Western Balkans and the EU Enlargement Standstill

Three essential questions: Interview with Florian Bieber, Director, Centre for Southeast European Studies, University of Graz

In the fifth issue of short interviews with important researchers and practitioners from Central and Eastern Europe on burning questions concerning labour and social policies, we talked to Florian Bieber, Professor and Director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies, University of Graz and Coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG). We asked him how to make the EU accession of Western Balkans faster and more inclusive.

News | 30 November 2021

© Uni Graz

1. The process of EU accession negotiations for Western Balkans has slowed down. Are there any new ideas about how to accelerate the process?
The process is indeed in deep crisis. There a several ways to revive the process. First, it must become more predictable, which means there have to be concerted efforts to stop and prevent individual EU member states blocking progress without merit, like the current Bulgarian veto over accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania. In the long term, the decisions about the individual steps should be decided by qualified majority not by unanimity. Until then, member states should send the clear signal to those that wield vetoes that this is not acceptable and increase the price for such behaviour. Second, the EU needs to communicate problems in the region more openly and transparently. Serious backsliding is not criticised openly and thus there is little pressure on autocrats. Finally, it is useful to consider an accession in steps that offers benefits before full membership and cuts down the long wait.

2. If the process garners speed again, how can we make sure that we do not only start with creating a larger Single Market and put the creation of a strong social Europe on the backburner?
Even if the accession gains pace, the process will still take years. The process will also depend on the nature of European integration in the meantime. We will most probably see a staged approach of Western Balkan integration, comparable to the Schengen area or the Eurozone. In many ways, the Western Balkans poses only a limited challenge to a more social Europe, considering that it represents a relatively small population. All the countries of the region have fewer inhabitants than Romania and many people already hold EU citizenship or live in the EU. Thus, even if living and social standards are much lower in the region, I do not see that their membership would overwhelm the EU.

3. The younger and better-educated people continue leaving the Western Balkans to work and raise their children elsewhere in Europe. What are the policy options to address this brain drain?
The emigration has a long history in the region and is nothing new. However, the emigration now coincides with an ageing of the societies accelerating the trend of a shrinking population in the Western Balkans. In addition, many of the well-educated are leaving, resulting in important gaps in the social, health, and educational infrastructure. The large gap in living standards between the Western Balkans and the destination countries in the EU will make emigration an attractive option in the foreseeable future and it is hard to reverse it. However, what can improve the situation is to keep in mind that the root cause of emigration is not just the gap in income, but also corruption, state capture, and the politicisation of the public sector, which motivates many people to leave. If people can’t find good governance at home, then they move elsewhere. Closing the income gap will take time but improving the rule of law and public services will make it easier for many to stay. Finally, creating incentives for those who left to return can alleviate the brain drain.

The opinions expressed in the interview solely belong to the interviewee, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ILO.