EU-Western Balkan relations: Need for coherence and fear of abandonment

The last thirty years have created a common belief that the Balkans are an irredeemably unstable region, in which differences based on religion and ethnicity will fan persisting conflicts. Concepts like ethnic cleansing, civil war, identity or ethnicity have become associated with that European region. The Ottoman Empire had divided it according to the faith of its inhabitants, without regard to ethnicity. A set-up that the interregnum between the two World Wars and then Tito’s charismatic leadership managed to maintain, preserving the different cultural and ethnic components of Yugoslavia. After his death, the lack of a central focal point gave rise to a confrontation and horrors of the Balkan Wars from 1985 to 2003. 

South Eastern Europe[1] has always been an important region for Western European countries. The geographical proximity made accounts for their historical correlation and cooperation, that developed in trade, political and cultural terms. In the last thirty years, the many traumas affecting the Western Balkans and the evolution of the European Union increased their connections, in the renewed awareness that they share a common future. 

Relations between Europe and the Western Balkans have never been stable and linear, influenced as they have been by recurring crises and the influence of external actors. Two different regions with a common cultural identity, but also a different vision of the world resulting from the impact of their different past on the present-day.

I.  Identity and self-defensive attitudes 

The classical definition of National identity involves a sense of political community that implies common institutions, common rules and duties for all the members of the community. This definition suggests the presence of a territory to which members feel they belong to. In our minds, as Western citizens, a Nation is a community of people following the same rules, respecting the same laws and institutions within a given territory[2]

The concept of Territorial Nation or State Nation comes from the Western tradition and influenced the approach of Western countries to other cultures. 

Imposing a system that is not recognized by the Balkan populations has brought about self-defensive attitudes of different populations comprising the Balkan scenario. The precedent of the Ottoman Empire explains to what extent the imposition of a system not respecting the identity of a population will be refused, feeding popular opposition. Nationalist movements born during the Ottoman domination can be defined as self-defensive nationalism.

During the Ottoman occupation, there was no division among different national communities. Ethnicity and ethnographic distinctions had no role in the organization of the Empire and the division into ethnic groups sharing the same identity based on language, culture and traditions, was something that did not affected the public sphere of the life of Sultan’s subjects. In the case of territories inhabited by non-Muslims, the Ottoman Empire organized its subjects into ecclesial communities called “millets”. A citizen of the Empire was simply a citizen being part of a certain millet because of the religion he or she professed.

Similar examples could be detected in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as Serbian central government that imposed its model to regions that were different in identity and ethnicity. In both cases, such negligence led to a strong resistance and the resulting conflict among different cultures, identities and systems. The sole result was all-around failure. 

One of the main aspects of today’s Balkan situation is the presence in the same Region of different populations with strong identities. On the one hand, there are populations that based their identity on their glorious past and on the existence of national kingdoms (Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia). On the other hand, populations with strong identities based on the absence of a specific and recognized territory (Albanians). The last type is explained by the Bosnian casecharacterized by the presence of three constituent nations, three ethnic groups with different religion and traditions. 

For centuries Balkan peoples were part of empires and followed the rules imposed by foreign actors that did not took into consideration their peculiarities and gave no importance to their historical and cultural identity. For this reason, identity cannot be linked to a certain territory, but is tied to the human being and to identity-builder factors like his culture, his traditions, and sometimes to his faith. 

Starting from the basic assumption that every phenomenon has its root causes and consequences, the case of Western Balkans has been characterized by different shocks caused by both contemporary and previous factors. In attempting to solve any conflict, such a prerequisite is essential to establish the causes and the intended consequences of our action. In assessing the European approach to this region, three main problems arise: an in-depth knowledge of the problem, the coherence and the efficiency of European initiatives. 

II. The European Union in the Western Balkans

The European Union is the result of a decision to cooperate taken by national states which decided to put together their interests by fixing common objectives and working for the same goals. 

The Second World War can be considered as a revolution of the international order and its end shows the failure of the European system intended as the domain of a single nation over the others. The existence of projects of a united Europe can be found in the literature of the 18th and 19th century but until the second World War, European countries looked at their own national interest thinking that self-sufficiency was more profitable than cooperation. What is needed for a cultural revolution and for the realization of a political program is a shared consciousness of the importance of the project itself[3].

