The situation in the Western Balkans has been on a perilous trajectory for more than a decade, a point acknowledged on both sides of the Atlantic. President Donald J. Trump’s actions since assuming office have accelerated existing negative trends in the region – an increase in autocratic behavior and abuse of power by self-dealing regional leaders, and more assertive engagement of illiberal and undemocratic powers such as Russia, Turkey, the Gulf states, and China. The avowed goal of a majority of citizens of the Western Balkan countries – to become “normal countries” and join the EU (and, except for Serbia, also NATO) – looks less attainable now than any time since the prospect was formalized 14 years ago.
Trump has broken with almost seven decades of unwavering US commitment to Europe’s defense – to ensure a “Europe whole, free, and at peace” – by refusing to commit to NATO’s Article 5 – that an attack on one is an attack on all. The unreliability of that backstop will increase tensions and amplify the potential for continued escalation and dangerous miscalculation by Western Balkan actors. Doubt has crept into the transatlantic relationship from multiple directions, not least from the still murky, but highly disturbing, Trump-Russia relationship.
American officials and legislators – especially those Republicans willing to put the interests of country before party – must demonstrate steadfastness in the face of destructive and erratic ambiguity at the top. But EU leaders cannot afford to leave Europe’s interests and the future of the Western Balkans to chance. The EU has the potential leverage and the capability to reverse the negative dynamic in the Western Balkans, both for its own benefit and for that of the peoples of the region. But to do so, it must acknowledge the vacuum its policies have enabled – and act decisively to fill it. If ever there was a real “hour of Europe,” it is now.
In this context, DPC recommends the following (each detailed further in the report):