How can the EU’s geopolitical ambitions help to consolidate the Western Balkan democracies?
The COVID-19 pandemic has an adverse impact on the ambition of the new European Commission to make the EU geopolitically more relevant actor. But, it is not the only challenge: the constant dissonance of its member states on a number of issues, as well as the willingness of many national leaders to sacrifice EU core values in order to score domestic points also account for EU’s weaknesses. One policy where this is both very visible and harmful to EU’s image and ambition is enlargement. While it used to be one of EU’s biggest achievements after the Cold War, when ten Central and Eastern European countries embarked on their way to join the West by joining the EU in 2004 and 2007, in the past decade enlargement policy has been facing an unprecedented crisis.
Enlargement policy – litmus test for the EU’s ambition to become a stronger geopolitical actor
The main challenge to enlargement is populism and anti-enlargement sentiment across a number of member states, brought about by the European economic, financial and sovereign debt crisis (2009-2012), amplified with the migration crisis (2015-2016) and confirmed by Brexit. Understandably, in the past decade the EU had simply too much on its plate to consider enlargement an issue of paramount importance and decided to focus on sorting out internal issues first.
However, the lack of imminent membership perspective for the remaining European countries which aspire to become EU members in foreseeable future could undermine EU’s ability to consolidate and democratize its own sphere of influence, hence affecting its credibility to be influential in more remote parts of the world. This is most visible in the case of the six Western Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. Four of them received the promise to join the EU back in 1999 with the launch of the Stabilization and Association Process. The remaining two, Kosovo and Montenegro, were not independent states at the time but were included in the process in 2010. Montenegro even managed to become the first among them to open accession talks in 2012, but despite having opened all the accession chapters, is still unlikely to join the EU any time soon.
The prospects of the other Western Balkans countries are even bleaker. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo have not been granted the official status of candidate countries yet. Serbia, formally negotiating since 2014, has opened eighteen and provisionally closed two chapters, but its progress is conditioned with the resolution of the Kosovo issue. Albania received green light to start accession talks in March this year, provided that it fulfills a number of conditions related to rule of law, electoral reform, fight against organized crime and corruption.
Bilateral disputes – key obstacle to further enlargement
The most interesting case by far is North Macedonia. While it used to be a front-runner in the EU accession process, on par with Croatia until 2008, it spent the next ten years in a complete standstill because of the dispute with Greece over the name Macedonia. Since enlargement policy is subject to unanimity vote in the EU’s Council of Ministers, Greece was blocking North Macedonia’s opening of accession talks until the two countries reached the Prespa Agreement in 2018. However, even after the agreement was reached and ratified by both countries amidst national tensions and opposition, it took the EU almost two years for its national leaders to agree that the country meets all the official criteria and deserves to move an inch forward in the accession process.
Notwithstanding the opening of the accession talks which is expected to happen by the end of 2020, the actual accession of North Macedonia to the EU is not likely to happen in near future unless the EU unites around its core values and strategic priorities. The precedent created by the Greek de-facto veto has proven to be a good recipe for national leaders to score domestic points by asking for the candidate countries to deliver on irrational demands which have never been a part of the accession conditions. The most recent case is the one of Bulgaria who threatened to veto North Macedonia unless the later agrees to fulfill a list of twenty demands, including the acceptance that its official language is not Macedonian but a dialect of Bulgarian and that the official version of history is the one taught in Bulgarian schools. Greece has also demands towards Albania regarding the protection of the Greek minority, while recurrent tensions between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina or Serbia keep the demons of the Balkan wars afloat and may inspire Croatia to block these countries as well.
How can the EU consolidate the fragile democracies in its courtyard?
The EU does not seem to have any means at its disposal to prevent this and accelerate the process of convergence and accession of the Western Balkans. And what is worse, these countries do not have another option to finally end the transition to liberal democracies and market economies without the EU. Any hope for them to progress toward development and prosperity is related to progress toward EU membership. This is visible from the last Nations in Transit report which deplores the fact that most of the Western Balkan countries have been backsliding and remain in the category of transitional/hybrid regimes. Arguably, being inside the EU is not a guarantee for a country not to go astray from the trajectory of democratic development, as can be seen from the examples of Hungary and Poland put forward in the same report. But, remaining outside the EU is certainly a guarantee that the Western Balkans will continue to be the most vulnerable part of Europe to malign foreign influence and to be governed by political elites prone to authoritarian tendencies. In turn, if the EU cannot ensure that its core values – democracy, rule of law, human rights and free market economy are respected in Europe, it may undermine its image of soft power and aspiration to spread these values across the world.
Photo by Lāsma Artmane on Unsplash