The EU’s most potent foreign policy instrument—the normative pull of membership—has been the best tool in the past. From the Iberian Peninsula to post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe, the EU has extended its sphere of influence. However, this is not the case today, unfortunately.
"The Western Balkans are part of the same Europe as the European Union. The EU is not complete without them," EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. "My commission will do its utmost to advance the accession process." But the EU Commission is paralyzed by its member states, all of whom possess a veto option on whether to give a pass to new members.
The EU is hostage to the priorities of its member states and to the decision-making process at the mercy of national electoral cycles. Blocking Albania and North Macedonia’s accession and not giving Kosovo a visa-free regime is not helping the EU’s image in the region.
The member states failed to set a date for continuing accession talks with North Macedonia, jeopardizing the government in Skopje which has staked its entire credibility on resolving the name dispute by adding the qualifier ‘North’ to its name and moving forward towards EU accession processes. There is a similar stalling with Kosovo. Even after fulfilling all outstanding requirements and waiting for visa-free travel to the Schengen area to happen, Kosovars remain isolated to this day.
"In all frankness, there is discussion among the 27 about our capacity to take in new members," European Council President Charles Michel told a news conference following the summit in Slovenia last year. Their total GDP is comparable to that of Slovakia, the remaining six Balkan countries combined comprise of only about 18 million people. In terms of population, it is less than Ukraine, or it is roughly the size of North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany. Contrary to Michel’s statement, the Balkans clearly do not pose a threat to the EU’s absorption capacity.
As only a minority of citizens in the EU support further enlargement and the majority want national borders for security, membership seems uncertain for the Balkans. This reflects the EU’s internal political debate which is stained by citizens’ perceptions of high levels of immigration, especially now that the bloc has been hit by one refugee crisis after another. This may explain the slow enlargement process in the Balkans.
The Balkans will always be nudging against the borders of the EU. Restrictions on freedom of movement will never change that. Migration towards the core of Europe by the Balkan youth and deteriorating political dynamics for those left behind will continue. Such a situation will also strengthen the hands of malign external forces already active and keen to produce chaos in this vulnerable corner of Europe.
If the EU does not expand, others will
The EU remains the region’s primary trading partner and investor. It is also the EU that provided the bulk of Covid assistance and is now funding the post-pandemic recovery and the green and digital transition. However, failing to live up to its commitments to move on with accession could push the Balkans into the arms of other players like China and Russia. The latter two will step up their efforts to fill voids in the region.
China has come with loans that are basically without any political conditions. Leaders in the region see this as free money. In 2014, Montenegro accepted a $1 billion loan for a road, which it has since struggled to pay off. Russia, on the other hand, sees the void as an opportunity and increases support to groups and politicians to further destabilize and utilize ongoing security and political crises in the region.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, particularly, has sent shockwaves throughout the Balkans. Bosnia and Herzegovina is another country that may suffer indirectly from the recent developments in Ukraine. The nationalist groups see a newly resurgent Russia as an opportunity to roll the dice again and hope for a more favorable outcome. Communal conflict could re-ignite if local actors feel they have Russian backing.
The breakdown of enlargement will not just be a threat to the security and stability of the region, but it will also be a failure of the project to make Europe wholly free and at peace. The danger is also that the EU’s quest to project power fades and that it squanders its geopolitical capital in the region.
The way forward is urgent
The situation in Ukraine has indeed changed Europe and should serve as a motivation for the member states to ramp up their foreign policy and security efforts. It is a wake-up call to all Europeans, prompting to be more united.
We no longer live in the old world order where rules must be enforced and violators punished. We are transitioning to a new world order where power must be balanced with power. The EU should quickly get its act together and prepare for this new order, where sovereignty and security may well be at stake. It is high time to develop a new European pole, together with other NATO members like the US, Britain, and Turkey, capable of balancing the power of other malign players in the continent.
For the countries in the Balkans, EU membership is an existential priority. The gains of enlargement to the region would be significant. With the inclusion of a multi-cultural region, the EU would show its commitment to the principle of diversity and remain open for all Europeans irrespective of their cultural or religious background. Most importantly, the EU would show that it is capable of being a powerful global actor.
The timing seems favorable for a more unified European foreign policy and security and enlargement in the Balkans, with a narrative capable of transforming the EU’s identity and role in the rapidly changing world. Under a stronger defense and security, which would include the Balkans, the EU should be able to respond to crises in Europe and beyond. This may mean that Europe will have to increase defense spending and strengthen capabilities—long argued by the US and NATO itself.
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