Since the beginning of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, European officials continue sending affirmative messages regarding the European future of Serbia and the Western Balkan region. This is the reflection of the unambiguous strategic necessity for the European Union (EU) to define its geopolitical identity during a time the world is experiencing the largest security crisis since World War II. However, behind the slogans of strategic importance the Western Balkans are of to the EU, and the messages of a shared future in “our Union”, as formulated by European Commission (EC) president 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 Balkans perhaps constitute a good example that the European Union has lost its transformative powers in terms of enlargement policy, part due to the fact that the process is too long, while the end results remain uncertain. Aside of a somewhat more positive rhetoric and the start of accession negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia, including granting candidate status for 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: one to keep the enlargement policy as is, while hoping that an ineffective policy will eventually generate a different outcome; and second, to establish a general consensus on European integration and define clear steps necessary to be taken in order for potential candidates to achieve EU integration, and that the EU is ready for their accession.
In times of low trust and credibility levels among partners from both sides, it 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 member 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 with clearly stated 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 present an obstacle for the continuation of its necessary strategic enlargement. An example would constitute changing the way decisions are being made in the Council from unanimous voting to qualified majority (especially in terms of Common Foreign and security policy, enlargement, and other strategically important policies of the EU), as well as, establishing effective mechanisms of sanctioning member states whose governments undermine EU’s fundamental values, particularly concerning democracy and the rule of law. These ideas are not new, and the EC president conveyed them before the EP. However, there is still a lack of unambiguous political will and consensus of all member states to seriously consider implementing key reforms within the EU aimed at strengthening it and making it resistant to current and future challenges. The proposed Joint Plan could serve as a bond which will connect Europe’s present and future.
For candidates, the Joint Plan would define priority reform areas of common strategic interest for both sides (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 process of accession in order 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. This suggestion is based on Staged Accession to the Union with a concrete and measurable progress which ensures that the candidates who reform more are offered to transition into the next stage and are awarded all relevant benefits (structural financial support, participation in the EU institutions) which should further motivate decision-makers to carry out the necessary reforms, encourage positive competition among candidates, as well as, strengthen the feeling of belonging to the Union.
Next year marks the 20th anniversary since the first summit between the EU and Western Balkans was held, at which the European future of the region was defined. Since 2003, only Croatia has become a member state while the remaining 6 are at different stages of accession. Twenty years is a long time. It is time to leave the ineffective vicious cycle and strive towards brave and novel solutions. It is 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 for the past two decades. It is time for candidate states to demonstrate dedication to the proclaimed end goal of entering 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 1990’s, be completed, or will it concede. Achieving the consensus regarding the Joint European Integration Plan 2030 could be the beginning of strategically unambiguous future of 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.