Western Balkans and European Union Relations: Challenges and Perspectives

VIENNA: On November 11, 2022, at the Diplomatische Akademie Wien-Vienna School of International Studies, UPF-Europe & Middle East and the Podgorica Club of former heads of state of the Balkans region held a joint conference on the theme: “Western Balkans and European Union Relations: Challenges and Perspectives”.

150 participants filled up the hall, including representatives from 17 Embassies, scholars and students from academic institutes, and NGO representatives. This event followed two conferences on Peace and Security in the Western Balkans held by UPF in April and June this year, co-sponsored respectively by the Podgorica Club and the government of Kosovo. In the context of the war in Ukraine and its impact on peace and security in the Western Balkans, respected statesmen from the region, as well as Austrian politicians and diplomats, were invited to share their perspectives on the state of Western Balkans – EU relations.

In the opening session, a few eminent figures offered welcoming remarks. Amb. Emil Brix, the director of the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, emphasized the relevance of Vienna, “capital of Northern Balkans”, for such a meeting. H.E. Filip Vujanovic, the former President of Montenegro, co-organizer of the conference as President of the Podgorica Club, outlined the Club’s strategies for peace and development in the region. Dr Katsumi Otsuka, the Chairman of UPF Europe & Middle East, explained UPF’s vision for conflict resolution through dialogue.

In a recorded message, Dr. Wolfgang Petritsch, an eminent Austrian diplomat who served as High Representative for Bosnia Herzegovina and EU’s Special Envoy for Kosovo, discussed how Balkan countries could contribute in consolidating the EU. Finally, a message was read from the EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood and Enlargement, Mr. Olivier Várhelyi, who expressed his commitment to do “everything in his power to support peace, security and prosperity in the Western Balkans”.

The first panel, addressed the theme “EU and NATO – the European Security Architecture and the Position of the Western Balkans in the Light of the Russian Aggression Against Ukraine.” Dr. Werner Fasslabend, former Austrian Minister of Defence and current president of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy, opened the panel by reminding the close historical and political bonds between the Balkans and Austria. “One of the lessons of the Ukraine – Russia war, he said, is that friendship is the only solution to conflicts, not changing the borders”.

He was followed by five major Western Balkans leaders: H. E. Alfred Moisiu, President of Albania (2002-2007); H.E. Stjepan Mesić, president of Croatia (2000-2010); H.E. Mladen Ivanić, Chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia Herzegovina (2015-2017); Hon. Goran Svilanović, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia (2000-2004); and H.E. Enver Hoxha, Deputy Prime Minister of Kosovo (2017-2019).

Although acknowledging the security challenge created by the war in Ukraine, they urged for a greater attention from the EU to the Western Balkans, which should be “as geopolitically important for the European Union as Ukraine and Eastern Europe are for NATO”. They regretted what they called EU’s shifting policies toward the region, and its lack of clear affirmation of Kosovo’s independence.

EU membership would calm down the tensions within and among Western Balkans counties, they said; rules from the EU would be more easily accepted by the populations. Traumas should be overcome by a positive approach, and hegemonial tendencies of certain countries should be stopped.

The second panel addressed the theme “The Western Balkans and the EU Accession Process Fatigue – Results, Responsibilities and Next Steps”, featuring five Balkan leaders: H.E. Filip Vujanovic, President of Montenegro (2003-2018) and President of the Podgorica Club; H.E. Rexhep Meidani, President of Albania (1997-2002); H.E. Zlatko Lagumdžija, Prime Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina (2001-2002); H.E. Jadranka Kosor, Prime Minister of Croatia (2009-2011). They explained how from Western Balkans countries, they perceive “tiredness, even exhaustion”, and sometimes a superficial approach, in EU politicians’ efforts toward the region.

They expressed pessimism in regards with the EU’s plans for enlargement. However, they noted Germany’s recent efforts to push forward the Berlin Process designed to help accelerate the region’s closer alignment with the EU. They dwelled on some of the challenges Western Balkan nations need to address in the areas of governance, human rights or human security. They proposed ways in which the EU and Western Balkans could collaborate on projects concerning all countries in Europe, such as a Global Health, which could be a concrete step toward integration.

Dr. Valentin Inzko, an Austrian diplomat, shared in a video message from his experience as High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina (2009-2021), both the achievements of EU-Balkan cooperation and the challenges in the region, such as the “brain drain” toward Europe. As an Austrian member of the European Parliament, Hon. Lukas Mandl, Vice Chair of the EU Defense Committee, said that “fatigue should not be in our vocabulary when talking about the destiny of our nations”; what is needed is leadership and courage, he said, as we face the greatest threat to European security. The final speaker, Dr. Michael Balcomb, Senior Advisor to UPF Europe and Middle East, said that the greatest challenge to peace and development is for countries, just like individuals, to go beyond self-interest, concluding that to “forgive, love and unite” is the only way for bad memories to lose their destructive power.

The third session moderated by Mrs. Jennifer Miftaroska, IAYSP Austria, was titled “Youth, Peace and Security on the Western Balkans – Moving forward with the Energy and Optimism of the Next Generation”. The speakers included Mr. Slobodan Martinović, Adviser to President Vujanovic, Montenegro; Mr. Aleksandar Savović, Chief of Cabinet of President Ivanic, Bosnia and Herzegovina; Mr. Bogdan Pammer, President of the International Association of Youth and Students of Peace (IAYSP) – Europe and Middle East; Mr. Luka Cekic, Western Balkan Expert of the International Institute for Peace in Vienna, Ms. Kirsty Rancier, Youth Focal Point in the UNODC, Youth Empowerment Accelerator and Ms. Lirjetë Avdiu-Vejsa, Chairwoman of K Cultural Association, in Vienna. The young leaders shared reflections about life for young people in the Western Balkans region: about the need to create an environment encouraging youth to manage their own life, with decent wages, yet the reality of an economy giving limited job opportunities, even to university graduates; the urgent need for increased funding of vocational education, and for promoting professions that are not necessarily based on academic degrees. Some shared about the challenge of growing up in a multicultural region with ethnic tensions, about the frustration of belonging to an ethnic minority, yet turning their multicultural experience into a strength. They insisted on the need for youth to find their own way to improve conditions in the region, not waiting for someone outside of their countries to bring the change. But logic and reason should have priority over nationalistic emotions in decision making. Help from the EU is important for development, but not relying on the EU for bringing change. “Youth sometimes don`t have the solution, but should be part of the solution”.