One year ago, the European Union (EU) gave the green light to launch the accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia. The overdue decision injected some optimism not only about the future of the region, as an indisputable step towards fulfilling its EU aspirations but also heralded the fact that the union can take strategic decisions, even in the midst of a big pandemic crisis.
Fast-forward May 2021, there are still no dates set about the Intergovernmental Conferences, the framework that established guidelines and principles governing the accession negotiations with each candidate country, a step that would make the EU decision for Albania and North Macedonia a concrete fact. Both countries have gone through serious reforms in the past few years. After several slammed EU doors to the Western Balkans countries, timing matters.
One way of addressing this is to work on getting things started again. Rev up the engines of the EU, this time with the help of a supportive American administration, and get the process started again. After all, the EU accession process is the core of transatlantic policy toward the regions on the edge of the Union, including the Balkans. However, just because the process is tried and true, since the 1990s, does that mean it is still effective?
In the Western Balkans, a question: do the leaders of the aspirant states really want to follow this path? Given the mixed results of the last decade, are leaders in the region satisfied simply to stay in power (by democratic means or otherwise) and, yes, repeat the platitudes that they know they must in order to keep European leaders happy (and funding flowing)? May we ask the question if it is still worthwhile to work with them if they no longer believe in the process?
Perhaps another way of “getting things started again” is to expand the accession process, to seek to develop constituencies in the Balkans that will actually do something about corruption, or the influence of actors like Russia or China or Turkey, who will actually develop the domestic consensus that getting into the EU is less a prize than it is an acknowledgment of the achievement of European norms in areas of everyday life, from civic engagement to honest business to educational opportunity. After all, the Europeans have been hesitant because they don’t really want to have more countries join the EU that are not credibly open and democratic. Credibility: the Balkan countries as well as the EU need a jolt of it.
The Current Morass
Labeled as a “historic mistake”, the French-driven refusal in October 2019 urging a slower approach in the EU membership of the region, and suggesting a seven stage conditional process based on conditions to keep candidate states accountable about the rule-of-law standard to avoid any backsliding, has caused delays and rifts even among EU member states. To be clear, all arguments supporting Macron’s decision hold true, in the letter, but less in the spirit.
Albania and North Macedonia have been awarded the status of EU candidate country since 2014 and 2005, respectively. North Macedonia has been a candidate country for more than fifteen years, and accession talks have not started yet. Even worse, they could be delayed further as Bulgaria could effectively stop the start of the process, as it refused to approve the EU’s membership framework for North Macedonia in November 2020. Montenegro and Serbia are frontrunners in the EU integration process. They have opened accession talks in 2012 and 2014. Bosnia and Hercegovina is a potential candidate that submitted its application in February 2016 and signed the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) in June 2015. Similarly, for Kosovo, the SAA entered into force in April 2016, and not a candidate country yet.
For the Western Balkans, the visa-free regime with the Schengen area was introduced in 2010, with the exception of Kosovo. It was proposed by the EU Commission in July 2018 but is still pending approval of the EU Council. Denying Kosovo visa liberalization after it has achieved the prerequisite saps momentum for internal reforms and diminishes the motivation for the EU-led Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, thus retarding progress throughout the region.
To be clear, opening accession talks does not mean membership. In the best-case scenario, it took Croatia eight years from the opening of the accession talks in 2005 until it officially became an EU member in July 2013.
A Time of Change
As the West emerges from the pandemic, it’s worth noting that the situation is different than it was a decade ago and it is time to update certain methods.
This is not a static world. In a new area of great-power competition, new external players have amplified their engagement and illiberal influence in the Western Balkans through a higher economic and political visibility. While Euro-Atlantic milestones are relatively strong, they coexist with fresh involvement by other world powers and mixed trends in internal relations.
The EU integration process is additionally burdened with the EU uncertainties, a long-lasting “enlargement fatigue” that has further spilled over a “reform fatigue” in the Western Balkan, the global pandemic crisis, and the questionable dedication of some of the political elites within the region. Western inattention has created opportunities for China and Russia to make mischief in the Western Balkans
In recent years, Russia’s aggressive interference in the Western Balkans has increased with the aim to raise the costs of the region’s integration into NATO and the EU, acting as a spoiler and exploiting the internal political and economic vulnerabilities. China is peddling its dubious financial and economic deals and debt traps to gain economic and geopolitical control in the region.
The coronavirus pandemic has further opened new avenues for China and Russia to deploy masks and vaccine diplomacy in the region. The halting early EU reaction raised the demand for assistance from other sources. While all the countries of the region are using Chinese and Russian vaccines, with the exception of Kosovo, in Serbia, China was credited as the “only country that can help,” further discrediting the EU solidarity as a “fairy tale.” On the other side, the Russian propaganda has found to score advantages compared to the West, delivering messages of “abandonment by the West in the Balkans.” In short, the pandemic has only exacerbated the recent trends of illiberal influence in the Western Balkans. Economically, the pandemic toll with an average negative growth rate of almost 7 percent threatens to worsen living conditions, deepen economic and social inequalities, and exacerbate migration and brain drain.
The main goal of European integration is the long-term stability and security, economic progress and wellbeing of the citizens in the Western Balkans and EU countries. The EU needs to anchor the region into the Euro-Atlantic community in all domains, from security to economics and geopolitics. It needs to restore its credibility in the region and give hope to young people. Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, one of the stronger supporters of EU integration of the region has reiterated the need to keep Western commitments, warning that if the process slows down and “If we are not careful, we will lose the Western Balkans.”
The EU and its member states need to focus on a visionary and pragmatic calculation of benefits and costs, as a rational base for a revitalization of the enlargement process. Any further delays would have allowed for the decline of the natural power of attraction of the EU and the creation of competing visions for the future. In fact, we are already seeing it in the region As such, it was not a charitable decision, but in the vital self-interest of a geopolitical Europe.
The way to do this is to consider expanding the EU accession process beyond the traditional government-to-government basis on which it now rests. It may mean a less centralized process, but it should frankly get away from the kind of centralization that has led to chaos, stasis, or even authoritarian government in past years. It’s time to put together businesses and those institutions that support business, from stock exchanges to central banks, in touch with one another; it’s time to strengthen and formalize relations between universities and institutes; it’s time to put together councils of mayors and local leaders to address practical issues on the ground that face everyone, EU members and Balkan citizens alike. The point here is not to undercut national leaders, who are, after all, the people who will ultimately deal with their EU counterparts. The point rather is to make real what it means to become a member of the most illustrious, successful, and yes, civilized group of countries in the world.
The EU’s dedicated efforts in fostering good governance in the Western Balkans have fallen short of expectations, as some countries have lost ground across the board on improving the rule of law, ensuring media freedom, and democratic accountability. This, in turn, has created space for populist leaders who declaratively continue to promote the European idea without changing their usual political habits.