The European Stale Mate on the Balkan Question

This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
The European Stale Mate on the Balkan Question
Summit of Poznan Flags - Credit: European Western Balkans

The EU finds itself at a critical strategic juncture point about how to address the integration of Balkan countries. The date set for July accession talks for Albania and Northern Macedonia, upon acceptance of the Council on the Commission’s proposal, has already passed, and the EU has postponed them to October at best. However, the EU cannot snooze the alarm indefinitely, it must take a stance once and for all about its enlargement policy.

Over the last years the EU has made promises of launching talks regarding EU membership adherence of Western Balkan (WB) countries such as Albania and Northern Macedonia with Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia to follow in the future. On the EU’s side the impetus for accompanying the integration of remaining WB states has come from the German initiative known as the Berlin Process since 2014.

Berlin’s diplomatic maneuver, seconded by Italy as well, aims at fostering the process of regional cooperation through democratization, good economic governance, resilience of rule of law and a participatory civil society to create the conditions for allowing aspiring member states (MS) to comply with the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, Common Market regulations and the Copenhagen Criteria. The most recent manifestation of the Berlin Process has been held in the Polish city of Poznan on July 5th, where leaders of Visegrad, WBs and other EU member states invested in the project discussed the course of action to be taken in the foreseeable future.

The Summit’s outcome, however, has been demonstrably divisive. The French and Dutch partners (although the latter not part of the Berlin Process) have posed resistance to the accession of new members to the EU, while the Polish President Andrzej Duda has strongly criticized the EU for delaying the accession talks of Balkan countries whom are seen as having to participate in a race “where they cannot see the finish line”. Behind this apparent schism in vision underly certain important and mutually valid political and geopolitical considerations. Indeed, while it is true that enlargement presents opportunities it also comes with numerous difficulties.

The latter, more realist view, espoused primarily by Emmanuel Macron and his Dutch counterpart, believes that conditions are no longer ripe for accepting enlargement. The tide of optimism is waning as the cases of Hungary and Poland are exemplifying through their policies aimed at undermining their judicial institutions and democratic pillars. While countries like Slovenia have more fully embraced the path of EU integration other countries are actively confronting the EU without it having instruments capable of enforcing measures to sanction offensive behavior. 

Macron has called for the need of reforming the EU first before proceeding with enlargement. The perceived sensation currently being sent by the Visegrad block is that rather than being a solution to help with their internal problems, the EU has merely represented a way to secure their economic growth and restore their geopolitical sovereignty away from the Russian radar after the collapse of the Soviet Union. An error of calculation of this sort, in this view, cannot be repeated. In other words, the expansion of the EU in 2004 is something that still needs to be processed and digested.

The problem also hinges on the side of the requesting countries themselves, in that such aspiring member states are still lacking fundamental reforms, are too unstable and are fraught with corruption. Bosnia remains an internally fragmented state between the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina creating a dysfunctional executive. Serbia also has not settled many of its neighborly disputes (a key criteria for accession); while Kosovo, which beyond not being an officially recognized state by several EU MSs, is facing political instability after its Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj resigned from office as he is undergoing legal proceedings at the Hague over his responsibility in war crimes during the wars of 1995.

On this note, even the Austrian Commissioner Johannes Hahn following the German line said that Montenegro and Serbia, which have requested candidacy for EU accession, “are yet to act with greater determination and substantially increased efforts in crucial areas…the countries urgently need to implement reforms in the rule-of-law area more strongly and credibly…” Hahn said. Accepting these countries would simply be seen as detrimental to the EU’s governability by introducing veto players which, with the existence of the unanimity rule, would further restrict the action of the EU. In short, the risks of acceptance would outweigh the potential benefits.

On the other side of the spectrum, the decision not to pursue accession talks, especially to countries like Albania and North Macedonia simply would undermine the credibility of the EU overall and also not be in the larger geostrategic interest of the EU. These two countries in particular, which were promised prospects of starting negotiations, have in return undergone several large scale political and judicial reforms. The Republic of North Macedonia for instance struck a historical deal with Greece over a long-standing  name dispute regarding the state of Macedonia (hitherto named the Former Yougoslav Republic of Macedonia) and the  Greek region of Macedonia. This example of reconciliation has come at great political cost.

Regarding Albania, “no other country in the world has conceived a justice reform so deep,” Luigi Soreca, the EU ambassador to Albania, told the Financial Times. Leaving these countries hanging in a limbo and not providing political recognition for their efforts reflects badly on the EU’s capacity of holding its promises.

The EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini, which was present at the Poznan Conference warned that “failure to recognize and respond to objective progress would damage the European Union’s credibility” and could “undermine stability and seriously discourage further reforms.” What this also means is that an absent EU from the region at its doorstep will increase the chances for the strategic and economic penetration of countries such as Russia, Saudi Arabia, China in the WB region, which already are gaining momentum. Worse still, this may further foment eurosceptic and nationalist leaders which would veer these countries away from Brussels and even revive nationalist aspirations.

On whichever side of the debate one may sit, what these aspiring countries need above all else are guarantees, both economically and politically by providing conditions of stability and a sense of belonging to European values and democracy in order to avoid the horrors of the (not so distant) past. The path ahead to EU integration would also come through an alignment with NATO, of which Montenegro and Albania are already members and Northern Macedonia is soon to be. But above all, this must require the EU leaders to find a common understanding first, something easier said than done.

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