In the last decade, Europe has had to endure recessions, a migration crisis, and the ongoing effects of the global pandemic. Under increased strain, and on top of long-standing demographic issues, the European Union is now reconsidering its enlargement process. The bloc’s recent experiences, combined with more than a decade of growing uncertainty, seem to have convinced European policymakers not to expand the bloc to the Western Balkans. This is becoming increasingly evident in the official EU narrative. The issue, which has always been a controversial topic among established members, has become more focused on identities. The public has soured on the idea of the EU growing larger, and the mood on the Balkans, in particular, has not looked well for a while. Worse, it’s showing no signs of improvement.
In 2019, French president Emmanuel Macron remarked that “the EU made a collective mistake declaring the EU membership as our only relationship with the Western Balkans.” Shortly thereafter, at France’s initiative, the EU came up with a revised enlargement methodology for countries seeking to join the bloc. This revised methodology allows accession candidates to derive the financial benefits of EU membership in specific areas upon completion of related chapters. However, should candidates’ progress plateau at any point, so would the prerogatives and stimuli that came with it. Perhaps most crucially, the new system entails the possibility that if critical reforms are not undertaken, then candidates will never progress past a key threshold, thus never becoming full EU members.
Balkan countries stuck in this limbo of a perpetual process would become part of what could be considered the EU’s newfound strategic vision: instead of members, a group of EU associate states.
Associates Instead of Members
What does being an associate state entail? To paraphrase Winston Churchill, who spoke similarly about the UK’s relationship with Europe: these states are “with Europe, but not of it.” In other words, they would reap the fundamental advantages of being in the bloc, but lack access to a larger portion of benefits enjoyed by its “more senior members”—protected sidekicks that enjoy some degree of respect, but for whom the riches of the main protagonists would always remain slightly out of reach.
Not all is bleak for associate states. Far from it. Associate states could still enjoy a modicum of stability that comes with an attachment to the bloc. Outside the realm of the EU’s freedom of movement, future Balkan associate states could gain valuable time to slow—although definitely not halt—their steep demographic decline, enabling them to forge, adopt, and implement new policies in response to these worrying trends. Likewise, associate states would not be restricted to pursue economic success and would benefit from greater capital mobility, medium-sized investment, and even sizable, growth-driving infrastructure projects.
In the security realm, the risk of hostilities escalating with any internal or external belligerent would be reduced significantly. In regard to the latter, states concerned about Russian influence in the region would be relieved, as these new EU affiliates would be entirely encompassed by NATO. For actors whose experience with Moscow has been comparatively more pleasant, like Serbia and Republika Srpska in Bosnia, this could spell the end of the longstanding tradition of being labeled as the region’s main “troublemakers” by the United States and its allies. As for internal hostilities, mutual association with NATO would severely reduce the risk of conflict. For example, the governments in Belgrade and Priština would likely be compelled to settle the ongoing dispute surrounding Kosovo—whatever that solution may look like. While none of this might render armed conflict in the region impossible, such prospects would become overwhelmingly unlikely.
On the broader geopolitical front, association with the West would remove any remaining doubts about these states’ ability to balance the world’s current great powers. Yet simultaneously, individual states’ economic strategy could differ markedly. After all, since associate states would not participate in the EU as full members, they would enjoy more leeway in foreign trade and investment. With nothing to tie them to the EU’s common market policies toward third actors, associate states could exploit this lack of binding regulation to maintain a degree of economic independence. This may include everything from individual profit-oriented deals to forging partnerships and trade agreements with non-EU states.
At the moment, Serbia is the only EU candidate in the Balkans that takes full advantage of this position. While it “waits” for EU membership, Belgrade has signed strategic partnership agreements not just with established EU members like France, Italy, and Hungary, but also major non-EU states such as China, Russia, the UAE, and Azerbaijan. In addition to deepening cooperation with these countries on education, science, technology, and a host of other issues, Serbia has expanded its free trade agreements way beyond the bloc that it aspires to join. Now able to access a combined market of more than one billion people, Serbia will certainly try to preserve this competitive edge in attracting investment. As long as Balkan states are not seriously being considered as potential members, there are no grounds to call these sorts of engagements “foul play.”
