The war in Ukraine has underscored the heft as well as the limits of the EU. Putin decided to invade a neighboring country in order to prevent it from integrating, slowly but steadily, into the union’s institutions and market. What is at stake is the much-debated power of attraction of the EU. Ukrainian refugees are seeking safety in the member states west of their country’s borders. In response to the invasion, Kyiv has lodged a formal membership application and is expecting to hear back from the European Council during the council’s June 23–24 meetings about whether the country will be granted candidate status. The EU is furthermore flexing its geopolitical muscles: providing weapons to Ukraine and sanctioning Russia to bring up the costs of Russia’s aggression.
At the same time, the EU is underperforming on other fronts. It is having a hard time convincing countries aspiring to join the union to adhere to its sanctions. Serbia is a case in point. Though Belgrade supported the UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Putin’s invasion and even introduced several symbolic measures targeting Russia’s ally Belarus and the family of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, it has refused to discontinue flights by the national carrier, Air Serbia, to and from Moscow. As in 2014, the Serbian government is reluctant to implement trade and financial sanctions too. Cutting imports of Russian natural gas, a goal outlined by the European Commission, is not in the cards either, as Belgrade recently secured a new supply deal with Moscow. The situation is replicated in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Serb leader Milorad Dodik, currently a member of the state’s tripartite presidency, has effectively vetoed any punitive measures against Russia. While Brussels is showing its teeth to the Kremlin, EU enlargement is falling flat when it comes to motivating the Western Balkans to follow Brussels’s lead.
But there is more bad news too. Enlargement is supposed to anchor democracy and help entrench the rule of law in the EU. New member governments would implement reforms and be rewarded by the union. But the evidence that this is actually happening—or indeed that this has ever been the case, even at the peak of the EU’s influence in the 2000s—is scant. Hungary and Poland, two member states that joined in 2004, have been paragons of democratic backsliding: the progressive dismantlement of the rule of law, encroachment on media freedom, and harassment of civil society. In the Western Balkans, it is more appropriate to speak of democratic stagnation. Though the situation differs from country to country, international watchdogs that keep tabs on democracy record, in general, no major improvements or dramatic drops. The exception, of course, is Serbia, which was downgraded by Freedom House from “free” to “partly free” in 2019. EU accession negotiations, ongoing since 2014, do not appear to have affected the country’s domestic trajectory. The elections on April 3, 2022, saw President Aleksandar Vu?i? securing a new five-year presidential term, even though the opposition made gains in parliament and in the capital Belgrade. Still, Vu?i?’s dominance over the political system remains near-complete.
So what has prevented successful EU enlargement? The most obvious explanation for the impasse is the EU’s own lack of commitment to the Western Balkans. The region is firmly on the union’s agenda but has never been a top item. Between the eurozone crisis in the early and mid-2010s, the crisis in Ukraine in 2014–2015, the refugee wave in 2015–2016, the coronavirus pandemic, and the more recent Russian aggression in Ukraine, there is always another priority that relegates Europe’s so-called inner courtyard further down on the union’s to-do list. Furthermore, there are bilateral disputes involving member states and candidates, disputes that muddy the water even further. The quarrel between Bulgaria and North Macedonia about history and national identity is the most recent example, but there have been others in the past (for example, between Slovenia and Croatia and between Greece and North Macedonia). No doubt, such disputes will hijack enlargement policy in the future too. Moreover, in the Balkan corridors of power, there is a lot of lip service around enlargement, but there are few true believers. Joining the EU is and always has been an elite-driven process in these countries. Meanwhile, surveys indicate that public support for EU membership varies significantly across the region, with Albania and Kosovo usually scoring high and Serbia low. However, elsewhere in the Balkans, support for joining the EU is solid. The problem is that those pro-EU majorities do not generate sufficient electoral momentum to propel to power reformist leaders — or at least force incumbents to implement laws and policies narrowing the gap with the union.
On 9 May, known in the EU as Europe Day, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech where he rehashed proposals from the early 1990s for a European political community — that is, a Europe of concentric circles where the six Western Balkan countries are relegated to an outer circle together with Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and possibly the UK. Though the Balkans could eventually join the EU, in the short to medium term they would stay out. On the positive side, they could be eligible for some of the benefits of integration into the single market and access to the EU budget. On the negative, they would not enjoy the privileges of membership, including access to decision-making power. To be sure, Macron’s vision is not universally shared in the EU. However, it is symptomatic of the day and age we live in. To that end, in an Europe of concentric circles, the Western Balkan countries run the risk of being forever stuck in the waiting room.
It is not unreasonable to expect that the war in Ukraine will lead to an EU push in the Western Balkans. Faced with the Russian challenge, the union will take steps to consolidate its position and prevent disruption. The European Union Force (EUFOR), the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia, has been reinforced, as has the European Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX). Further, Serbia has been pushed to align with the EU’s sanctions on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. Starting accession talks with North Macedonia and Albania will be another logical step, but the current government in Bulgaria, an EU member state, would have to lift its veto on starting these talks. (Perhaps Bulgaria could be motivated in the interest of stability in Southeast Europe or through EU incentives like economic compensation to Bulgaria, commitments to let Bulgaria into the eurozone, or even constitutional amendments in North Macedonia as demanded by Sofia.) However, the EU opening membership negotiations is a largely symbolic step. It won’t translate automatically to improvements on the ground on issues like the economy, the rule of law, or good governance. The EU is facing tough questions in the region, and there are no quick fixes. Its best bet is to forge a common cause with the bottom-up democratic movements in the Balkans. Yet this alliance won’t materialize easily, and even if it did, it might not prove durable in the face of the formidable obstacles that EU policy has to reckon with.
Much depends on the EU’s own evolution. A continued democratic retrenchment would cement the Western Balkans’ position on the outside of the union. Bosnia and Kosovo, still potential candidates, would suffer the most. Denied visa-free travel and excluded from membership in international bodies such as the Council of Europe, Kosovo is at risk of instability. But Serbia too will remain in limbo and will not be in a position to gain EU membership so long as there is no settlement of the Kosovo dispute. By contrast, a geopolitically minded EU welcoming into its ranks one or several Western Balkan countries in the coming decade could bring long-awaited change in the region. To be sure, democracy, prosperity, and the rule of law won’t flow automatically from membership, and much will depend on domestic conditions and dynamics. But being integrated into the EU is a necessary condition to advance what the union itself considers its core mission: spreading its values and principles to countries and societies on its fringes in the interest of political stability and economic growth.
‘What Has Stopped EU Enlargement in the Western Balkans?’ — Article by Dimitar Bechev — Carnegie Europe.