Letter from Serbia
Today, 15 years after Western Balkan countries were offered a “European perspective” at the 2003 Thessaloniki Summit, only one of them (Croatia) has acceded to the EU. The remaining six countries are still in the queue, with diverging membership prospects. In 2018, the European Commission as well as its member states reiterated a “credible” European perspective for the region, but no membership outcome is yet in sight. The protracted EU accession process risks disincentivising the Balkan people and elites from supporting reforms aligned with the increasingly rigorous membership conditionalities. Yet, incorporating the rest of the Balkans into the EU economic and political space is both a necessity and beneficial for the EU and the region alike, for numerous geostrategic, political, economic and security reasons.
The situation on the ground calls for a hard think about ways to integrate the Balkans, despite numerous challenges and doubts among many European leaders as well as citizens. What may be needed is a thorough rethinking of the EU’s approach to enlargement.
The Balkans in the EU benefits all
As put by the European Commission in its recent strategy, the Western Balkans “are part of Europe, geographically surrounded by EU member states”. We have a common heritage and history, and a future defined by shared opportunities and challenges. Moreover, without the entire Balkan region, the EU remains an unfinished peace project, with enduring risks to its stability and security. In relation to stability, we need to recognise that despite efforts to improve regional relations, sparks of tension still emerge between the Balkan countries. Considering the crucial role that the European integration process has played in peace and collaboration between the once war-torn European societies, we dare argue that the Balkans need to be inside the Union to finally cement peace on the continent. With regard to security, fully integrating the Balkan countries into the EU’s justice and home affairs policies would significantly help in the fight against organised crime and terrorism across country borders.
Perhaps a more controversial argument for the region’s integration is the increasing presence and influence of other geostrategic actors. These are slowly filling the void left by the lack of strong European engagement in the Western Balkans. European intellectuals are urging the EU to “wake up to the new geopolitical realities”, if it wants its strategy for the region to succeed. The EU needs to unequivocally “mark its territory” in the Balkans through a much stronger political presence, in addition to the already strong economic presence.
There can be little argument that EU membership is a necessity for the region. In most former socialist countries that joined the EU, economies have grown, democracies have consolidated and overall popular support for the EU has remained high. For the Western Balkan’s weak democratic institutions and struggling economies, exposure to stronger Europeanisation influences and injections of European structural and investment funds would doubtlessly have multiple positive effects.
Rethinking enlargement policy
Yet, while the Commission enlargement strategy boldly mentions 2025 as a tentative accession year for two Balkan countries, member states remain considerably more sceptical. Even compared to the Central and Eastern European countries, which faced their share of negative opinion from the “old” member states, the Western Balkan states appear even less appealing. To begin with, the region has a lingering negative public image in Western European societies as a result of the 1990s’ wars, organised crime groups from the region spreading their influence in EU countries, and an almost-spiteful treatment of European foes as close friends, among other things. That image is worsened by the slow and protracted reforms in the region. In fact, several of these countries appear to have taken two steps forward, then one – or even two or three – steps back when it comes to democratic standards, rule of law and economic governance. It is as if Balkan political leaders are calling the EU’s bluff and, in the absence of a real membership outlook, are using the time they have in the accession “limbo” to further personal political and financial interests and embed corruption in weak institutions. Captured state is an increasingly common and widely accepted term to describe the state of play in some Balkan countries’ political systems.
When one weighs the needs and challenges of the Western Balkan countries’ EU path, it feels like the “old” approach to enlargement doesn’t quite fit: it requires full compliance with increasingly detailed criteria in order to gain full membership. One must admit that this looks like a daunting challenge, hard to achieve in the several years to come.
So, perhaps what we need is some out-of-the-box thinking that would allow us to envision a different enlargement process that would make the idea of the Western Balkan countries in the EU less of a ‘bogeyman’ for the member states, while at the same time providing tangible-enough encouragement for hard political and economic reforms in the region. Such a new enlargement policy would, like today’s policy, need to continue to insist upon and support fundamental reforms, but with a better understanding of realities on the ground, while offering stronger and more imminent reform incentives.
To make the Balkans less intimidating for the EU countries, we might think about rendering the moment of accession less formidable. For example, instead of gaining immediate access to almost all EU policies, access to specific membership benefits could be made more gradual and conditional on achievement of reform benchmarks. Such an approach is already in line with the “differentiated integration” ideas within the EU, so why not extend them to the acceding members, too? To this we can add a tailor-made post-accession monitoring and sanctioning mechanism, which would allow the EU to spot and appropriately punish evidenced lack of progress and backsliding with an easily enforceable procedure (one not dependent on unanimous voting by member states).
There is space and need for much thinking and analysing to put such a new approach in place. Admittedly, there are challenges to consider, political and procedural. But there is no reason to shy away from rethinking the enlargement policy. Historically speaking, this policy has changed and been adapted as new and different candidates arrived, and as the EU learnt more about the difficulties and challenges of state, democracy and rule-of-law building. It has also changed from the realisation that fundamental reforms take time to grow roots and become embedded and irreversible. Therefore, with some bold and creative thinking, enlargement policy can be redesigned to allow the EU to accept new members in a shorter timeframe than the one suggested by the current approach.
About the author
Programme Director at European Policy Centre (CEP), Belgrade