September in the Baltics and the Balkans: the ‘Mini-Schengen’- an end to EU aspirations or a logical stopgap?5 min read
The past two months have seen the potential birth of a new era of restriction-free travel and the establishment of a common market in the Western Balkans. From January 1, 2023, the Open Balkan Initiative (OBI), in its essence an economic and political union, will grant the citizens of Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia free trade and visa-free travel between the countries. However, this isn’t some miraculous expansion of the EU, but rather a home-grown project to enhance regional cooperation.
Ideas of unions like the OBI – that is, the creation of structures that would allow for free travel and commerce in the Balkans, have been in existence since the 1990s. There have been previous attempts at such a union in 2014. While initiatives such as OBI could help further regional integration, the creation of such an initiative is also a reflection of deep-seated frustration at the EU admission process, which has stalled and stagnated since Croatia’s accession in 2013.
Some of the issues achieving the high threshold for EU admission have been common to all potential EU candidates over the years. The Acquis communautaire or Community acquis of the EU requires all prospective members to achieve certain standards in everything from governance, to forestry, and recognition of minorities with each area or chapter having to be reviewed and closed before admission can occur. This is a long-winded and arduous process that has been further dulled by the shifting political climate in EU nations since the 2008 financial crisis, which has seen enthusiasm for new members distinctly decrease.
The nations of the Western Balkans also have the weight of history to contend with; regional conflicts and longstanding grievances frustrating in the process. Some, such as the Kosovo question are understandably deeply problematic, others may seem cosmetic to the outside observer yet nonetheless inspire intense passion. Existing EU members have not refrained from using veto powers to prevent progress in order to extract concessions over such issues – as demonstrated by Bulgaria and North Macedonia over the status of the Macedonian language and historical interpretation.
The question now for observers of the region and for Europe as a whole is, will this initiative (if successful) be a stepping stone to EU admission- a stopgap to provide economic improvement and demonstrate regional cooperation as the process continues. Or will this mark the beginning of a new dynamic in non-EU European states, with a membership of the ‘big club’ perhaps becoming less desirable?
There is also the concern that the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic is trying to step into the void left by the EU’s foot-dragging towards Balkan membership, establishing Serbia as the piedmont of renewed Balkan cooperation. This has been seen not only in the OBI but also in the recent vaccination ‘diplomacy’ – with Serbia providing vaccine supplies where the EU failed – a fiasco for EU goodwill in the region. Strong regional leadership and cooperation may be good, but Vucic – with his authoritarian tendencies and flirtations both with Russia and China may be cause for concern from Belgrade to Brussels.
One hugely positive prospect of the initiative is its potential to ease the Kosovo stalemate, with both Serbia and Albania as founding signatories it seems highly likely that Pristina will at some point be included in the process. This would bring much-needed hope of a more stable economic and political future to the people of Kosovo; the current disputed status of Kosovo putting that future in a constant state of limbo. The effective removal of frontiers also could ease tensions over the status of Kosovo – freedom of movement would allow everyday life to be conducted without a constant reminder of the conflict in the form of border formalities and recognition of papers. If the intention by the OBI member states is still to drive for EU Membership, this improved cooperation could indeed make the EU accession process easier.
Emigration may also play a factor in how this Initiative develops. Whilst the OBI might not have the immediate huge economic benefits of EU membership in terms of access to funding and freedom of movement to larger economies, it may have a more stabilising impact in other ways. One major issue affecting those smaller and less developed economies joining the EU in the past has been the often-overwhelming brain drain, as young and highly skilled workers leave for better wages in countries such as Germany or France. In Lithuania for instance, nearly a quarter of the population has left since 1991, with emigration rapidly accelerating after EU admission in 2004. Whilst this has begun to slow in recent years, even the economic success stories such as Estonia have found it difficult to retain skilled workers- a regular complaint being you can’t find a good Estonian builder in the country as they are all in Finland. An economic union with more balanced economies might contain this issue, whilst still providing the benefits to cross border trade and travel. Though for most members of the OBI their largest trade partners would remain outside the bloc- inter-Balkan trade still accounts for a significant percentage of imports and exports, meaning the economic gains have the potential to be substantial.
From a broader perspective, there is also another potentially concerning ramification – if the initiative proves a success, EU membership, with its often highly demanding acquis, might become less appealing. This would especially apply with regards to social issues such as acceptance of asylum seekers and LGBTQ+ rights, both of which are highly politicised topics across the region at the moment. This in turn could see the OBI transform into a more appealing model for those existing EU member states for whom the demands of Brussels over social issues and rule of law are unpalatable to the ruling political classes. Might the elites of countries such as Hungary and Poland, despite the huge disadvantages of losing EU membership, find a more comfortable future for themselves inside a different economic mini-bloc?
So is the OBI a sign that the EU dream is fading or merely the project of ‘Europeanisation’ taking a different route to the same goal? Only the future will tell.