European Union and Western Balkans’ heads of governments met earlier this month in Poznan, Poland to discuss the future of the E.U. enlargement. The regular, yearly, meeting had only one goal: to reassure Western Balkans leaders that the E.U. perspective still exists and that the E.U. member states look favorably upon their aspiration to join the club.
Enlargement has been critically low on the E.U. agenda for years. It’s premature to say that the E.U. perspective is dead, but it is in deep hibernation, and the winter appears to be lasting long. Most political actors in Western Europe, from left to right, view further expansion unfavorably.
The enlargement advocates mostly come from new member states, such as Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, or Romania, Croatia, and Bulgaria, but their “enlargement music” often irritates others in the bloc. The problems these enlargement supporters encounter with democratic backsliding make their appeals weak and counterproductive for aspiring states.
France, Germany, and the Balkans
The messages following the Poznan summit depict exactly the E.U. members’ perplexing stance on enlargement.
A day after the meeting, annoyed with the mess over the appointment of the new E.U. officials, French President Emmanuel Macron deflated the aspirations of Western Balkans’ countries. His “no” to enlargement until the E.U. finds durable solutions for its own challenges is not surprising. A few months ago, Paris published a new (French) strategy for the Balkans. A striking detail is that the plan, while vaguely referring to the European future of the region, doesn’t mention membership for the Balkans.
Almost at the same time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel assured aspiring countries that joining the E.U. is in the best interest of Brussels, highlighting that E.U. reforms and enlargement can go hand in hand.
Yet, discouraging is that Germany, with a few members from the region, constitutes a minority that still keeps a close eye on this part of Europe. Additionally, Merkel has resigned as leader of the CDU, and her political influence in German and European politics is dwindling.
On the other hand, although Macron lost the May European elections to the populist, far-right National Rally of Marine Le Pen, his influence in the E.U. is significant. With Merkel’s fading role, Macron now wants to seize momentum and become the first among equals.
Under these circumstances, the French opinion on enlargement matters somewhat more than the German. Furthermore, Macron is publicly saying what most members of the West think. The position of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Spain, Sweden, and to some extent the current Italian government is similar to the one France advocates.
The case of Albania and North Macedonia best reveals just how indecisive Brussels is as to the Balkans decades-long ambitions to fully integrate into the bloc. Despite the two candidate countries being promised membership talks, European leaders last month rejected the recommendation by E.U. officials to open negotiations. Although Albania and North Macedonia fulfilled the criteria, talks have now been put on hold until October or maybe even December.
It’s true that the current candidates have a problem with democratic reforms. Their track record is far from satisfactory. However, the reform pace in the Balkans has been slowing down not only because of their democratic deficiency and “reform fatigue” but also because of a vague, unclear E.U. perspective.
This resembles a vicious circle in which the E.U. takes candidates’ reform deficiency as a strong argument against enlargement, whereas candidates take the lack of E.U. engagement as an argument to justify their reform stagnation.
As joining the E.U. looks like a pleasant but unachievable dream, so sound the reassurances of local leaders to stay fully committed to democratic reform. In any case, placing aspirants in the waiting room to be observed for decades doesn’t help. It won’t speed up democratic transformation.
Absurd as it may seem, this formula can serve interests of both sides in the years to come. Given that the E.U. should first clean up its own house, the lack of sufficient democratic reforms among candidate states will perfectly suit the majority of its members.
Whenever an opportunity arises, like the recent one with Albania and North Macedonia, Brussels will delay the process for a few months, justifying it with obvious problems on the aspirants’ side. The membership perspective will become a distant, moving target on the E.U. horizon.
”Investing in the stability and prosperity of #WesternBalkans means investing in the security and future of our Union. Although there will be no further enlargements under this mandate, we are charting the European path ahead for the Western Balkans". says President @JunckerEU pic.twitter.com/T85rMG7Fho
— European Commission 🇪🇺 (@EU_Commission) February 11, 2018
On the other hand, this will fit well political elites from the Balkans whose narrative is full of the E.U., while their hands are busy with Russian and Chinese business projects. Being held in a waiting room will allow the Balkans to “reform ourselves without reforms” while the E.U. can “integrate without full integration.”
The lasting consequences of this approach are not only detrimental to the Balkans but equally so for the European Union. Punching below its weight, the E.U. is losing ground to its rivals in the Balkans and playing into Russian and Chinese hands.
The E.U. membership is powerful leverage in Brussels’ hands. It should reinvigorate it to counter the influence and power of other actors. Only a more robust approach and strong (continuous) political commitment to enlargement among the major E.U. members, such as France and Germany, could correct the existing spiral of misunderstandings heading to a dead end.