The Limitations of Associate Status
There is nonetheless a limit to how such measures can benefit associate states. An unaddressed yearning for greater economic opportunity inevitably invites investment of non-EU origins. With contemporary geopolitics being what it is, not all such investments would remain purely commercial. In addition to pursuing favorable financial opportunities, foreign actors could take advantage of the situation to project cultural and geopolitical influence within the Balkans. This would likely impede the ability of associate states to “fly under the radar” of their patrons in the EU. Once they realize the risks of foreign intrusion, EU leaders could move to curtail such engagements, and do so with an abundance of means at their disposal.
Associate states would predictably struggle with limited sovereignty. Such countries could be expected to forfeit their own commercial and other interests in favor of the bloc’s existing priorities. In reality, this may result in infrastructure projects that do not correspond with the host country’s needs, trade arrangements that reduce existing potential, procurement requests in the defense industry that go unanswered, etc. But should the interests of the bloc and its associates start to collide, the latter would sorely lack an alternative due to its firm commitments to the former.
One such example is North Macedonia. Since its change of government in 2017, the country has embarked upon a clear Euro-Atlantic path. In a bid to accelerate the process, it undertook a series of decisive anti-corruption reforms. Further, it resolved a longstanding name dispute with Greece, which it confirmed in a hastily organized and constitutionally questionable 2018 referendum. Nevertheless, the process was wholeheartedly supported by the West, while Skopje continued to blame the ensuing protests and dissent on “Russian meddling.” To top it all off, the country eventually attained NATO membership. For a moment, it seemed like North Macedonia was on the verge of obtaining what it truly desired: full membership in the EU. But then came the kick in the gut: Brussels refused to provide the country with an accession negotiation start date—something Macedonians had been waiting for since 2005. Due to international outcry and a heightened risk of losing credibility, the EU eventually gave a “green light” to start the talks. Soon enough, however, EU member Bulgaria raised a long-forsaken linguistic issue, disputing the existence of a “Macedonian language”—effectively pushing Skopje’s aspirations back to square one.
North Macedonia undertook a huge effort to end up with nothing. The country’s pro-democracy leaders staked their reputations on this effort, and with this failure now plainly evident, the country is at risk of democratic backsliding. Firmly committed to the EU and NATO, and having angered non-EU partners in the process, North Macedonia has very few cards left to play. All this demonstrates how things can quickly go badly for associate states.
The EU itself though has mostly given up on trying to remodel the Balkans after itself. Liberal-democratic EU might still care about stability within the Balkans, along with its economic linkages with the region, yet it’s willing to tolerate profoundly autocratic practices in the region in exchange for workable solutions.
In Montenegro, another EU candidate, Brussels has put up with the long reign of Milo Djukanović—whose links to organized crime, along with an array of corrupt practices, have become general knowledge in the region. Montenegro’s dictator helped secure some wins for the West on the security front by separating his country from the union with Serbia, a perceived Russian ally. More recently, he led the country to join NATO in 2017 while claiming a Russian attempt at interference. Though Djukanović has begun to lose his grip on power, with his party having lost the 2020 parliamentary election, he remains the country’s president—a position he is desperately trying to hold on to.
To Montenegro’s northeast, the EU has been turning a blind eye to the increasing brutality of Aleksandar Vučić’s regime, which continues to erode the fabric of Serbian society. In the roles of prime minister and later president of Serbia, Vučić has all but eliminated civil liberties, drastically narrowed the space for his political opponents in the media, and resorted to various forms of defamation and intimidation of his own citizens. His regime’s dealings with the criminal underworld are so rampant that the U.S. Department of the Treasury has sanctioned individuals in his inner circle while threatening to expand the list if this continues on. Relentless as he may be on the domestic front, Vučić is disproportionately timid and servile in his foreign policy pursuits. This, in turn, has made him an advantageous partner in the Balkans, especially relative to other domestic actors unwilling to offer as many favors to the detriment of Serbia’s own interests. Vučić’s approach has thus far paid off, and under the existing circumstances, Serbia cannot yet produce a meaningful challenge to his rule.