Action Plan for the Western Balkans and EU Neighborhood
For more than two decades, German foreign policy has sought to prevent renewed tensions, internal conflicts, or even war in the Western Balkans. The fact that this has been successful since 1999 is an achievement for German policy. In recent years, however, the risks that this stabilization policy will fail have risen.
This Action Plan is an edited and slightly updated translation of the German text that was originally published on September 20, 2021, as part of the DGAP Report Smarte Souveränität (“Smart Sovereignty”). It was written in the framework of the project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik,” which is funded by Stiftung Mercator.
An English PDF of this text, including the infographics, can be found as a chapter in the DGAP Report “Smart Sovereignty.” Download the full report here.
In Serbia, the most powerful country in the Western Balkans, leading members of the government are once again talking openly about the possibility of armed conflicts and calling into question the demarcation of the region’s borders. The conviction of former General Ratko Mladić in spring 2021 for genocide in connection with the Srebrenica massacre prompted extreme nationalist reactions from members of the Serbian government and media outlets closely associated with it. Military spending has also been rising for years. Against this background, a destabilizing policy by Serbia toward its neighbors such as Kosovo or Bosnia and Herzegovina would be not just possible, but probable, if it were not for the stabilizing counterstrategy pursued by Germany and its partners.
When, in July 1999, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, US President Bill Clinton, and the heads of government of all EU member states came to Sarajevo for a major Balkans summit, the Kosovo conflict had only just ended. This conflict, the fourth war in the Balkans in less than a decade, had left almost one million Albanians displaced in neighboring countries. The politicians who met in Sarajevo shared their abhorrence of nationalism, which had cost so many lives in such a short time. They pledged “to cooperate toward preserving the multinational and multiethnic diversity of countries in the region and protecting minorities.” They solemnly declared: “We will work together to promote the integration of southeastern Europe into a continent where borders remain inviolable but no longer denote division and offer the opportunity of contact and cooperation.” They promised peace in Europe – a postmodern “Pax Europeana.” Germany played a leading role in formulating this goal.
Two Decades of Peace
In the second half of the 1990s, it was still primarily the United States that played a leading role in stabilizing the Balkans after the end of the wars in Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1999), including in military terms. This changed as of 2000 when the EU became the leading player in the region; within the EU, Germany came to play an increasingly influential role. The Western Balkans thus became the first test of a common European foreign policy and the most successful such test to date. The EU and its member states brought about a geopolitical miracle in terms of democratic stabilization.
Montenegro gained independence by peaceful means, supported by a broad multiethnic coalition. Today, more than 220,000 non-Serbs live in the Bosnian “Republika Srpska,” from whose territory they had been driven during the war from 1992 to 1995. In North Macedonia, there are elementary schools that use four languages, and Albanian is an official language throughout the entire country. The majority of the Kosovo Serbs who lived in Kosovo prior to 1999 remained there even after 1999. Serbian is an official language in Kosovo. Peace has reigned across the entire region for two decades.
Recent years have seen wars and eruptions of violence all around the European Union: in Georgia, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Libya, and the Caucasus. Political prisoners are once again being detained in many Eastern European member states of the Council of Europe. Yet the Western Balkans has remained peaceful. Today, no country in the region detains political prisoners or systematically violates human rights. Germany withdrew its soldiers from Bosnia and Herzegovina without having to worry that there might be a renewed outbreak of fighting shortly thereafter. Kosovo is the only place where a small contingent of Bundeswehr soldiers, currently around eighty, is still stationed.
At a Standstill
For more than two decades, Germany’s influence on domestic and foreign policy developments – not just in the Western Balkans, but in the European neighborhood as well – has been closely tied to the credibility of the prospect of European integration. Where this prospect exists, Germany has a great deal of influence, both bilaterally and through the European Union, and can assert its interests. The extradition of wanted war criminals, called for by Germany and others; the modalities of Montenegro’s independence referendum; first steps in the normalization process between Serbia and Kosovo; the compromise with Greece on the name of the state of North Macedonia; and far-reaching judicial reforms in Albania: These and other difficult decisions were implemented in the region because the political elites believed that doing so was necessary in order to make progress toward European integration, which they both wanted and considered a realistic prospect.
