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New Growth Plan for the Western Balkans: An important step forward, while much is yet to be done

By Milena Mihajlović, Programme Director at the European Policy Center (CEP), Belgrade & Lukáš Macek, head of the Centre Grande Europe at Jacques Delors Institute, Paris

A stimulating new package in support of Western Balkan countries’ accession is on the EU decision-making table. Half a year after the big announcement by the Commission President, the details of the New Growth Plan for the Western Balkans (the Plan) were presented on 8 November 2023, along with the standard annual Enlargement Package. The Commission’s proposal is in line with the European Council’s June 2022 invitation “to further advance the gradual integration between the European Union and the region already during the enlargement process itself in a reversible and merit-based manner”.

Aligned with the objective of “a determined geostrategic investment in a stable, strong and united Europe” and accelerating “the speed of the enlargement process and the growth of [the Western Balkans’] economies”, the Plan rests on four key pillars: 1. Economic integration with the single market, 2. Regional economic integration through the Common Regional Market, 3. Fundamental reforms, and 4. Increased financial assistance through the Reform and Growth Facility for the Western Balkans (RGFWB, Facility). Rather than reforming the accession process, the Plan intends to stimulate and build on the existing approach – primarily based on the Stabilisation an Association Agreements and the Instrument for Pre-accession Assistance (IPA) – with a view to increasing its effectiveness and bringing forward greater benefits for candidate countries.

Although the new funds needed for the RGFWB were only approved on 1 February 2024, in late 2023 the Commission already invited each Western Balkan partner to prepare a “Reform Agenda”. These documents will stipulate the socio-economic and fundamental reforms that will serve as the basis for disbursing the newly proposed funds. The Commission seems – more than ever in the past decade – eager to show to Member States that Western Balkan countries are deserving of an additional push in their integration efforts. At the same time, the region still seems lulled in its awkwardly comfortable position, in which the EU is to blame for the lack of progress and the dire state of its rule of law and democratic reforms.

In this article, we discuss the novelties of the proposed Plan, including proposals on market integration and links between funding and reforms. In addition, we assess the Plan’s shortcomings and certain potential risks associated with its implementation. In conclusion, the article discusses the current positions of the Western Balkan countries in the accession process, to determine how they affect their capacity to seize the new enlargement momentum and to leverage the potential offered by the Plan.

This publication was originally published on https://institutdelors.eu/

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