With EU accession distant, Balkan countries find a substitute

TO JUDGE by the headlines, things are getting pretty hairy in the western Balkans. Newspapers have been running articles arguing that borders should be redrawn. Russia’s foreign ministry has accused Western officials of promoting a Greater Albania. Montenegro claims that Russia was behind an alleged coup attempt last November aimed at stalling its accession to NATO. Serbia has excoriated the president of Kosovo for suggesting that his demilitarised country might form an army, and Macedonia has lashed out against Kosovo and Albania for supposedly interfering in its domestic affairs.

Most of these clashes are empty posturing by leaders who are facing elections or other domestic challenges. But they have had one real consequence: Western governments have become alarmed enough to start paying attention again. Johannes Hahn, the European Union’s commissioner for enlargement, says that EU governments have been pushing him for ideas on how to keep the region stable. The result is a plan for a western Balkan common market, backed both by local leaders and by the EU itself.

On March 16th, at a summit in Sarajevo with the prime ministers of the six Balkan countries that want to join the EU, Mr Hahn told them to seize the moment. When they meet again in Trieste on July 12th, he wants them to sign up to a plan for a regional common market, with free trade, free circulation of labour and capital, and regulatory standardisation.

Serbia and Albania are all for it; indeed, their leaders say it was their idea. “Serbia would like to play the role Germany plays in the EU within this group,” says one diplomat. Montenegro and Kosovo, however, are alarmed. Montenegro is well advanced on its path to EU accession, and fears that the new plan will only hold it up.

Mr Hahn says the plan could create up to 80,000 jobs. Foreign investors will see a market of 20m people rather than six small countries. In fact, much of what Mr Hahn wants to do is already under way. An incomplete free-trade area exists, though intra-Balkan trade remains feeble. There is a western Balkan energy community linked to the EU, and a treaty integrating transport policy is ready to sign. Work has been done on the mutual recognition of professional qualifications. The idea now is to pull all these initiatives together and fill in the gaps.

The EU’s governments are busy debating what type of union they want after Brexit. Goran Svilanovic, the head of the Sarajevo-based Regional Cooperation Council, to which the six Balkan EU aspirants belong, says they need to plan, too. The EU’s members reaffirmed on March 9th that they expect the Balkan states to join the union eventually, but Mr Svilanovic thinks it could be on different terms, with new entrants starting out with only partial access and acquiring full membership status gradually.

In Sarajevo Edi Rama, Albania’s prime minister, said he wanted Albanians to be able to work freely in the EU now, while his government works on the rest of its membership criteria. In today’s political climate, that is a pipe-dream. But Mr Rama may be right that the western Balkan countries could sidle into the EU bit by bit, to avoid provoking resistance. In the meantime, a common market of their own may serve as a consolation prize.

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