Western Balkan countries stand to gain more if they first join the European Union’s single market and hope that European leaders will be able to reform the union before they open the door to real enlargement and not just rhetoric and political promises.

Gerald Knaus, chairman of the Berlin-based European Stability Initiative think tank, explained his idea to Ilva Tare during her debut as host of the Atlantic Council’s ‘Balkan Debrief’ talk show .

Knaus argued that given the stalled EU enlargement since 2003 with little or no progress at all for the six Western Balkan countries, as well as Ukraine’s request to join the Union, it makes more sense for all parties involved for the EU to divide the integration process. in several phases: a first which would aim to integrate these countries into the EU single market, and a second when the time has come for political decisions within the union to actually accept these countries as members.

In reality, the doors of the EU have closed to the WB Six despite constant promises, says the expert, and the introduction of a new membership model should not be feared because nothing that has already been won would not be lost.

Some EU countries, notably France, do not want the Union to expand to the Western Balkans, and Macron’s latest proposal for a new “European political community” confirms just that. Macron has promised to reform the union and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also wants the same but the reform is going to be difficult and long, the expert noted.

“We propose to be realistic and honest. The EU needs the Balkans to be prosperous, stable and integrated. The Balkan economies must be integrated into the European single market. Otherwise, they have no chance of catching up with what Romania, the Baltic States, Poland and Slovakia have done so successfully: converging towards the average per capita income of the rest of the EU.

There is therefore an interest on both sides for a genuine integration process. But if this process of integration cannot be accomplished for clearly stated political reasons all at once, well, we should go back to the experiences of the past and say, let’s make it a two-step process where the first step, which is offering all Western Balkan countries, as well as Ukraine and Moldova, the opportunity to join the single market and enjoy the four freedoms allowing people to move around the EU as citizens of the Balkans in the manner of the Norwegians, the Icelanders, even the Romanians and the Bulgarians, where businesses and capital goods circulate freely. Let us work to deliver on this promise of Single Market integration over the next four years. And that means opening talks with each of the Western Balkan countries on all issues related to the single market and promising each of these countries that they can join a new economic community with the European Union that guarantees the four freedoms for as long, of course, because they also meet the Copenhagen criteria for democracy and the rule of law. Now it is doable.

Asked by Tare whether this would guarantee the country’s future EU membership, Knaus reiterated that these countries are already stuck in this process and the EU does not even bother to reasonably explain why the integration is at a standstill for them.

“And once those countries are in the single markets like Finland, like Austria like Sweden in 1993, then it’s just the political decision of the European Union, that today the EU doesn’t is not ready to take, but maybe then it will be ready in four years or in five years, if they are to be admitted as full members. But if the EU in five years, and that is the worst case scenario, like now it’s not ready because it hasn’t changed, well, at least at this point, those countries haven’t wasted another four years and they’re fully integrated like Norway and Iceland in the single market.

Domestic companies would push their governments to strengthen single market rules and regulations because they would benefit enormously, the expert noted. It will also strengthen the rule of law in these countries and their fight against corruption.


Ilva Tare, is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington. She now hosts Balkans Debrief, a new talk show presented by the Atlantic Council’s Europe Centre.

Balkans Debrief will feature in-depth analysis and exclusive insights with policymakers and key players on topics affecting over 18 million people.