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Since the beginning of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, European officials have continued sending affirmative messages regarding the European future of Serbia and the Western Balkan region. It reflects the unambiguous strategic necessity for the European Union (EU) to define its geopolitical identity during a time when the world is experiencing the largest security crisis since World War II. However, behind the slogans of strategic importance, the Western Balkans are off to the EU, and the messages of a shared future in “our Union”, as formulated by President of the European Commission (EC), Ursula von den Leyen in her State of the Union to the European Parliament (EP) deputies on September 14, concrete actions which would bring new energy into the enlargement process remain limited.
The Western Balkan region might be considered a good example demonstrating that the European Union has lost its transformative power in enlargement policy, partly due to the process being too long, while the final results remain uncertain. Despite somewhat more positive rhetoric and the start of accession negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia, including granting candidate status to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine and Moldova (and conditionally Georgia), the EU still has not come to a consensus on how exactly to implement the enlargement policy and revive its transformative powers pivotal to achieving its strategic goals. Under such circumstances, two paths are available: first, to keep the enlargement policy as it is while hoping that an ineffective approach might eventually generate a different outcome; or second, to establish a general consensus on European integration and define clear steps necessary to be taken by potential candidates to achieve EU integration and that the EU is ready for their accession.
Notably, in times of low levels of mutual trust and credibility among partners is necessary to build a “New Pan European Deal” between the EU member states and the candidate states for EU membership, which will reset the enlargement process and make them compatible with the needed reforms within the EU. A “Joint EU Integration Plan 2030” (Joint Plan) supported by all EU members and candidate states is essential. A Joint Plan would explicitly state the obligations of the EU member and candidate states in terms of strategic EU integration, together with clearly defined measures and deadlines for its implementation by 2030, which should be the indicative time frame for the implementation.
The EU should define how it will resolve its internal issues, which represent an obstacle to continuing its necessary strategic enlargement. For instance, an example is changing the way decisions are being made in the Council from unanimous voting to the qualified majority (especially in the case of Common Foreign and Security Policy, enlargement, and other strategically important policies of the EU). In addition, establishing effective mechanisms for sanctioning member states whose governments undermine the EU’s fundamental values, particularly concerning democracy and the rule of law, is also highly desirable. These ideas are not new, and the EC President conveyed them to the European Parliament. However, there is still a lack of unambiguous political will and consensus of all member states to seriously consider implementing critical reforms to strengthen and make the EU more resistant to current and future challenges. The proposed Joint Plan could serve as a bond connecting Europe’s present and future.
Furthermore, for candidates, the Joint Plan would define priority reform areas of common strategic interest (strengthening democratic institutions and the rule of law, energy, transportation, common foreign and security policy, environmental and climate change policies, migration…), as well as, proclaim the necessary adjustments in the accession process to make it closer to the citizens and have them feel the effects of it on their everyday lives. Currently, there are multiple research papers in circulation, however, the most concrete suggestion on how to advance the accession process for candidates has been offered by the European Policy Centre (CEP) in Belgrade in cooperation with the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. The proposal is based on Staged Accession to the Union with concrete and measurable progress, which ensures that the candidates who reform more are offered to advance to the next stage and are granted all relevant benefits, such as structural financial support and participation in the EU institutions). Moreover, it should motivate decision-makers to persist in carrying out the necessary reforms, encourage positive competition among candidates, and strengthen the feeling of belonging to the Union.
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the first summit between the EU and Western Balkans, at which the European future of the region was defined. Since the Thessaloniki summit in 2003, only Croatia has become a member state, while the remaining six are at different stages of the accession process. Twenty years is a long time. The time for leaving the ineffective vicious cycle and striving towards brave and novel solutions has come. It is high time for the EU to lead by example on how to make difficult decisions under challenging circumstances which will affect generations to come, as this is something the EU has been encouraging candidates in for the past two decades. It is now time for candidate states to demonstrate dedication to the proclaimed end goal of joining the EU and accepting its values, standards, and rules. These are the times of generational choice for the EU members and candidate countries. Will the uniting of the continent, initiated in the 1990’s, be completed, or will it concede? Achieving the consensus regarding the Joint European Integration Plan 2030 could be the beginning of a strategically unambiguous future for Europe.
 Although the mentioning of any set date and implying deadlines for the accession of candidate states at this moment is a taboo in the EU, it is necessary to define the timeframe which would be aimed at motivating political elites from both sides to hold their end of the bargain in accordance with the Joint Plan.