Are the Balkans a step too far for the EU?

29 May 2018

Further European Union (EU) enlargement conjures up significant deliberation. The EU is divided more so than ever – not only politically, but also socio-economically and culturally. Hence, could Western Balkan enlargement be too much to digest for the EU? Marred by crises, i.e. the Eurozone Crisis of 2009, and the more recent European Migrant Crisis of 2015, the ‘ever closer union’ that the EU once intended to be now appears far-fetched. What’s more, increasing divergence among Member States has only been accelerated by previous EU enlargements: the 2004 enlargement saw an array of new states (ten) join the EU, of which many were ‘post-communist’; the 2007 enlargement granted Bulgaria and Romania EU accession, arguably exacerbating the inequalities between the now ever-diverse EU Member States; and the most recent, the 2013 enlargement, saw Croatia become the latest EU member. Yet, could Western Balkan enlargement become a reality?


It could well do. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, launched, in 2017, an ambitious target for the Western Balkans to comply to the EU accession criteria by the year 2025. In February 2018, the EC ploughed on with the Western Balkan case, launching a strategy that included “six flagship initiatives”, delineating domains for EU-Western Balkan cooperation – principally in relation to migration issues, security measures, and the rule of law.


However, the EU enlargement process, this time around, appears extremely thorough, with an added of air of caution being wavered, due to the complexity of the Western Balkans and their conflict-ridden history. These states, nonetheless, have been ‘potential EU members’ ever since the Thessaloniki European Council Summit in 2003 – 15 years of being in the pipeline. Although, that is also 15 years in which they have failed to progress; 15 years in which they have failed to converge to the EU’s treaties; and 15 years in which democracy has still not been established in the region. The Western Balkans must meet both democratic and economic criteria prior to EU accession. They must also successfully conform to the Stabilisation and Association Process, the Copenhagen criteria, as well as pledging to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, to peter out any unlawful issues, such as corruption.


If the Western Balkans were to join, the region could act as a fundamental geostrategic hub, enhancing cooperation between the EU and the new member states. Surmounting stumbling blocks such as the issue of migration – that beforehand proved extremely challenging – could now be facilitated thanks to the implementation of binding EU rules. Additionally, Western Balkan enlargement would allow the EU to gain leverage over Russia – currently a strong ally of the Western Balkans – ultimately forcing Vladimir Putin to relinquish his quest of dissuading Serbia from joining the EU, but also NATO. In turn, Moscow could be left even more isolated on the international diplomatic scene.


Western Balkan enlargement could also bring significant EU investment to the region, ironing out political instability, and forcing the likes of Turkey and other Islamic states to retreat in the surrounding geographical sphere. But, could the EU’s influence in the Western Balkans trigger backlash from previous potential candidates, such as Ukraine and Turkey? If tensions were to arise with such countries, the EU could be in a worse situation had it chosen not to pursue further enlargement. Anyhow, granting accession to the Western Balkans would undoubtedly revive the EU’s international image as a strong global actor, ultimately establishing its savoir-faire and political prowess, whilst simultaneously rescinding Russian and the USA’s influences.


Having said this, does the EU really need further enlargement? The Brexit vote in 2016, coupled with the upsurge in populism in many EU countries (France, Greece and Italy, to name a few), signifies that the EU is indeed deteriorating. Adding more ‘weak’ states to the frame will only exacerbate disparities within the union. Those that voted for Brexit wanted to ‘regain control of the UK’s borders’, as concern was voiced over the influence of migration upon national sovereignty – with similar concerns rife in Poland and Hungary. Therefore, would it not be wise for the EU to focus solely on consolidating the remaining 27 Member States, rather than risk seeing the continued rise of nationalism and further episodes like that of Brexit?


Serious concerns remain. The Western Balkans face an uphill battle, economically, to compete with the EU’s heavyweights; their individual, precious national sovereignty would be under Brussels’ rule, despite only recently gained independence from the former ‘Yugoslavia’; and finally, further political polarisation within the EU could arguably emerge. In turn, these factors have the potential to weave a more profound division between the ‘developed west’ and ‘third-world’ eastern Europe.


Consequently, enlargement fatigue appears a sad reality. The hugely dysfunctional, conflict-ridden, and shattered democratic nature of the Western Balkans, has meant that the EU has an enormous amount of work to do if it is to expand its wings. Out of the six Western Balkan states, Serbia, who has a 2025 target attached to it, appears to be the most advanced en route to EU accession – agreeing on “10 out of the 35 chapters of the acquis communautaire”.


Serbia considers its potential future affiliation with NATO and the EU as a platform to renovate its current debauched institutional system. First, its institutional and judicial framework requires a complete overhaul. Secondly, there is also the ‘simple’ necessity to eradicate corruption within the country. Finally, Serbia must alter its stance towards Kosovo, and officially acknowledge the latter’s independence since 2008 – something which it fails to do, and could prove to be a huge hindrance in its road to EU accession. At present, Serbia still has a lot of work to do, and is far from converging to EU’s values, not forgetting its tarnished image stemming from its undemocratic institutions and widespread corruption.


A mammoth predicament thus faces the EU. Could Western Balkan enlargement unleash a storm that is already brewing following Brexit? On one hand, such enlargement could create stability in the region that has long been overdue, and repel interfering actors such as Russia. Yet, on the other hand, it is no coincidence that the notion of enlargement fatigue is recurring. Could further weak, undemocratic laggards lead to prolonged fragmentation within the EU?

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