Background: policy objectives, legal basis, political process.

The EU has developed a policy to support the gradual integration of those Western Balkan countries not yet Members into the Union. On 1 July 2013, Croatia became the first of the seven countries to join, and Montenegro, Serbia, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Albania are official candidates. Accession negotiations on some Acquis chapters have been opened with Montenegro and Serbia. Bosnia and Herzegovina (which submitted its membership application in early 2016) and Kosovo are potential candidate countries.

The Legal basis of the process are the Title V of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), dedicated to EU external action; Article 207 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), relating to the international trade agreement; Article 49 TEU, concerning the criteria for application and membership.

2018 marks the 15th anniversary of the Thessaloniki Summit that laid down the foundations for access of Western Balkan countries to the EU. It also commemorates a decade since the founding of the European Fund for the Balkans, the goal of which was not only that of promoting the EU integration of the Western Balkans into the EU but also their transformation into prosperous and stable European democracies. To date, Croatia is the only Country form the Region to have joined the EU, while membership for the other Countries is still years away. Democratic backsliding, declining support for EU membership, and the increasing interference of external actors that support undemocratic and non-transparent practices undermine reforms in the Western Balkans[1].

A recommitment to reforms and enlargement, articulated in the Trieste WB& Summit[2], as well as more recent positive statements by Commission, have certainly signalled a European Commission’s Strategy presented on February 2018.

The Commission Strategy

The Commission’s Strategy adopted on 6 February 2018, was already signalled in the “2017 State of the Union address” by Commission President Junker. The Strategy is entitled “A credible enlargement perspective for the enhanced EU engagement with Western Balkans”. It confirms “..the European Future of the Region as a geostrategic investment in a stable, strong and united Europe based on common values”[3].

The Strategy defines the priorities and areas of joined and reinforced cooperation, addressing the specific challenges the Western Balkans face, in particular the need for fundamental reforms and good neighbourly relations. A credible enlargement perspective ”….requires sustained efforts and irreversible reforms. Progress along the European path is an objective and merit-based process which depends on the concrete results achieved by each individual Country”[4].

Rule of law, security and migration, socio-economic development, transport and energy connectivity, digital agenda, reconciliation and good neighbourly relations are the six concrete flagships initiatives of the Strategy. Concrete actions in these areas are foreseen between 2018 and 2020.

Adequate funding is indispensable for a successful adhesion process and the European Commission proposes to gradually increase funding under the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance until 2020. Furthermore, the Strategy explains the steps that need to be taken by Montenegro and Serbia. There is an indication that the accession process could be completed by 2025.

All Western Balkans countries have now the chance to move forward on their respective EU membership processes.

The EIB for the Western Balkans

The EIB is the leading international financier in the Western Balkans and has been active in the Region since 1977. Since 2006, the Bank has financed projects for a total of Euro 6.4bn. In 2016 the EIB signed financing contracts amounting to Euro 427m.[5]

While continuing its support for reconstruction and upgrading of the region and municipal networks of basic infrastructures (transport, energy and the environment), the EIB plans to increase its assistance to the private sector and lend more in the health and education sectors in the coming years.

The EIB co-finances major projects in the region with other International Financial Institutions, particularly the European Bank for Reconstruction (EBDR), the World Bank and the Council of Europe Development Bank, as well as with bilateral donors.

Since 2009 these Financial Institutions have been cooperating under the Western Balkans Investment Framework (WBIF), which provides a joint grant facility and a joint lending facility for priority investment in the region. The objective is to simplify access to credit by pooling and coordinating different sources of finance and technical assistance, with a focus of infrastructure sectors, including social infrastructure.

A further joint initiative, with the same partners and the European Investment Fund (EIF), is the Western Balkans Enterprise Development and Innovation facility (WB EDIF), launched in December 2012. This aims to improve access to finance for SMEs in the region, helping to develop the local economy and regional venture capital markets, while promoting policy reforms to support access to finance through financial engineering instruments.[6]

Conclusion

The process to join the EU broadly consists of 3 stages, that can be summarized as follows: becoming an official candidate for membership; moving on to formal membership negotiations; joining the EU, after the negotiations and accompanying reforms have been completed.

Financial programmes and EU aid for the development of these countries must be considered as a whole: no adhesion without financial support. The countries involved in membership negotiations represent also an opportunity for the enterprises and SMEs of existing Member States.