The main objective of the European foreign policy has been the creation of a peaceful environment both in Europe and beyond its borders. This means building an environment in which democratic states respect minority and human rights and create a fertile ground for a market economy in which national and foreign companies could act contributing to the development of the entire region. 

After more than sixty years of peace and prosperity, it is clear that the creation of the EU and of the European market can be considered as the best example of peaceful regional cooperation among national states. Working together is not important for having homogeneous systems but for having harmonious systems cooperating to face threats at a global level being, as the European motto says: United in diversity. This concept was clearly expressed by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Vice-President of the European Commission Federica Mogherini in her European Union Global Strategy of June 2016[4]

In this sense, it is clear that the European action starts from its neighbors. 

II.1 The EU external action and the risk of being incoherent

During the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, the failure of the missions and solutions proposed by international actors was a clear example of lack of knowledge of the system of national and ethnic identities underlying the conflict. The essential tool to deal with the Western Balkan crisis was instead then, and is today, the promotion of dialogue among all the actors involved, as a credible leverage. 

The European action in the region has been characterized by the lack of coherence that has produced inefficiency. The absence of preventive action in the pre-war period and the secondary role played during the conflicts were also due to the absence of a common European foreign policy and to the differences among foreign policies of the Western allies.

The lessons learned during the two conflicts in Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina led the EU to work out improved common tools and common solutions. Only in the post-war period, the European Union played a more proactive role in the region working for the integration of the Western Balkan countries in the international system and in the common market through the European missions in the Balkans and the support of state-building processes. 

Still today, problems of coherence continue to affect the EU external action in the region. This was the case of the recognition of the Republic of Kosovo after its unilateral declaration of independence in 2008. The internal situation in some member countries led five of them not to recognize it (Spain, Slovakia, Cyprus, Romania, and Greece). Any European action that does not reflect its unity of purpose reduces its effectiveness and the credibility of the actor. 

II.2 The EU foreign policy and the process of Europeanization 

South Eastern Europe is a strategic region not only for the EU but also for other actors such as Russia, China and Turkeyhaving economic or political interests in the region and claiming a certain influence for economic, political or ethnic reasons. 

The European approach is different. It presents itself as a model of development and cooperation among countries working together after centuries of conflict. Respecting common principles and rules, they have been able to share opinions, projects, objectives and working for the harmonization of practices and the creation of a common set of rules. As explained by Javier Solana in the introduction of its European Security Strategy, “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free. The violence of the first half of the 20th Century has given way to a period of peace and stability unprecedented in European history” (EUHR Solana, 12 December 2003). 

The European environment after the early 1990s and the European approach to the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo increased the interest of Europe as a neighboring power that will to regain trust and credibility in the region. Standing in a privileged position because of the importance of relations among European and Balkan countries, the EU tried to put its fingerprint in the structure and organization of these new born countries by influencing reforms and the state-building process in term of governance, good administration and stability. 

The general framework was that of the European Union using the leverage of partnership and integration in order to promote the creation of systems based on freedom, democracy, rule of law and respect of human rights. The use of conditions is a peculiarity but, in exchange, the EU presents itself as a reward. 

II.3 The EU project of integration: opportunities and mistakes

The case of South Eastern Europe is one of the most important tests for the EU because a success in that region will be a success for the European project. Obviously, the difficult economic situation of those countries leads to internal discussions on the possibility of integration. The Big Bang enlargement of 2004-2007 and the negative consequences of a quick and not prudent integration are still clear in the minds of European citizens and of their leaders. In that case, the absence of conditionality after integration created problems to the entire European Union because new members of Central and Eastern Europe were not prepared and their systems were not sufficiently developed to be a part of the European Union. The lack of transparency in the system of reforms that gave them the possibility to be part of the EU and the persistence of problems of corruption, organized crimes and political influence in the judiciary are the causes of actual European problems with that region. In this sense, it is important to underline that the first criteria for accession are the respect of human rights and the belief in European values. The attitude of different countries in that region towards the problem of migration makes us understand that something went wrong. 

