The Western Balkans Labor Market Trends 2019 report, published by the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies (wiiw) and the World Bank Group, described the improving labor market and overall GDP growth of the Western Balkans.

Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia reported the strongest job growth in the Western Balkans. Most jobs in this region, created within the past year, are in industry and services. On average, regional labor markets recorded improvements in activity rates and employment rates, which fall at 62.8 percent and 52.9 percent, respectively. While these statistics may fall far below European standards, they are an improvement for the Western Balkans. In the past, these countries have experienced high long-term unemployment rates with wages and labor costs remaining lower than in the European Union (EU).

The Western Balkans still have a long way to go in meeting the minimum requirements for EU accession (acquis communautaire). For example, the acquis communautaire set strict guidelines on economic and monetary policy.These include but are not limited to, the independence of the central bank, direct financing of the public sector and the ability to comply with the criteria established to adopt the euro after accession. However, we have seen in the past that the EU often overlooks economic shortcomings if the geographic area of a country serves a greater political purpose.

Based on the current state of political and economic affairs in the region and the EU, there are three main trending thoughts to consider when thinking about Western Balkan accession to the EU:

  1. Some member states are increasingly eager to accept Western Balkans because of their proximity to Europe and their potential to be influenced by Russia. Therefore, their accession may serve a political purpose, which will lead them to accession before they truly meet EU economic or judicial standards.
  2. The EU received backlash from member states and academia when accepting Romania and Bulgaria into the EU. Many argued that accepting these states into the EU before they were economically or judicially prepared because of political reasons was shortsighted. Since joining the EU, Romania and Bulgaria have made few improvements and have not been effective in fulfilling the acquis communautaire. Furthermore, much of the funds that Romania and Bulgaria receive from the EU cannot be properly audited. Therefore, some decision makers think the same mistake should not be made by allowing Western Balkan countries to begin the accession process before they meet the minimum accession standards.
  3. When Poland acceded to the EU, Poles became one of the most visible migrant workers throughout Europe, giving way to the “Polish plumber” stereotype. Once EU markets were available to Polish workers in 2004, they took advantage of more job opportunities and higher wages. Could this be the fate of many individuals living in the Balkans given EU accession? Member states may be unwilling to budge on allowing Western Balkan countries into the EU or bend the rules on free movement for a few years and not allow migrant workers from the Western Balkans to work in the EU without a visa, because of fears of economic migration.

The Western Balkans’ strategic geopolitical placement have left many in academia scratching their heads as to whether or not their economics will play a large role in their eventual accession process. Furthermore, the majority of the Western Balkan states have made it clear that they want to join the EU and are willing to make sweeping reforms. The future of Western Balkan accession is in the hands of the EU and may be influenced by factors well beyond the control of the Balkan countries. For example, the upcoming EU parliamentary elections adds another layer of uncertainty to the future of the Western Balkans’ accession. Will the new EU leadership uphold previous promises to the Western Balkans? Can the political climates in the Western Balkans sustain the reforms necessary to qualify for EU membership? And finally, will Russian influence continue to intensify within the region and how will other EU member states respond?

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