The Western Balkans between the war in Ukraine and the European Union 

Do the ongoing global conflicts and the upcoming American presidential elections cast a shadow of uncertainty over the Western Balkans? Will the European Union expand its membership, what do the EU integrations depend on, and what can we learn from Croatia, marking its 10th year as a full EU member? Boško Jakšić, a political analyst hailing from Serbia, joined forces with Vesna Škare Ožbolt, a Croatian politician and former minister of justice, to delve into these pressing matters and more during their insightful discussion. 

When the major players face challenges, it’s the smaller ones that bear the brunt. There’s no denying that global crises have a profound impact on the entire region, impeding our countries’ progress towards EU integration. However, a significant portion of the responsibility rests with the candidate countries themselves. The pandemic has vividly illustrated the benefits of EU membership. Croatia received a substantial 700 million euros in aid, while Serbia received a mere fraction – 78.5 million. This should serve as a compelling argument for commitment to the European path. Regrettably, it seems this isn’t always the case,” remarked Jakšić during the inaugural session of the panel discussion titled “The Western Balkans: Navigating the Ukrainian Conflict, the European Union, and the 2024 American Elections,” supported by the KAS Foundation. 
 
Ožbolt emphasized that the entirety of the Western Balkans belongs within the European Union, underscoring that the necessary reforms for this journey are often challenging, compounded by substantial pressure on institutions. 

Concerns and challenges are ever-present – the key lies in how swiftly we address them. Political will is imperative, yet too often, integration aspirations remain mere declarations in politics. We had a unanimous consensus, with all parties backing EU accession. This is why we now have a European prosecutor in Croatia. When misappropriation of funds occurs, such as building a wine cellar instead of investing in a tractor, the European prosecutor steps in to demand restitution. This situation reveals a concerning reality: we still have two categories of citizens – those who may face prosecution, and those who may not,” Ožbolt remarked. 

When asked about whether the accession of the entire Western Balkans to the EU hinges on the Kosovo* dispute, the panelists concurred that while the Kosovo* dispute poses a challenge, it is not the sole nor determining factor. 

It’s not solely about the economy; the objective is to democratize society. An orderly society cannot exist with corruption, nepotism, and emigration. While a peace agreement and resolution of the Kosovo* dispute is essential, the fundamental question remains: have we organized our society?” emphasized Jakšić. 

He stated that the question of European Union enlargement gained significance in the wake of the Ukraine conflict, underscoring the imperative for a stronger and united Europe. 

President Macron has emphasized that the EU must undergo internal reforms prior to any expansion. Given the historical pace of Brussels bureaucracy, this process is expected to take some time. Only after this internal restructuring will the discussion of new member accessions take place. This period represents a critical window of opportunity for our countries. It is imperative that we invest this time in thorough preparatory work, ensuring we are ready when the moment for enlargement arrives,” concluded Jakšić. 

In conclusion, Ožbolt emphasized the substantial advantages of a well-structured society and urged the Western Balkan countries not to be swayed by any anti-European propaganda they may encounter. Drawing from Croatia’s experience, he pointed out that similar campaigns occurred during its EU accession process, yet none of the anticipated negative outcomes materialized upon entry into the EU. 

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