Six countries in the Western Balkans are working hard to become members of the EU. At the end of May, these countries participated at ministerial level in a seminar in Stockholm attended by Minister for Foreign Affairs Margot Wallström. The situation in the region and the countries’ integration with the EU were discussed at the seminar. Johanna Strömquist, MFA head of group for south-eastern Europe and EU enlargement, explains the processes at the moment.

What is the significance of these countries’ integration with the EU for Sweden in general, and for Sweden’s role in the EU?

Their integration with the EU is of great significance, not just for Sweden but for the entire EU. Geographically, the Western Balkans are surrounded by the EU. This means that the situation in the Western Balkans affects the EU, in both positive and negative ways. If their economies do well and they are stable democracies, it will create trade and prosperity for us as well. If they are afflicted by instability, low economic growth or increased organised crime, it will spill over to the EU. We have also seen how these countries’ capacity to handle migration flows affected the EU.

Because of the close ties between us, the Western Balkans also have a particular significance for Sweden. For this reason, there is strong engagement in the region in Swedish society and across party lines.

More than 200 000 people with origins in the region live in Sweden. Overall they have done well, and they are represented in all walks of life. There are, for example, a number of politicians, journalists and diplomats in Sweden whose origins are in the Western Balkans, and then of course we have Zlatan.

Sweden is one of the largest donors of aid for the region’s integration with the EU. Over many years, starting in the 1990s, Sweden also contributed more than 20 000 soldiers to peacekeeping operations in the Western Balkans.

What do you think the enlargement will mean for the EU?

The ultimate aim of these countries’ gradual EU integration through reforms is full membership of the EU. When the current EU Member States decide that the Western Balkan countries meet the predetermined criteria – the Copenhagen criteria – they will be accepted into the Union. Only then will the membership be enlarged. The process is a long and arduous one, but it will strengthen the countries in democratic, economic and institutional terms, and will stabilise the region and strengthen the EU.

How will the Brexit negotiations affect their integration with the EU?

There is some concern among the Western Balkan countries that the EU will be focusing more on Brexit than their integration in the next few years, but the processes themselves will not be affected. At a summit in Thessaloniki in 2003, the EU affirmed that the Western Balkan countries were potential EU candidate countries. This remains the case.

How far have these countries come in the EU integration process?

The countries are at different stages, and it is currently impossible to say how long it will take before they become members. But all of them have made progress in terms of reforms, with EU prospects as the crucial driver. Serbia and Montenegro have come the furthest. They are candidate countries, in the process of negotiating EU membership. Albania and Macedonia have candidate country status, and when the European Commission deems, based on established criteria, that they are ready the Member States can decide to open negotiations.  Bosnia is in the process of responding to some one thousand questions to enable the Commission to assess whether they are ready to become a candidate country and start negotiations. When this is deemed to be the case, the Member States can take a decision. Kosovo’s integration process is progressing slowly, in part because the question of its status has not been resolved. The EU is attempting to promote a resolution by including a normalisation dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo as part of the integration process.

The European Commission is the driver of EU integration. With the principles of conditionality and progress on their own merits as a starting point, the Commission helps countries to implement the often difficult and cumbersome reforms that are required to move ahead in the process. The countries themselves cannot see their future anywhere other than in the EU, and they are working hard to make that a reality.

What are the challenges?

There are many challenges. For one thing, these countries need to strengthen cooperation between them. Regional cooperation is the whole idea behind the EU, and the countries in that region therefore need to strengthen their own cooperation as part of their preparations to become members. In addition, many of these countries have problems related to the rule of law, particularly the fight against organised crime and corruption. They have socioeconomic issues and weak institutional capacities, and problems with freedom of expression and of the media. In many of them there are also tensions between groups in the population and political parties. But they also have huge potential, not least in their young people.