The Western Balkans could become a foreign policy success story for Germany and the EU in the next five years if the credibility of the prospect of EU integration can be restored
Where this “European perspective” is fading, Germany’s influence in the region is rapidly diminishing, too. The trend in relations between Turkey and the EU offers a stark warning of what could also happen in the Western Balkans in the near future. After 2000, there was a period when Germany and the EU had growing influence in Turkey. Then, for various reasons, the EU’s accession talks with Turkey lost all credibility, and were ultimately brought to a standstill. At the same time, tensions grew between Turkey on the one hand and Germany and other EU countries on the other, building to the point that Ankara made military threats against EU members Greece and Cyprus. Germany and the EU have proven to be powerless, even in the face of Turkey’s dismantling of the rule of law and its violation of fundamental human rights.
Today, the prospect of EU integration, which held such power just a few years ago, is losing its credibility for the political elites and societies in the Western Balkans. In key EU member states such as France or the Netherlands, there is a great deal of skepticism about any further enlargement. Further EU accessions have thus become unlikely; the enlargement process has been stagnating for years. Currently, only two of the region’s six countries are actually involved in accession talks: Serbia and Montenegro. However, their accession talks and reforms have stalled. Albania and North Macedonia have been waiting for years for talks to begin. Bosnia and Herzegovina is still not even an official accession candidate. Kosovo is not recognized as an independent state by some EU countries and is therefore unable to apply to join the EU.
In December 2003, the EU adopted its first European Security Strategy, which included a warning: “The outbreak of conflict in the Balkans was a reminder that war has not disappeared from our continent.” And it linked the future of EU foreign policy to its success in southeastern Europe: “The credibility of our foreign policy depends on the consolidation of our achievements there.” That remains true. From Belgrade to Tirana, from Sarajevo to Pristina, Germany is now the most respected and important European partner. In fact, the Western Balkans could become a foreign policy success story for Germany and the EU in the next five years if the credibility of the prospect of EU integration can be restored. It would then be possible to use shrewd diplomacy to move closer to solutions on unresolved foreign policy issues such as the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo and the lasting stabilization of multiethnic democracies in North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. In a region where all countries look to the EU – not only to its standards and values, but also its rules and institutions – it would even be possible to resolve status questions.
German initiative is needed to rule out the risk of a return to instability
The new German government will continue to have a major interest in stability in a region that was the world’s bloodiest conflict zone in the 1990s, with four wars and genocide, and that experienced huge refugee flows. The risk of a return to instability cannot be ruled out simply by letting the current process continue. German initiative is needed.
In recent years, the governments in Belgrade, Podgorica, Pristina, Sarajevo, Skopje, and Tirana have fulfilled many requests made by Germany and the EU, and they have improved relations between ethnic groups and with their neighbors. Politicians have repeatedly implemented politically demanding reforms when they have a concrete and attractive goal in mind – for example, in Montenegro before and immediately after the opening of accession talks in 2012; in Serbia between 2010 and 2014; in North Macedonia from 2004 to 2005 when the country hoped to gain candidate status and again as of 2017; and in Albania. Today, however, the region lacks goals that are similarly motivating. It is in Germany’s interest to change this, yet this goal can only be reached if Berlin takes the concerns of its EU partners seriously.
Full accession should remain the goal of negotiations with all six countries in Western Balkans, but a concrete new intermediate goal should be offered as well: full access to the European single market
Germany’s initiative should be based on a proposal made by France at the end of 2019 that provides for various stages in the integration of the Balkan countries. This idea can be simplified to be credible in the EU and, at the same time, to define an attractive goal for the region’s elites in the coming years. It could be achieved as follows:
- A two-stage accession process should be proposed. Full accession would remain the goal of negotiations with all six countries in the region, but a concrete new intermediate goal would be offered as well: full access to the European single market.
