Europe in the Neighbourhood - The struggle for European Integration in the Western Balkans

In the wake of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the prospects of Western Balkan countries joining the European Union (EU) have undergone significant changes. Addressing these developments, the Citizens' Dialogue titled "Europe in the Neighbourhood - Let's talk beyond borders! The Struggle for European Integration in the Western Balkans" brought together on 21 June 2023 three experts on the region. The event, organized by Europa-Union Deutschland in collaboration with the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Dialogue Southeast Europe and the Centre for European Policy Studies, offered insights into the challenges and opportunities related to EU enlargement. Here, we present key takeaways from the dialogue and explore the path forward for the Western Balkans. 

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Geopolitical Shifts and EU Enlargement

Traditionally, EU enlargement discussions lacked substantial progress, with limited attention from Brussels and European capitals. However, the aggression displayed by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022 has catapulted the issue of EU enlargement into the spotlight. Initially, the focus centred on the accession prospects of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Yet, considering Russia's aggressive foreign policy, geopolitical considerations have once again assumed importance, influencing the view on Western Balkan countries' accession. 

Expert Perspectives on Western Balkan Integration

During the Citizens' Dialogue on 21 June 2023, three experts shed light on the challenges and prospects of Western Balkan integration into the EU. Manuel Sarrazin, the Special Representative of the German Federal Government for the Countries of the Western Balkans, emphasized the indispensable role of the EU's enlargement policy as a geopolitical tool. Despite the hurdles, Sarrazin expressed optimism, highlighting Germany's continued support for Western Balkan integration. Dr Simonida Kacarska, Diector of the European Policy Institute Skopje, stressed the need for an optimistic approach, viewing it as a responsibility. However, she acknowledged the difficulty of maintaining optimism due to the slow progess. Harun Cero of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Dialogue Southeast Europe in Sarajevo pointed to the leaders of Western Balkan countries, who often prioritze their own interests based on corruption and nepotism, hindering the accession process. 

Obstacles and Recommendations 

The experts identified various obstacles to EU enlargement in the Western Balkans. Cero highlighted inadequate cooperation between judicial authorities, hampering law enforcement and cresting opportunities for corruption. He emphasized the need for increased EU engagement with civil society actors to address the real challenges faced by the region. Dr Kacarska emphasized that the EU's hesitant approach to enlargement provides openings for anti-European actors in the Western Balkans. She cited North Macedonia's experience as illustrative, with the country making significant concessions without receiving a proportional response from the EU. The experts agreed that quick and decisive actions within the enlargement process are crucial to capitalize on the geopolitical momentum presented by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. They also stressed the importance of strengthening the role of civil society in facilitating effective communication between the EU and Western Balkan countries. 


The Citizens' Dialogue highlighted the belief, shared by experts and the audience, that Western Balkan accession to the EU remains a worthwhile endeavour, vital for regional stability. However, challenges persist, with the current conflict in Kosovo serving as a reminder of the uncertainties ahead. As the event concluded, it became evident that the path forward involves bolstering strategic communication, strengthening civil society's involvement, and taking advantage of the geopolitical opportunities arising from the war in Ukraine. 



We extend our sincere gratitude to the Federal Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt) and the Federal Press Office (Presse- und Informationsamt der Bundesregierung) for their invaluable financial support for organizing this Citizens' Dialogue. Additionally, we appreciate the collaboration of the Centre for European Policy Studies and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation Dialogue Southeast Europe in making this event possible. 


Author: Jasper Nebel 

This article is the result of a cooperation between Europa-Union Deutschland e.V. and