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The European Union and the Western Balkans: Enlargement or Further Drift?

John O’Brennan, Maynooth University


On Tuesday, 12 June, Greece and Macedonia announced a historic compromise in their decades-long dispute about the name of the latter state which will now be known as the Republic of North Macedonia. Although there are still hurdles to overcome, including getting the deal agreed in the Macedonian Parliament in Skopje and the prospect of referendums to ratify the deal, the breakthrough was welcomed throughout Europe and particularly in Brussels, where Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn and EU High Representative for Foreign Policy, Federica Mogherini congratulated Prime Ministers Alexis Tsipras of Greece and Zoran Zaev of Macedonia on an agreement “which contributes to the transformation of the entire region of South-East Europe”.


The joint statement by Hahn and Mogherini reflects hope more than confidence that the long-awaited agreement might help kick-start a moribund enlargement process and accelerate the integration of a region Brussels now calls the Western Balkans – Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia and Kosovo – with the European Union. The EU has an important stake in this bilateral dispute: if a reform-minded administration in Macedonia continues to be denied progress in the negotiations by Greek recalcitrance on the name issue, it throws into doubt any justification for Skopje initiating EU reforms in the first place. The Commission has recommended that the European Council upgrade both Macedonia and Albania to the status of “candidate states” at its meeting in June.

Last month in Sofia the European Council met to consider how to engage with and provide an enhanced EU accession perspective for the six states. The Sofia summit followed on from the publication of a series of reports this spring by the European Commission on the level of accession preparation of the Western Balkan states and the hurdles they must climb in order to become members. These are very considerable.


The results of the Sofia summit, however, were nothing short of disastrous for the Western Balkans. In the communiqué, the European Council simply said that it reaffirmed: “its unequivocal support for the European perspective” of the region.


The highly equivocal nature of the EU’s “unequivocal support” is demonstrated by comparing the language of the Sofia Declaration with that used by the EU in 2003, at the Thessaloniki Summit, where it said emphatically “the future of the Balkans is in the European Union”. How, within a space of fifteen years did we regress from the firm promise made by the EU at Thessaloniki to the vague notion of a “European Perspective” anchoring the Sofia Declaration?

In truth, the EU’s engagement with the Western Balkans over the past three decades has proved uneven and unsatisfactory. In 1991, as Yugoslavia descended into fratricidal ethno-nationalist conflict, the EU was hopelessly divided and failed to act on the dramatic claim made by Jacques Poos, the Luxembourg Foreign Minister, that “this is the hour of Europe”. In the decade that followed more than 100,000 people would lose their lives in Bosnia and Kosovo as EU leaders bickered over what to do about the sinister phenomenon of ‘ethnic cleansing’.


In 2014, I argued in the European Foreign Affairs Review that the enlargement process had been on “life support” for many years, “flat lining” along a trajectory of frozen negotiating chapters and mutual mistrust between inside and outside states, moving towards an increasingly uncertain destination. The relative neglect of the region is demonstrated by the fact that Federica Mogherini made her first visit to the Western Balkans only in March 2017, after nearly 30 months in office. The Sofia summit only confirmed these trends.





The EU’s hesitancy is mainly attributed to a protracted mood of so-called “enlargement fatigue” among the member states, the sense that, in taking in twelve new states between 2004 and 2007 (and one more in 2013), the EU had expanded too far and could not cope with any additional new entrants. It suggested that it would be difficult to persuade member states to consent to further accessions.


The Commission’s recent recommendations that EU relations with the Western Balkans be significantly upgraded was not welcomed by all member states. Germany, which was a key driver of the 2004 eastern enlargement, is distinctly uneasy about the prospect of further accessions. France worries about the addition of up to six new small states to the European Council, just at the moment it is hoping to take advantage of Brexit and decisively revive the Franco-German “engine” of European integration. President Macron put it starkly at the Sofia summit when he said “the EU must look with great prudence and rigour at any new enlargement”. Five EU states, including Spain, have thus far refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence and worry about the implications of Kosovan accession for their own secessionist-minded regions. Croatia temporarily blocked the opening of crucial accession chapters with Serbia in 2016.


This spectrum of positions, from hesitancy to outright obstruction, has had the effect of weakening the credibility of the enlargement process and reduced EU leverage over accession reforms which are difficult to implement in the Western Balkans.


Three issues in particular stand out. The first is the dramatic deterioration in governance and rule of law in the Western Balkans. A worrying pattern of authoritarianism has developed out of existing practices in the region, and, in particular, the systematic deployment of informal clientelist networks that seek to suborn government to private ends. These networks have succeeded in instrumentalising political actors to such an extent that organised crime and corruption has penetrated every aspect of public life in the Western Balkans, most strikingly on judicial independence and court decisions. The Western Balkans is also the key conduit for the trafficking into EU territory of arms, people and illicit drugs. In this sense it constitutes the “soft underbelly of Europe”.


The failure to build pluralist institutions is striking throughout the region. Polarisation between political parties has been deep and enduring. This has led to violent attacks against MPs in some chambers, the use of tear gas within parliaments, and regular boycotts of parliament by opposition parties in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro.


