The countries from the region have evolved from communism, to a transitional period shattered with interethnic conflict, to reaching a present of democratization and rapprochement towards the EU.
The possibility of a European future for the Western Balkans countries received a conceivable dimension at the Thessaloniki Council in 2003 through the reiteration of the EU commitment towards the integration of the region.
The EU approach to the region has transformed from a failing foreign policy of conflict prevention towards a strategy for Europeanization through the Stabilization and Association Process (SAP) designed for the 5 countries in the area (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Serbia and Montenegro).
At present, the advancement of the Western Balkans countries on their road towards integration in the EU is as follows: Croatia became a candidate country in June 2004 and started the negotiations for accession in October 2005; Macedonia gained a candidate country status at the December 2005 Council during the British presidency and awaits a date for the commencement of negotiations, while Serbia and Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina are currently negotiating the signing of their respective Stabilisation and Association Agreements (SAAs). Albania signed the SAA on February 18, 2006. In addition, the internal reforms and concurrent processes taking place in these countries are of immense importance for the future of the region. The negotiations on the future status of Kosovo, the referendum concerning the keeping of the State Union is to take place in Montenegro, parliamentarian elections are soon underway in Macedonia and the revision of the ‘Dayton constitution’ in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to name just a few. Hence, the outcomes of the reforms that need to be carried out during 2006 will determine the pace of the European integration of the countries in the region. Alongside, the EU retains the possibility for integration of the Western Balkans on its agenda despite the evident enlargement fatigue and the rejections of the Constitution by France and the Netherlands. Yet, one may pose the question whether more could be done on the part of the EU to trigger a more timely and successful integration of the region or whether the acceleration of the process is entirely dependant on the success of internal reforms of the Western Balkan countries?
Given the complexity of the process, it is indispensable that actions on both sides, that of the EU and that of the Western Balkans states, are of invaluable importance for achieving both stability in a region that is currently in the backyard of fortress Europe as well as for the future accession of these countries in the EU. In this respect, under a strong initiative by the Austrian Presidency, the latest Communication of the Commission calls for promotion of economic and social development, including through the formation of a “South Eastern European Free Trade Area,” the increased participation in Community programmes and agencies (educational). Moreover, the Commission has proposed to engage in exploratory talks towards the facilitation of the visa regime and it will bring forward draft negotiating mandates for the countries to the EU Council starting with Macedonia in late March of this year. In addition, the visits of EU officials such the President of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and the Commissioner for Enlargement, Olli Rehn, to the region are to be taken as signals for in the increasing interest of the EU for greater involvement in the regional processes. Nevertheless, the bulk of responsibilities and the alignment of domestic reforms to the EU criteria remain subject to domestic endeavours and their respective implementation using the available administrative capacities.
Finally, whether there will be a European future for the countries of the Western Balkans is dependant on the ability of these countries to carry out reforms and fulfill the criteria for membership. Many challenges are brought at the doormat of the Western Balkans in 2006 that will affect the countries integration towards the EU. Yet, the region has surmounted many challenges in the post-communist period thus reaffirming that it can emerge successfully granted that the EU assists the efforts undertaken and guarantees to the citizens of these countries that the EU has not yet closed its entry gate by allowing them possibilities (e.g. visa facilitation and subsequent liberalization) as the process unravels.