As one prepares to leave, others are waiting to join: the European Union has recently spent much of its diplomatic firepower on navigating the United Kingdom’s messy divorce from it, largely neglecting the question of when the Union may actually start growing again. Where such an expansion would take place is easy to answer, however: in Europe’s southeastern corner, the Balkans peninsula. When, in 2004, the ‘A8’ (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania; alongside Malta and Cyprus) joined the Union, it was seen as an important step, extending the Union’s promise of upholding democracy, human rights and the rule of law to millions of people whose countries had recently thrown off the oppressive mantle of communist rule. And just like central and eastern Europe, the Balkans, too, suffered unfreedom in the Cold War era. But not only that: in the 1990s, Yugoslavia disintegrated in bloody wars driven by nationalism and ethnic hatred. Europe’s first genocide after the end of World War 2 was committed in Bosnia. The last of the Balkans wars, in Kosovo, ended with a Western military intervention and an international presence that eventually led to a still-contested declaration of independence.
What better place, then, to carry the flame of European solidarity, cross-border friendship and cultural exchanges to, than a region whose recent past has been defined by the worst excesses of narrow-minded nationalist politics? Where better to test the Union’s developing commitment to social progress, rather than mere economic cooperation, than in a region which needs perspectives? Or so one would think. But the enlargement process has stalled, and enthusiasm in European capitals for further expansions is ebbing. What happened?
Europe’s leaders first identified the Western Balkans countries as potential membership candidates in June 2000, at the European Council in Feira, Portugal. Three years later, this perspective was reaffirmed at a Thessaloniki summit and in 2006, the European Council proclaimed that “that the future of the Western Balkans lies in the European Union”. That was over twelve years ago.
Accession to the EU is not an easy process. The EU’s Treaties establish two preconditions for membership: candidate countries must be “European”, and they must be ready to respect and promote the Union members’ common values, that is “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”. The criteria by which potential newcomers are judged now include the stability of the institutions guaranteeing the rule of law, democracy and respect for human rights; the economy’s ability to cope with the competitive pressures of the internal market, and the candidate country’s ability to meet the obligations of membership and implement Union policies. Potential candidate countries proceed through various stages of cooperation with the Union, receiving technical assistance as they work towards the standards set by the EU. Once given official candidate status, a country must then take all the necessary steps to adopt the EU’s ‘acquis’ – the body of existing laws, rules, rights and obligations governing the bloc – separated into 35 chapters, from fisheries to fundamental rights. As of now, two countries are potential candidates for accession: Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. One Balkan nation, Croatia, joined in 2013. Five countries are officially recognized as candidate countries: Serbia, Turkey and Montenegro have started negotiations. North Macedonia and Albania are waiting to do so. North Macedonia, a candidate since 2005, went so far as changing its official name to end a long-standing dispute with EU-neighbour Greece so that it would not stand in the way of successful negotiations. Albania, too, has worked to comply with the EU’s requirements, including with wide-ranging reforms to the justice sector. Yet when the decision about opening talks with both countries was due in summer 2018, the EU governments postponed it by twelve months. This June, they again delayed their decision, leaving it for fall. Why has the process stalled?
The problems come from both sides. On the one hand, some recent developments in the Balkans are concerning. Albania, for example, has been in a deepening political crisis for months. Its Socialist Party Prime Minister Edi Rama vowed to take a German tabloid journalist to court whose paper had published wiretaps implicating Socialist party officials in vote-buying. The leader of the opposition party, which has been boycotting Parliament, is a person of interest to US prosecutors investigating suspicious donations to a Republican lobbyist. At the end of June, the nation seemed on the brink of chaos as the country’s President clashed with Edi Rama and his Socialist MPs over the date of local elections which were set for that month and which he wanted to postpone (in the event, the original date was backed by most of the international community and the vote happened peacefully, if with low participation). Across the Balkans accession candidates, issues like organized crime, political corruption, weak institutions and minority rights persist at varying degrees of severity. Turkey’s accession is now a distant fantasy thanks to the Erdogan government’s authoritarian tendencies.
Meanwhile, inside the club, all is not well – and that influences how EU leaders view enlargement. As the third anniversary of the UK’s referendum on membership passes by, the diplomatic headaches it has caused are still ongoing. The EU must grapple with climate change and migration, but these issues divide the member-states. Populist forces are a threat to the entire European project. In some of the most recent additions to the bloc – Hungary and Poland, for example – the rule of law is under siege. This last problem can take very different shapes, depending on the perspective from which it is looked at. In the candidate countries, it could well look like an instance of double standards: their judicial systems are probed and judged as not yet up to standard, while governments whose countries have been in the Union for years calmly dismantle democratic structures and principles while the EU (at least until recently) stands by doing little. For Western European governments, meanwhile, the Polish and Hungarian cases could be perceived as cautionary tales of the ugly surprises that await after the initial enthusiasm over enlarging the bloc.
Some of the reluctance, thus, is understandable. But there are also real perils to keeping millions of Albanians, Macedonians, or Bosnians in the waiting area forever. Perils that the Union risks overlooking as its attention is held hostage by other trouble spots. Integration into the European project has so far been a key ambition for both the people and the governments of the Western Balkans, providing the necessary impetus for wide-ranging reforms. But years of delays and stalling are leading to increased exasperation in the region, while in the EU, domestic politics has polluted the debate (a good example: the hyperbolic fear-mongering about ‘imminent’ Turkish accession in the run-up to the Brexit vote 2016). In the 2019 Balkans Barometer, one-fifth of respondents from the six Balkans nations said they believed their country would never join the EU (another 28% said they believed accession would happen by 2025). So the hopefuls still outnumber the pessimists. But the EU’s actions have consequences: support in Kosovo for EU membership dropped from 84% in 2017 to 69% in this year’s survey, as the EU’s governments fudged a promised lifting of visa requirements.
And where the EU leaves a vacuum, others are ready to step in: Russia, Turkey and China all have identified the Western Balkans as a region of geopolitical interest. In April, in Dubrovnik, China held the eighth summit of its project for cooperation with seventeen middle and Eastern European countries – 12 EU members, 5 Balkans accession candidates. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to win favor with Bosnia’s Muslim community. And while the West is eager to get Serbia and Kosovo to end their battle over the status of Kosovo, Russia appeals to the reactionary and nationalist elements in Serbian society, threatening to undermine any conciliatory approaches. Europe remains the region’s most important trading partner. But its global competitors are gaining ground. China provides loans which may at first sight seem more appealing than EU funds which come with tight strings attached. The price of such easy money will only materialize in the long term, making it convenient to ignore for now.
The Western Balkans may not seem like the EU’s most urgent issue at the moment – but if the Union does not offer a realistic perspective for the region, the Balkans may well turn elsewhere. For now, there is still enthusiasm about Europe – but with each delayed decision, each broken or forgotten promise, it fades a little more, and the region inches closer to becoming an object of geopolitical chess games. There is much good that the European project could do in this corner of the continent. It would be a shame if the bloc’s leaders gamble it away.