- In the first stage, each country in the region that meets the necessary conditions would be able to join the single market, as Finland, Sweden, and Austria did in 1994. Achieving this by 2030 would be a realistic goal for all countries in the Western Balkans. This would enable them to enjoy the four freedoms – the free movement of goods, capital, services, and labor – just as Norway and Iceland do today. To this end, the EU should create the framework for a Southeast European Economic Area. Germany’s Federal Chancellery, the Federal Foreign Office, and other ministries would draw up a concrete proposal and seek support for it in the EU.
- Strengthening the rule of law in the region would remain a key element of the integration process, as all conditions relating to democracy, the rule of law, and human rights would have to be met in full before a country could join the single market and the Southeast European Economic Area. Germany’s new federal government should press for the EU’s regular reports on the rule of law to be extended to cover the countries of the Western Balkans.
- At the same time, Germany should press for the Council of Europe to be strengthened – five of the region’s six countries are members – and push for Kosovo to be rapidly admitted. The region-wide implementation of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights should be made a key requirement for EU integration.
- In this context, the EU should monitor important court proceedings in all six countries more closely so that it can determine whether the judiciary is acting independently. The European Commission should produce substantiated anti-corruption reports for the Western Balkans, using the same methodology as the anti-corruption reports for EU member states in 2014. A new report every two years could ensure comparability among the countries.
- In these circumstances, rapprochement and the normalization of relations between Kosovo and Serbia would be a realistic prospect even within the next four years. The adoption of the same EU rules would make national borders less important. Serbia would also have to accept Kosovo’s current borders before joining the common market. The overall aim would be to make the borders among the Balkan countries as invisible as the border between Norway and Sweden is today.
Joining the EU single market by 2030 as part of an EU-Western Balkans Economic Area is an ambitious but achievable goal for all countries in the Western Balkans. A realistic prospect of enjoying the four freedoms – for goods, capital, services, and labor (with transitional periods when the EU believes they are necessary) – within a few years would mobilize all corners of society and usher in a new economic dynamism.
The aim is a region that is as closely connected with the EU in economic terms as Norway and Iceland are today. The prosperity gap between the Western Balkans and the rest of Europe should be rapidly narrowed, as has been achieved so spectacularly in the case of Romania or the Baltic countries since 2000. The rule of law and the protection of minorities should be strengthened. Like the EU’s internal borders in the Schengen system, the borders among the Balkan countries should become invisible to defuse the political dispute over them.
This aim is achievable without too much difficulty and without risks for Germany and the EU. It would not only be a success story for German and European foreign policy, but it would also send a signal to other countries in Europe’s neighborhood that good relations and a commitment to functional integration with the EU is politically rewarding and realistic.
The challenge in the Western Balkans consists of achieving a lasting peace in which borders lose their significance, armies are no longer a necessary deterrent, and minorities can safely live anywhere.
Germany’s multifaceted interests in the region can still best be asserted in the framework of a coherent EU policy toward the Balkans. Over the past two decades, Germany’s power in the Western Balkans has been based primarily on a realistic utopia: the credible promise of a better future via integration into a stable and prosperous EU that would facilitate peace in the Western Balkans along similar lines to the peace that has now reigned in the EU for several decades. “Security through transparency, and transparency through interdependence”: This “postmodern peace” in the EU, as described by Robert Cooper, made the centuries-long approach involving the balance of powers and alliances obsolete. EU members, in Cooper’s words, do not consider invading each other. The challenge in the Western Balkans consists of achieving a similarly lasting peace in which borders lose their significance, armies are no longer a necessary deterrent, and minorities can safely live anywhere.
Armed conflicts in the Western Balkans would become as inconceivable as they are between the members of the European Union today. If Germany’s new federal government can help to establish such a “Pax Europeana” in the Western Balkans, it will be writing the next chapter in a German and European success story in which peace is secured by integration and interconnection. And a trouble spot in the heart of Europe will become a region of stability for generations to come.
This Action Plan is an edited and slightly updated translation of the German text that was originally published on September 20, 2021, as part of DGAP Report No. 17 Smarte Souveränität (“Smart Sovereignty”). It was written in the framework of the project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik” about which you can find more information here.
An English PDF of this text can be found as a chapter in the DGAP Report “Smart Sovereignty.” Download the full report here.