Kosovo’s declaration of independence has put stability in the Western Balkans back on Europe’s agenda. Unless the European Union acts quickly, the whole region could slide backwards, with dire social, economic, and security consequences. The EU needs a comprehensive regional approach, focusing on the remaining steps that would lead each country towards membership.
The Western Balkans − a term used only since 1999 − comprises Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia (FYROM), Montenegro, Serbia, and Kosovo, with a combined population of roughly 22 million. Economic developments in the region are promising, with almost all its economies posting high growth, fueled by increasing industrial output and exports. Inward investment is steadily rising, as business seems to believe that the remaining political and security challenges – the possible negative effects of post-independence Kosovo and Bosnia’s malaise – will be overcome sooner rather than later.
Much work has already been done to re-establish and improve regional relations. The EU-led Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe has since 1999 successfully stimulated regional cross-border cooperation, for the first time since the breakdown of Yugoslavia. Energy, transport infrastructure – roads, railways, and waterways – and crime prevention have all benefited. The Stability Pact has now been transferred to local control, re-emerging as the Sarajevo-based Regional Cooperation Council, ready to develop regional and multilateral standards for its members.
The recently revived Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) is meant to be the main regional engine for trade and business generally, and will adhere both to WTO rules and the parties’ obligations towards the EU. Similarly, the South-East European Cooperation Process is one of the relatively new regional organizations that contribute to candidate and potential candidate countries’ preparations for EU membership, providing the first genuine region-wide policy forum where both EU members and candidates participate.