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WE HAVE BEEN RUNNING IN CIRCLES FOR TWENTY YEARS’ NOW

01.12.2017

The Forum for International Relations of the European Movement in Serbia and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation organised the Conference on “The Western Balkans: Advancing Cooperation and/or Recurring Tensions” in Belgrade. The debate raised questions about the future of the European Union (EU) and the EU integration process. The conclusion has been reached that the stereotypes about the Western Balkans being bad news continue to exist, whereas the emotional attachment to the past and the indecisiveness of the elite when it comes to ending that attachment are preventing further development of the region itself. The participants of the Conference agreed that the EU should have a more flexible approach to the enlargement process when it comes to the Western Balkans. There are signs of good will expressed by the EU officials for further enlargement of the Union which would include the countries of the Western Balkans. However, at this moment, those countries still do not have coherent strategies at the national level. Also, it is still uncertain how the process of forming the new German government will influence our region. 


In her introductory speech, the president of the Forum for International Relations of the European Movement in Serbia, Ms. Jelica Minić said that, outside of this region, the media followed the established pattern of stereotypes that there is no good news from the Balkans. “There are good news and they should be given more presence both in domestic and international media”, said Ms. Minić.

Minić added that the new issue of the Foreign Policy Papers, which was issued by the European Movement in Serbia, raised three topics: the messages that are sent to us from Brussels point to new opportunities at the domestic and regional scene, the political battles, that are aggravated during the election period, "poison” the bilateral and regional relations and bring back tensions and the attempt to demystify the story about the armament in the region that looms above our everyday lives. She concluded that we should keep in mind that, despite the bilateral relations that are oscillating, the region lives its parallel life where everyone works well with everyone else.

 

The Program Coordinator of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation’s Regional Office for Serbia and Montenegro Ivana Račić, spoke about the project in which, together with the European Movement in Serbia, they set up the debate “The Future of the EU and the Western Balkans: A View from Serbia” where they analysed the potential directions of the EU transformation after Brexit and numerous crises. "In today's debate, we tried to see how the observed changes are reflected in the EU enlargement policy and its relationship to the Western Balkans.This region is again becoming a reality on the international actors’ agenda, primarily because the bilateral relations have cooled down”, said Račić. 


The first panel was dedicated to the Sources of Tensions in the Western Balkans in the Year 2017.

The director of the Center for Foreign Policy Aleksandra Joksimović said that “the future of the Western Balkans depends largely on Germany, keeping in mind both the Berlin Process and Germany as the “engine” of further integration processes inside the Union as well as the “engine” of ideas regarding the reform of the internal political structure of the European Union”, while opening the first panel dedicated. She highlighted three significant moments that have been happening throughout this year: The Macedonian crisis as a sobering reminder of what could happen if the European perspective is missing, the unstable narrative that the Montenegro’s NATO membership is now in the interest of the Union, as well as the region itself, thus setting up security frames.  

Dragan Đukanović, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Belgrade, talked about the constrains of regional elite saying that they represent the main obstacle because “the elites in the Western Balkans are not able to fight stereotypes that rule within the dominant spheres of these societies.” He concluded that the Berlin Process is now in conceptual and substantive crisis. 

Stevo Muk, President of the Managing Board of the Institute Alternative, believes that Montenegro, in a regional context, is unburdened by bad experience, bilateral conflicts and problems so it could dedicate itself fully to the development of good relations with other countries and regional cooperation. He thinks that the image of Montenegro in the international and regional public is idealised and promoted by the government. Muk stresses the fight against corruption as the problem because the two newly-formed institutions for that domain lost people’s trust. 

Former Ambassador and Representative of Serbia to the OSCE Branka Latinović spoke about the international and regional agreements that regulate armament. According to her, “the general impression is that Europe faces something that could have internal repercussions on the stability of the societies themselves and Europe as a whole and it is called the vulnerability of European democracy.” She believes that there are no conditions for the arms race in the region because that domain is regulated by the Agreement on Sub-Regional Arms Control (Anex 1-B, Article IV, Dayton Peace Accord).

Zoran Nečev, the Head of the Center for EU integrations of the Institute for Democracy “Societas Civis” in Skoplje, stated that it was long assumed that the EU would take the lead in transformation in the Western Balkans. Nevertheless, according to him, that assumption is no longer valid because of the influence of the other actors such as China, Russia, Turkey and the gulf states. He advocates a more flexible EU accession process that would keep those countries on the EU track. 

The Second Panel was dedicated to Seeking Unconventional Solutions.

The former head of Serbia’s Mission to the EU Duško Lopandić said “the process of restructuring European architecture is in progress. That is the biggest change since the 1990s. As we can see, on one hand, one of the leading EU member states is leaving that organisation by the year 2019, in Eastern Europe there is a permanent tension between Russia and the EU. Equally important is the situation regarding Turkey which has been a candidate country the longest. All of this changes the perspective of the Western Balkans in some way.” He pointed out the problem regarding economic pre-conditions for the EU membership in the Western Balkans that are not fulfilled. The region itself does not achieve the result so as to be congruent with the convergence of economic performance. He particularly emphasized the possibility and the need for a more flexible approach of the EU to the enlargement process, including a fast sector integration, a step-by-step approach, a revival of the idea of a special fund for the Western Balkans etc. 


Matteo Bonomi, a Guest Lecturer at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik), talked about economic prospects of the region which accepted the most vital economic reforms recommended by the EU, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) under the so-called Washington Consensus, which is based on the economic reforms combined with the progressive adoption of the European regulation and principles. He identified the unsuccessful transition and the period of three decades of deindustrialisation as problems. Also, he stressed that the economic underdevelopment of the region is one of the main obstacles to a fast EU integration. 

The President of the Foreign Policy Initiative BiH Davor Vuletić, expressed his concern about the narrative that still appears. “Whenever a sort of an excess happens, a verdict, the entire region goes back to the same old story. This is inherent to the other countries, however, unlike us, they know how to solve their problems and to come out stronger, while we have been running in circles”, Vuletić stated. 

 

All speakers agreed that the EU should invest more and that it should be more present in the region. If there is no alternative to the integration of the Western Balkans to the EU and if the EU does not have an alternative strategy for the region, the conclusion is unambiguous: more investments, clear prospects, more possibilities, a more flexible approach and a fast integration process.


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