This study evaluates the success of the EU’s strategy of regional cooperation in the Western Balkans over the last two decades from an economic perspective. First, we define the prerequisites for successful regional cooperation in an institutional, political and economic sense, and assess the extent to which they existed in the Western Balkans at the start of the 2000s. Second, we identify the key facets of the EU’s strategy to deepen trade, investment and infrastructure connectivity in the Western Balkans, and establish the impact that this has had. Third, we assess the state of play in 2020, and make some suggestions for the way forward.
Our main findings are a) that many of the most important prerequisites for regional cooperation have not existed in the Western Balkans during the past two decades, and that the potential gains from the EU strategy have therefore always been quite limited; b) that regional trade, investment and infrastructure integration has increased somewhat, but that there are still many gaps and challenges ahead; and c) that these efforts have not fundamentally altered the main obstacles to normalising political relations in the Western Balkans and, ultimately, to the EU accession of its constituent countries.
Our findings lead to two main conclusions. First, regional cooperation efforts should continue, but more effort should be focused on securing the maximum possible level of economic integration with the EU. Second, economic development and EU accession in the region are severely hamstrung by territorial disputes and constitutional deadlock. Without a breakthrough on these issues – and especially the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo – no amount of regional cooperation initiatives can fundamentally change the situation.