The Western Balkans integration process is negatively influenced by the enlargement fatigue and by the aftermaths of a recent belligerent past which caused the current political and diplomatic friction among states and ethnic groups in the region. It is clear today that a real integration process can be started only adding an intermediate step characterized by regional cooperation and inter-ethnic dialogue. In this sense, the cases of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo can be considered as the main examples. 

Another important problem is the importance that timing has in the EU-Western Balkan partnership. The process of integration has become more complicated. Each step must be approved by all EU Member States which have to express a single unanimous positive vote for the prosecution of the integration process. The main risk is that candidate countries, involved in this long process, could feel abandoned by the EU and its Member States. 

The failure of negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia at the EU summit on 17-18 October 2019 is the most recent but probably not the last mistake of EU countries in their decision making process tied to the process of integration of South Eastern European countries. During the last EU Summit, France, Netherlands and Denmark decided to stop the negotiation process for the two countries without considering the efforts of those countries in meeting the EU criteria to start membership talks. In both cases, the Governments have been working hard to solve their internal problems through a long process of reforms and progressive transparency of their national institutions. 

This is considered a mistake by the European Parliament but also by an important group of Member States leaded by Germany and Italy, historical partners of Western Balkan countries. The main risk is the fear of abandonment suffered by Western Balkan countries which might decide for different solutions based on economic support without conditionality. The answer to this fear is coherence and credibility of the European Union as a partner and in his actions in the region. It is important to make these countries feeling part of the European project even in the period of simple external partnership preceding their effective accession. 


The European Union can be considered as an ally and an older brother for Western Balkan countries because of its history. The cooperation between EU and Western Balkans is based on a WIN-WIN strategy of the European Union. On the one hand, enlarging the European market increases the EU leverage at the international level. On the other, our historical political and economic importance makes us stronger and more credible partners for Western Balkan countries that also today continue looking at westward to see their future. The most important aspects of the EU WIN-WIN strategy are cooperation at all institutional and non-institutional level and solidarity. The solutions that we have developed for our continent in the last seventy years can be used to increase relations among countries that together create a common system of economic and political development.  

The geo-strategic position of South Eastern Europe increases the importance of a partnership also in the field of security and defense intended as one of the pillars of this relation. Not only internal security but also the cooperation in facing common conventional and unconventional threats. Among these cases, the management of the problem of foreign fighters and the risk of radicalization, but also cyber security and data protection. 

It is only through cooperation and increased dialogue among themselves, that the Western Balkans can look to Western Europe as their future home, but still today, the EU material and political support remains essential for the development of the region and the creation of a common European future. 

Giuseppe Vito Ales


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  6. Ivanova, I. (1975, Sep). The Albanians and their neighbours. The World Today, 31(9), pp. 383-390.
  7. Jackoby, W. (2015). Chinese Investment in the Balkans. In Re-imagining the Silk Road. Council for European Studies.
  8. Mogherini, F. (2016). Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe – A Global Strategy for the European Union’s Foreign And Security Policy.
  9. Rrapa, J., & Kolasi, K. (2013). The Curious Case of Albanian Nationalism: the Crooked Line from a Scattered Array of Clans to a Nation-State. The Turkish Yearbook of International Relations, 43, pp. 185-228.
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[1] i.e. the Western Balkans

[2] Cf. Smith, A. D. (1991). National Identity. University of Nevada Press.  

[3] Cf. Ducci, R. (2007). Le speranze d’Europa. (G. Lenzi, Ed.) Rubettino

[4] “None of our countries has the strength nor the resources to address these threats and seize the opportunities of our time alone. But as a Union of almost half a billion citizens, our potential is unparalleled. Our diplomatic network runs wide and deep in all corners of the globe. Economically, we are in the world’s G3. We are the first trading partner and the first foreign investor for almost every country in the globe. Together we invest more in development cooperation than the rest of the world combined. It is also clear, though, that we are not making full use of this potential yet. A vast majority of our citizens understands that we need to collectively take responsibility for our role in the world.” (Mogherini, 2016) 

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