This article is part of New Europe’s: Our World in 2017

Belgium -Brussels – Half of EU citizens support EU enlargement. Thirteen years ago, around the time of the much referred to European Council in Thessaloniki, there was still a clear majority in favour of new members joining the Union. What has happened since? And why does it not mean we should stop EU enlargement, but instead focus on a more ambitious and more political enlargement policy?

Since the 1990’s the perception of EU enlargement has changed. At the time, enlargement to the East was advocated as a political duty to the countries that had been cut off from their Western European neighbours by the Iron Curtain. Today, the perspective of further accessions is often portrayed as an economic and social burden.

But even today, many EU citizens still support the principle idea of enlargement. When discussing with people from my constituency, I feel that they do remain open to arguments about the political benefits of EU enlargement policy. However, they are increasingly sceptical about the EU’s capacity to cope with the economic and social challenges of future EU accessions. This is not a negative development per se. It means we must put more attention and more resources into shaping and maintaining an enlargement policy that effectively addresses these challenges – both in the EU member states and in the candidate countries for accession.

At its June 2003 summit in Thessaloniki the EU Heads of State and Government promised a ‘European perspective’ to the countries of the Western Balkans and clearly stated that “the future of the Balkans is within the European Union”. However, at the beginning of the current Commission’s mandate, President Juncker’s statement according to which no further enlargement would take place during the years 2014-2019 caused some unease to the public opinion in the Western Balkans. Politics, especially European reform-oriented political forces, and society in the Western Balkans were alarmed about the potential effects on the EU’s hitherto committed enlargement policy.

The EU needs an active enlargement strategy that keeps the enlargement countries firmly engaged and promotes and strengthens the accession process in the Western Balkans. Without an ambitious and effective enlargement policy, the EU will not be able to maintain its influence over the democratisation and stabilisation process.

In the past, the necessity of an “ambitious” enlargement policy has often meant that the accession process became more and more technically sophisticated. Accession criteria became more detailed, the number of dialogue fora increased and more intermediary steps on the way to opening or closing accession negotiations were determined. Sometimes it seems that the more detailed the accession criteria became, the more the EU’s commitment towards Western Balkans’ EU accession was put into question in the countries themselves.

Therefore, today, the EU’s enlargement policy finds itself caught in a permanent balancing act between a comprehensive bureaucratic process and political considerations. While a successful EU enlargement policy requires strict accession criteria and easily verifiable benchmarks for progress, it also requires the European Commission to play an active role in shaping the accession process.

The Western Balkans will need additional support in order to maintain the reform momentum over the coming years. It is not EU accession criteria that help alter a political culture where political compromises are often seen as negative, where strong leadership is favoured by some over broad participation and where parliamentary boycotts are sometimes a popular move of opposition parties. Albania is an example of a candidate country where the EU has accepted to give substantial support to bringing about a comprehensive judiciary reform. Ultimately, however, it is up to the candidate countries to continue implementing their ambitious reform packages and not to lose track of their objective – EU membership.

In the end, the European integration of the Western Balkan countries will only be successful if EU accession and the related political and economic reforms will be perceived as political, economic and social progress by the citizens and will thus meet their support. The fight against corruption and organised crime require an independent and effective judiciary as well as well-functioning mechanisms for regional cooperation. Despite pressing economic and social challenges – such as high levels of unemployment especially among the youth or the necessity to consolidate public finances – the promotion of democracy and rule of law and the strengthening of democratic institutions must continue likewise, including in the area of media freedom and transparency.

However, it is not enough to prepare the Western Balkan countries individually for EU accession. As future EU Members they will have to cooperate together on a daily basis inside and outside the EU institutions. Good neighbourly relations are the cornerstone of European integration. The EU’s enlargement policy as well as the candidate and potential candidate countries can therefore only benefit from an even stronger focus on regional cooperation. The accession process is only the starting point of a much more complex process in which the Western Balkans will contribute to the yet continuing integration project between 28 and more EU Member States. European integration should lead to political, economic and social progress and should be expressed through the will of those in government to cooperate in advancing the EU’s political integration project, to share economic prosperity and solidarity with neighbouring countries and to speak together with one voice on the international scene.

These are important tasks for all those who are committed to European reforms, EU accession and continuing the European integration project. The integration of the Western Balkans into the EU can only be successful if the necessary reforms in the candidate countries bring political, economic and social progress. For the EU, enlargement policy can only remain a success story if we manage to address the same concerns of economic and social progress of today’s EU citizens. Therefore we need uncompromised commitment for accession-related reforms in the candidate countries and for an ambitious enlargement policy in the EU institutions and among the EU member states.

We are well aware that all this needs time. But sometimes all this time and the lengthy processes can diminish the citizens’ enthusiasm in the candidate countries. Therefore the EU, and especially the European Parliament, should come up with additional measures to clearly demonstrate to the citizens: We do want you in the EU and we do already support you today.