On 25 March, 2021, the Institute for Foreign Affairs (IFAT) and Trade and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) held their annual Western Balkans Conference entitled “Membership or selective integration? Realities of the EU–Western Balkans relations”. Although the pandemic did not allow us to have an in-person event, it was nevertheless important to continue expert-level discussions about the Western Balkans. The recent developments in EU–Western Balkans relations–including the Council’s support for the new enlargement methodology–and the influence of external powers were at the centre of the two-panel conference.

The conference was opened by Márton Ugrósdy, Director of IFAT and Michael Winzer, Resident Representative of KAS in Hungary. The first panel discussion entitled “EU membership or selective integration for the Western Balkans?” focused on the realities and the future of enlargement policy. Participants included Doris Pack, President of the Robert Schuman Institute; Madeleine Courant from the Center for Analysis, Planning and Strategy at the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs of France; Thomas Hagleitner, Head of Unit in the Western Balkans Directorate of the Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR) at the European Commission; and Wouter Zweers, Research fellow of the Clingendael Institute. Moderated by Ferenc Németh, Research fellow of IFAT, panellists agreed that this year is unlikely to bring major breakthroughs in the EU integration process as the post-pandemic recovery of Europe would certainly overshadow the enlargement policy. It is thus necessary to address the socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic not just in the EU but in the Western Balkan region too. Questions arising from the change in leaderships in the USA and Germany were also discussed.

The second panel discussion entitled “What can be expected from the external actors in the Western Balkans in the near future?” focused on the great power competition in the region in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Panellists included Maja Piščević, Nonresident Senior fellow of the Atlantic Council; Lucas M. Schubert, Research Associate at the University of the German Armed Forces (Munich), Vesko Garčević, Professor of the Practice of International Relations at the Boston University; and Dušan Reljić, Head of Brussels Office of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Moderated by Anna Orosz, Research fellow of IFAT, panellists argued that great power competition in the shadow of the pandemic might be on the rise in the Western Balkans. As the region might need significant external resources to be able to get back to growth path, this could easily increase external actors’ rivalry, including the USA, Russia, Turkey and China. The role of the EU in mitigating malign influence in the region and China’s changing role in the Western Balkans were also elaborated on.

The conference was followed by three high-level speeches in a form of video messages. Olivér Várhelyi, Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement expressed the commitment of the European Commission to the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Western Balkans. Discussing the post-pandemic economic recovery, the Commissioner stated that the EU offers the best possible conditions for major investments in the Western Balkans through the Economic and Investment Plan. Péter Szijjártó, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary, also reaffirmed Hungary’s commitment to supporting the EU integration of the Western Balkans as well as the region’s stability. „The acceleration of the enlargement procedures towards the Western Balkans is a low hanging fruit as there is a huge willingness from the side of the Western Balkan countries to join the European Union”, the Minister highlighted. Dr. Johann Wadephul, Vice Chairman of the parliamentary group of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the German Bundestag and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee highlighted the German position towards enlargement. Mr. Wadephul explained that keeping the enlargement process realistic is essential from the side of the EU, while candidate countries must fulfil the necessary conditions to be able to advance on their integration path.