When the leaders of Albania, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo sit down with EU leaders in Italy on July 12, the agenda will be familiar. The summit is the fourth in a series of annual get-togethers known as the Berlin Process, and its goal is to strengthen economic ties between the European Union and the Western Balkans, as well as among the countries of the Western Balkans themselves.
The meetings, which will be attended by representatives from Germany, France and other EU members, are also the latest attempt by the European Union to preserve its influence in a politically fragile region.
While the summit will focus heavily on infrastructure, specifically helping the Western Balkans become more connected in the fields of energy and transport, the Berlin Process is primarily a soft power tool for the European Union. Money plays an important role in the exercise of such soft power. For the 2014-2020 period, the European Union allocated 11.7 billion euros ($13.3 billion) in pre-accession funds for Western Balkan countries that aspire to join the bloc.
The promise of accession, and the money that comes with it, is used to try to make the region as stable as possible, while also serving as leverage when dealing with national and regional leaders.
But the European Union’s strategy for the Western Balkans is not without its challenges, and tension among countries in the region remains. Serbia, for example, does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, which is one of the main obstacles for Serbia’s accession to the European Union.
Meanwhile, the regional government in the Republika Srpska, one of the entities that make up Bosnia-Herzegovina, regularly threatens to hold an independence referendum. And Serbia and Albania have cold relations, while disputes between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians make Macedonia politically fragile. Some disputes even involve EU member states, as Greece does not recognize Macedonia’s name and has threatened to veto its potential accession to the European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
More recently, Croatia has said it will not recognize a ruling by an international tribunal that was meant to settle a border dispute with Slovenia, which could create a precedent for future border disputes in the region.
The United Kingdom’s Brexit could further undermine the European Union’s soft power, as the smaller EU budgetlikely to result from the departure may mean smaller contributions for the Western Balkans. Crucially, the European Union itself is also probably not ready to accept new members any time soon.
Following the economic crisis that began almost a decade ago, the bloc has faced political and economic problems and growing nationalist sentiment. In the coming years, the main threat to stability in the Western Balkans will be the perception that EU accession is not a realistic prospect for countries in the region. Should the promise of accession weaken, national and regional governments will have fewer incentives to introduce economic and political reforms or to seek political dialogue with their neighbors.
While the European Union’s influence may waver, another foreign power has an active role in the region: Russia.
The country has political, economic and cultural ties with countries such as Serbia and regions such as the Republika Srpska, and Moscow often uses infrastructure projects to bolster its foreign policy. Russia is currently discussing plans with Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary to revive the South Stream pipeline project, which was abandoned in 2013 under pressure from the European Union. If the Western Balkans are forced to wait too long to join the EU family, they may opt for a more reliable suitor elsewhere.
A Stratfor Intelligence Report.
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