The recently published Nations in Transit report from Freedom House underlines the alarming retreat of pluralism in Central, Eastern and South Eastern Europe. It argues that “contempt for independent institutions and open discussion has become entrenched” as illiberalism has “become the new normal”. The fact that recent entrants to the EU such as Hungary and Poland have been able to engage in serious transgression of the Union’s norms from within the EU encourages Western Balkan elites to believe that they too can engage in “fake” compliance with EU demands and graduate to EU membership without disrupting established patterns of behaviour. Thus political actors across the region have for some years now taken a dualistic approach to the EU: politicians demonstrate rhetorical commitment to EU rule transfer but fail to adequately implement those rules and continue to govern through informal clientelist networks.


Many regional experts point out that the EU appears guilty of collusion with these elites: the need to preserve “stability” has frequently led Brussels to “look the other way” as these governance contradictions are exposed. The EU preference for “stabilitocracy” over meaningful reform in the Western Balkans cannot be sustained. The phenomenon of “strongman” regimes associated with “stabilotocracy”, from Milo Ðjukanović in Montenegro to Alexander Vučić in Serbia, all pursuing a dualist approach to European integration (the localised equivalent of Brexit-like ‘cakeism’), has got to be confronted if durable reforms facilitating convergence with EU rules are to be delivered. Clientelist patronage networks will have to be decisively broken up for rule of law reforms to succeed in Belgrade, Sarajevo and Tirana.


The second major challenge the Union faces in the Western Balkans is reconciliation. The EU has played an important role as a guarantor of peace agreements in both Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo and places significant emphasis on reconciliation – between ethnic communities and also between states. Brussels argues that regional cooperation is now a prerequisite for successful accession to the EU. Further, because the Union favours individual, merit-based accession perspectives (rather than a 2004-style ‘big bang’ enlargement when ten new countries joined at once), the onus will be on individual Western Balkan states to demonstrate their commitment to resolving inter-state and inter-communal disputes. Brussels is determined that no ongoing bilateral dispute will be imported into the Union in the future, thus the urgent need for Western Balkan states to work out their differences through intensive diplomacy and increased cross-border cooperation.


That is easier said than done however. The Kosovo-Serbia relationship remains fractious and, despite efforts by the EU to mediate, Serbia asserts it will never accept Kosovan independence. The murder of the ethnic Serb politician, Oliver Ivanović, earlier this year re-ignited tensions between Albanians and Serbs and pointed to what was at stake in the peace talks between Belgrade and Pristina. Bosnia’s Dayton “Settlement” (signed in 1995) seems as politically unworkable as ever and could come apart at any time: the Bosnian Serbs are unreconciled to Dayton, and continue to obstruct inter-communal institutions while agitating for a Greater Serbia and openly wooing Russia. The rights of ethnic minorities across the region are still the subject of considerable contestation and dispute.

The third big issue is geopolitics. Russia, Turkey and China are all present to different degrees in the Western Balkans, pursuing geopolitical agendas often directly at odds with the objectives of the EU enlargement process. The vacuum created by EU dis-engagement from the region over the last decade has allowed Russia and Turkey to deepen their reach and influence in myriad ways. Russia has launched anti-EU disinformation campaigns across the region and supported political allies and nationalist groups with revanchist ambitions. The alleged Russian support for a coup d’état in Montenegro in October 2016, designed to prevent Montenegro’s accession to NATO, constitutes an even more striking example of what is at stake in the Western Balkans. The coup envisaged an attack on the Montenegro parliament, the assassination of prime minister Milo Ðjukanović, and the installation of a pro-Russian government in Podgorica. President Macron has stated explicitly that he does not want the Balkans “to turn towards Turkey or Russia”. Yet, EU policy is doing little to counter the “geopolitical push” by its superpower rivals in the region.


The overall objective of EU policy towards the Western Balkans is to use the accession process to promote and police an accelerated “Europeanisation” strategy for the region, designed to help the six states located there to fully democratise, modernise, and pluralise societies that have drifted away from the European integration process over the last decade. But, over many years, EU “enlargement fatigue” has been mirrored in the Western Balkans by “evaluation fatigue” and “implementation fatigue”. In some Western Balkan states, arguably, the reform process has gone into full scale reverse. Thus, we seem stuck in a “Groundhog Day” style loop where the region is kept at arm’s length by an EU wary of committing too much to a new accession round.


The EU recognises, however, that the six Western Balkans partners are a part of Europe, geographically surrounded by EU member states and that these countries now have a historic window of opportunity to firmly and unequivocally bind their future to the European Union. The European Council should provide a clear roadmap for candidate states when it meets next at the end of June 2018. The risks attached to leaving the region drift away from the Union are simply too great to do otherwise.






John O’Brennan is Jean Monnet Professor of European Integration at Maynooth University and Director of the Maynooth Centre for European and Eurasian Studies. This article is based on a new policy paper published by the Institute for European and International Affairs (IIEA), Ireland.

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