the CEE countries could do as an informal bloc, in groups or individually for the Western Balkans

“Three seas initiative” (Baltics-Adriatic-Black sea – BABS) launched in 2015 by the Polish president Andrzej Duda, as an informal platform represents an opportunity for greater cooperation not only between the 12 BABS EU countries that participate in it, but also for other countries. Although the Western Balkans region was not mentioned per se in the declaration from the August 25-26 meeting in Dubrovnik, Croatia, the very fact that the initiative “is open to partnerships on specific projects with interested state or business actors from around the world who are committed to the fundamental values and principles of the European Union”[2] leaves the door open for the cooperation with the countries that clearly have an ambition and prospects of becoming the EU member states in the future. All envisioned areas of cooperation between the 12 BABS EU countries: energy, transportation, digital communication and economic cooperation, can significantly complement the Berlin process (especially when it comes to the diversification of energy sources and transportation infrastructure), contribute to stabilization, improved security and resilience of the Western Balkans, thus contributing to overall European perspective of these countries. Furthermore, 12 BABS EU countries should explore ways for closer inclusion of the Western Balkans into the initiative, since this region is organically and geographically a “missing piece” and it cannot and should not be regarded as the other countries, especially non-European ones.

Regarding group actions, there is one active and one potential player that could be more active in promoting the strengthening of cooperation of the Western Balkans with the CEE region as a whole. The active one is, of course, the Visegrad 4 (V4). V4 has a chance to develop a more stable, coherent and visible approach in the Western Balkans. V4, together with other neighboring countries, should become the most vocal supporter of the integration of the Western Balkans into the EU, and also the advocate an increased cooperation of the EU with the region. Lines of actions of the V4 regarding the Western Balkans, alongside the ones outlined in the Dubrovnik declaration, should be the following:

  1. Stimulation of an increased economic cooperation and trade, as well as the continuation of the development cooperation and the support for a civil society. V4 group of countries represent some of the Europe’s most dynamic economies, which are, due to geographical and cultural proximity, natural partners of the Western Balkans countries. The improvement of economic cooperation could be useful for both sides, as well as for the EU perspective of these countries.
  2. Stimulation of political cooperation of the EU with the Western Balkans and advocacy of more regular bringing of the Western Balkans representatives around the same table with the EU member states.
  3. Encouragement of cooperation in regards to CFSP and CSDP developments, especially regarding the participation of the Western Balkans countries in CSDP military missions and civil operations, but also other aspects of foreign policy, security and defense cooperation.
  4. Improvement of visibility of V4 in the Western Balkans. Improved visibility demands an improved communication of the cooperation results and contributes to better promotion of cooperation with the CEE countries. Without good communication all political and economic achievements could be misinterpreted or neglected by various actors.

Secondly, at this moment there is a sort of potential group, is the so-called Craiova group, composed of EU members and one non-EU state, namely Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia. This group was proposed in 2015, after the meeting of three states in Craiova, Romania. However, little progress has been made since then. The Craiova group could be a useful tool for accelerating the cooperation with the biggest country of the Western Balkans with the CEE as a whole. V4 should strongly support strengthening of this group and stimulate improvement of mutual political and economic cooperation.


Finally, when it comes to individual engagements in the Western Balkans, alongside supporting regional and group initiatives, all of these countries should adopt the “big picture” perspective and act according to political goals outlined in Dubrovnik declaration, ideas behind the Berlin process and goals outlined in the recently published EU Global Strategy. They should also defend the image of the EU, and some of them should renounce political pressure as a tool in the process of the EU integration. While today it is relatively easy for them to exert pressure on these countries, they should be aware that this approach also damages the overall image of the EU in the region in the time of crisis. Instead of unprincipled conditioning they should rather show a supportive approach and develop the cooperation if certain interests are to be achieved


In conclusion, the improvement of political and structural connection of the Western Balkans with the rest of the CEE is beneficial for all sides. It contributes to the improvement of security, political communication, economic cooperation and trade, counters negative third non-EU influences, stimulates various forms of regional cooperation and contributes to the improvement in bilateral relations. Greater engagement of the CEE countries in the Western Balkans could be also their contribution to the overall success of the EU integration project in the post-Brexit years.

[1] Adam Balcer, West Balkans and the Polish issue, Aspen Review Central Europe, no 2, 2013, p. 56

[2] The Joint Statement on the Three Seas Initiative (The Dubrovnik Statement), http://predsjednica.hr/files/The%20Joint%20Statement%20on%20The%20Three%20Seas%20Initiative(1).pdf