French President Emmanuel Macron left a recent EU leaders’ summit in Brussels frustrated after his fellow heads of state failed to come to an agreement on who should be appointed to the top posts in the European Commission. Following the unsuccessful all-night negotiations, Macron took a swipe at his colleagues by voicing his opposition to further enlargement of the European Union. “I am more than skeptical toward those who say that the future of Europe lies in further enlargement, when we can’t find agreement between 28 nations,” Macron told reporters. “I will refuse all forms of enlargement before deep reform to the way we function institutionally.”
Prospective enlargement has moved back onto the agenda as EU leaders contemplate whether to open accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania after the European Commission gave its approval last year. But Macron has been a consistent critic of admitting new members. At a EU-Balkans summit in Bulgaria in May 2018, he said that enlargement has “weakened Europe every time” it has been undertaken.
Macron’s stance reflects a much broader fatigue over enlargement across the continent, which is bad news for the six western Balkan states—Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo—that harbor hopes of one day joining the EU. Two of them, Serbia and Montenegro, are already engaged in accession talks, which began in 2014 and 2012 respectively, while North Macedonia and Albania hope to be afforded that privilege later this year.
This fatigue is somewhat understandable, as the EU has spent much of the past decade lurching from crisis to crisis and is currently riven with internal divisions, over everything from budgetary policy to migration. Adding more members into the mix, particularly ones hamstrung by moribund economies, rampant corruption and weak rule of law—as is the case for each of the six EU aspirants in the western Balkans—is a potential recipe for further division and crisis.
However, refusing the Balkan states entry into the bloc risks driving them into the arms of other powerful actors, particularly Russia, China, Turkey and the Persian Gulf states, all of which are active in the region in various ways. This would create its own set of problems for Brussels. Indeed, according to a recent report by the Open Society Foundations, stalled efforts to bring these states into the EU are already having a detrimental effect in the Balkans, with “democratic backsliding” there made worse “because of the declining interest of EU member states in enlargement,” which has led to less pressure for political and economic reform. Since the end of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, the EU has invested significant financial and political capital into nurturing democratic governance in the region and aiding its economic development. But as European integration has stalled in the Balkans, these efforts risk being undone.
Russia is Europe’s primary challenger in the Balkans. For Moscow, stifling the expansion of the EU and NATO into a region where it enjoys long-standing cultural and diplomatic ties is a top priority. To achieve that goal, it has successfully acted as a spoiler. Russia’s support for Serbia in the country’s dispute with its breakaway province of Kosovo has played a decisive role in preventing reconciliation between the two sides, which is Brussels’ primary objective in the region.
Whether for EU or U.S. officials, the choice in the Balkans seems clear: hold these six countries close or risk conceding ground to Russia.
Serbia’s Kremlin ties are a source of concern in Brussels and in Washington. In 2017, the then-senior U.S. diplomat in Southeastern Europe, Hoyt Brian Yee, expressed his dissatisfaction with Belgrade’s pro-Russian foreign policy when he told the Serbian government that it “cannot sit on two chairs at the same time, especially if they are that far apart.” As the dominant power in the region, Serbia is key to Brussels’ ambitions in the Balkans.
Moscow is also active in neighboring Bosnia, where it enjoys close ties to Milorad Dodik, the president of the majority-Serb statelet of Republika Srpska. In 2016, the Kremlin lent its support to an independence referendum proposed by Dodik that would split Bosnia along predominantly ethnic lines and unravel the 1995 Dayton Agreement that ended the country’s brutal civil war. Although the referendum has been blocked by Bosnia’s Constitutional Court, Moscow’s support for Dodik has successfully sown division and stoked instability on Europe’s doorstep.
Whether for EU or U.S. officials, the choice in the Balkans seems clear: hold these six countries close or risk conceding ground to Russia, which has happened before. At a 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Greece blocked Macedonia’s entry into the alliance, which triggered a period of democratic regression in the country under the Russian-backed administration of Macedonia’s then-prime minister, Nikola Grueveski. As the Prague Security Studies Institute put it in a recent report, Macedonia at the time “entered a phase of creeping authoritarianism with an increasingly silenced opposition and media as well as shrinking civil society.” Although Grueveski has now been replaced by the moderate Zoran Zaev, the EU risks stoking resentment that could bolster illiberal forces in the country by denying Macedonia accession talks, even after it conceded to international pressure and followed through with a controversial name change from Macedonia to North Macedonia, ending a long dispute with Greece.
Unlike Russia, China’s engagement in the Balkans is more economic than political. Through its so-called 17+1 framework, China offers five Balkan states—excluding Kosovo—access to large loans free from the usual caveats attached to EU investment, grants and foreign aid. Balkan elites are therefore able to tap in to vast sums of cash without having to go through the painful political reforms so often demanded by Brussels. Beijing’s offer has been particularly appealing in Montenegro, which the EU enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn, fears could become a Chinese “Trojan horse” if it enters the bloc.
China’s “elite-focused and state-mercantilist approach to investment presents a deep challenge to liberal democratic values, the rule of law, and public accountability—all of which are already tenuous in the Western Balkans,” Kurt Bassuener warned in a May report for the National Endowment for Democracy. Although “China’s regional engagement is not necessarily antithetical to the goal of EU membership,” he added that “its business model and political economy operate contrary to the EU’s democratic norms.”
But if Russian and Chinese influence clearly undermine democratic governance in the Balkans, what should the EU do? Enlargement presents its own challenges and is no silver bullet for the problems in the region, and indeed within the EU. Yet Macron’s outright hostility to the idea sends all the wrong signals. If accession begins to feel like a mirage, the EU will have little right to object when Serbia, Montenegro and others accept more overtures from Moscow and Beijing.