EUROPEAN THINK-TANK REVIEW – Articles 5 (January 2015)

Written by | Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Gridlock, Corruption and Crime in the Western Balkans
Peter Van Ham (Netherlands Institute of International Relations)

The region of Western Balkans consists of five candidate countries and newly also of Kosovo, which has not been recognized by all EU Member States. Although the EU constantly pursues the vision of incorporating these countries into its structures, the EU membership is conditioned upon many reformative steps which must be taken by the candidate countries. In the case of the Western Balkans, the situation is more complicated than it may seem at first glance. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, (the former Yugoslav republic of) Macedonia, Serbia, Albania and Kosovo are facing – to a greater or lesser extent – widespread corruption, organized crime, comprising human and drug trafficking, and insufficient implementation of the rule of law. In addition, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are still administered internationally under the auspices of the UN and the EU. The region is also beset by problems related to religious and ethnic hatred while the wide-spread nepotism causes the private sector to be immature and underdeveloped.

The current financial and economic crisis and the increasingly more popular euro-skeptic sentiments across Europe have as well a strong influence on the public opinion in the Balkans, whose political elites and population at large begin to doubt the benefits of EU membership with regard to economic stability and prosperity. There are concurrently frequent voices in the Union that denounce the idea of EU enlargement. All of the above mentioned factors, along with the obvious unwillingness of the Balkan political elite to accept wide political reforms as conditions to the accession, mean that the Western Balkans are beginning to look for economic partners and investors elsewhere. If the Union loses the Balkans’ interest in co-operation, a political and economic vacuum will be created; the gap is ready to be filled by the countries of the Persian Gulf, China, or Russia. The EU should therefore re-evaluate its policy towards the Balkan states in order to prevent the gap from widening.

Due to the afore-mentioned problems the Union is currently facing, the EU foreign policy should be amended by taking several steps. Firstly, it is needed to name all these problems by their real names and confront the truth. The ambitious policy of enlargement is not met with success. The willingness on the part of the Western Balkans’ elites to implement political and economic reforms is missing. On the contrary, the Union should strengthen the regional co-operation based on greater financial contributions, trade, and investment. The creation of a free trade zone between the EU and the Western Balkans should be an important element of the deepening economic co-operation. The current political conditionality of mutual relations and the Union’s pressure on the local politicians to implement political reforms is apparently not reaching the intended goal. The European Union should first and foremost acknowledge this development in order to avoid the undesired scenario in which the countries of Western Balkans turn East in search of new ‘friends’.
(The study can be downloaded here:


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