Stabilization of the Western Balkans: European Union’s ‘Phantom Pain’

Last week, the European Commission published the strategy for the Western Balkans, setting 2025 as the date of accession to the EU of Serbia and Montenegro to be followed by Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and the partially recognized state of Kosovo. Valdai Club expert Tatiana Romanova considers the project to be implementation of the old EU political course, but also an attempt to show the EU’s viability after Brexit.

“In principle, the EU’s political obligations towards Balkans have a long history. The discussion about the limits of the EU and its capacity for absorption, i.e. accession of new member states, has continued for years, but the Balkan countries’ right to access is generally recognized, as Slovenia and Croatia are already in. In addition, the EU has always positioned itself not only as an economic, but also as a political project aimed at preventing local conflicts. In this context its role in the Balkans is evident”, Tatiana Romanova, associate professor of the Faculty of World Economy and World Politics at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics, said in an interview with

“Historical memory plays a certain role here, too”, the expert continues. “In 1991, when the EU was still being formed, it declared the stabilization of the Balkan region as one of its main goals. It is clear that the project failed back then, but some historical phantom pain associated with the wish to stabilize the region and to prove the EU to be such a stabilizer – that pain has remained”.

“It is extremely important for the EU to demonstrate its further viability despite all the problems it has faced, Brexit, for example. This creates a certain counterweight – yes, you do quit, but there are other countries whose accession is being discussed. The enlargement is not going to happen tomorrow, but the EU does not give up this prospect”.

European Union Runs for Life with Integration of Western Balkans Gábor Stier
The European Union, based on the past years’ experience, decided to take an unexpected step: one of these days the geostrategic goal was defined, and this is integration of the Western Balkans.

In a convincing way, the Brexit case has shown that the interests of the elites and the so-called “ordinary people” can diverge, – not to mention the disagreements that may take place within each group. “It is evident that the Balkans’ accession is primarily an elitist project, because the poorer you are, the less support you have for the EU expansion: citizens of the new member states seek first and foremost the low-qualified jobs, and it is rather blue collars than service workers who may face difficulties,” Romanova said. “The Balkans are not an exception, because each time an EU enlargement took place – in 2004, 2007, 2013 – there was always a watershed between the elites and the ordinary citizens, between the wealthy and the less wealthy people”.

EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy Johannes Hahn, who recently visited Serbia and Montenegro, considers integration of the Western Balkans a long-term project. Back in 2017, during the negotiations, Serbia said that it was not embarrassed by the accession timeframe, since it is about its own interests. Therefore, Romanova regards the current developments as preparatory work: “Again, the expansion is not a matter of tomorrow, it is not on the agenda today. The issue is unlikely to become the subject of political debates in the member states now – not until 2020”.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.