Austria Advocates Accelerated EU Integration of the Western Balkans

PeopleDiplomats ♦ Published: September 27, 2023; 17:24 ♦ (Vindobona)

Austria's Minister of European Affairs Karoline Edtstadler and Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg show a profound commitment to the integration of the Western Balkan countries into the European Union (EU). They recently sent concrete proposals in a letter and a "non-paper" to EU External Relations Commissioner Josep Borrell and Enlargement Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi. The central theme of these proposals is to accelerate the enlargement process and clarify the agenda for 2024 and beyond.

Austria repeatedly presents itself as the advocate of the Southeast European EU accession candidates, and this also has self-serving reasons. / Picture: © EC European Commission

Since Ukraine gained EU candidate status, there has been growing concern that the Western Balkans could be sidelined in the European Union's enlargement policy. For countries like Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, northern Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia, the wait for EU accession never seems to end. But the Western Balkans is not just any backyard of Europe; many, including Austrian politicians, consider it the "EU's courtyard."

One of the key elements of these proposals is an action plan outlining the successive integration of the Western Balkan states by 2024, ORF reported. In addition, more efficient financial support is to be established through an improved incentive system. It is also proposed to regularly invite the Western Balkan states to informal Council meetings. Accession negotiations with the Western Balkan states - Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, and Northern Macedonia - are already underway, with Bosnia-Herzegovina holding only candidate status. Kosovo has made the least progress in EU integration.

In another initiative, Foreign Minister Schallenberg has announced the formation of a core group of EU states that includes Austria, Greece, Italy, Croatia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic, DiePresse reported. This group, known as the "Friends of the Western Balkans," is to work for closer ties between the Western Balkan states and the EU even before they actually join.

The inspiration for this new initiative comes from the 20th anniversary of the 2003 EU-Western Balkans Summit in Thessaloniki, which, according to the Austrian Foreign Ministry, should see the EU intensify its enlargement efforts for Southeastern Europe while not losing sight of the Western Balkan states.

Finally, Schallenberg will present the "Friends of the Western Balkans" initiative at the Wachau European Forum. The event will also be attended by several Central European foreign ministers and the U.S. special envoy for the Western Balkans, Gabriel Escobar. The event will also welcome members of Bosnian civil society and the diaspora in Austria.

But why does Austria show such commitment when it comes to the Western Balkans?

Vedran Džihić, a Balkan expert, sees pragmatic reasons for Austria's ambitions in the region, as DerKurier reported. Economically, Austria is a major power in the Balkans. It ranks high in foreign investment in the region, with significant direct investment in countries such as Serbia and Bosnia.

Furthermore, destabilization in the region leads to an increased flow of migrants to Austria. Moreover, the Austrian Armed Forces play an active role in peacekeeping missions in Southeastern Europe, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Nevertheless, there is a discrepancy between rhetorical assurances on Western Balkan enlargement and actual implementation, both at the European and Austrian levels, as DerKurier reported.. Over the past 15 years, various governments have repeatedly emphasized the need to integrate the region into the EU. But without concrete progress, such statements could easily be dismissed as empty phrases. It remains to be seen what the future of EU enlargement policy will look like in the Western Balkans and whether Austria's commitment will bear concrete fruit.