The Western Balkans & Accession to the European Union: Enlargement Fatigue? Not Necessarily!

BY: Zenebe B. Uraguchi - 18. November 2019

As part of my work for the East and Southeast Europe Unit of Helvetas, I travel a lot to the region. This week on Monday morning I was at the Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade on my way to Albania. Tesla, after whom the airport is named, was a Serbian futurist inventor and electric engineer who contributed to the design of the modern alternating current electricity supply system. He was a European…

Serbia and other Western Balkan countries — never mind the labeling of the region as such — have for long been in discussion with the European Union for accession. The long but promising process hit the wall when France last week threw the spanner in the works by demanding a stricter procedure for accession.

Most European Union members (with the backing of the United States) support admitting the Western Balkan countries into the Union. So, the current problem in the negotiation may appear to be created and led by a single country — in this case France. Yet, deep down, it signals long-running questions around the need for further “integration” before enlargement.

The questions that were bothering me while sitting at the airport in Belgrade were: how big a deal is such uncertainty to regional stability and long-term economic development? Simply, why bother about accession?

First thing first: this’s what the accession is all about

Overall, the drive towards and the hope for European Union accession is huge for Western Balkan countries. Accession is an important strategic objective for most countries — either symbolically or substantively. Albania and North Macedonia have been formally recognized as candidates; Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidates; Serbia and Montenegro have already started accession negotiations.

What Paris has called for is replacing the current accession process. This means aspiring countries will require to go through a more elaborate process that tries to ensure “meeting European standards and norms”. There’s also an additional new demand: the “reversibility" component. Simply put, this allows the European Union to cancel membership talks if a candidate country's government doesn’t show commitment and progress towards meeting the Union’s standards.

In offices, restaurants, parliaments and other places in the Western Balkans, people talk about and openly express their frustration with the current state of the accession process. Obviously, Emmanuel Macron and his country France are singled out as the bad cop among the block’s members.

I don’t think that this’s as simple as it seems.

My interpretation is that there’s been a simmering and an implicit resistance from other countries as well. The European Union is taken as a rich club of the current member countries. This, to some extent, suggests an emerging European Union “enlargement fatigue” to bring other new members into the rich club. This lies in the belief that it’s better to strengthen ties between member states than adding new members.

A hardline position from France highlights the dilemma of other countries. Denmark and the Netherlands aren’t throwing their full support to the accession process. Countries like Bulgaria and Greece exploit the accession issue for settling historical disputes/claims with their neighbors and scoring domestic political goals.

In the end, the accession process with the Western Balkan countries isn’t having the same pace and intensity as the Central and Eastern European enlargement that happened a decade ago.

Implications: it takes two to tango

What I can say with a reasonable confidence is this: if enlargement fatigue, which I doubt, is the cause for the current deadlock, abandoning altogether the membership negotiation isn’t a solution either. Serbia: 10 years. Montenegro: 11 years. North Macedonia: 14 years. An already drawn-out process may dent the momentum and commitment for reforms and the drive towards reconciliation and stability in the Western Balkans (please read until the end because I have a different take on this).

Countries like North Macedonia gambled by negotiating with Greece and changing the country’s name in a hope of charming member states. A failure to make a credible progress towards accession will for sure backfire and may slow down the appetite for domestic political reforms or increase inter-party accusations and instability. For example, the current setback gave a reason to the opposition Democratic Party of Albania that blamed Edi Rama for the country’s failure to open accession talks with the European Union and called for his resignation and holding early elections.

Possibly, without the needed reforms there’s a risk of more autocratic tendencies, shrinking space for civil society and the rise of right-wing parties. In one of the meetings between European Union member states and Western Balkan countries, Edi Rama, the Prime Minister Albania, used the anatomical metaphor. He said Western Balkan countries are “an organ” of the European Union’s “body” that surrounds them.

Rama’s analogy fits well with the European Union’s own political, security and economic interests. It isn’t only the Western Balkan countries that will benefit from a successful accession; the European Union will also be better off with geo-strategic investment in a stable, strong and united Europe based on common values.

Furthermore, frustration with the accession process may deepen the Balkans’ growing ties with Russia, or an assertive China, and possibly with Turkey and the Gulf states. Such regional complexity echoes the fear of Michael Roth, the German minister of state for Europe: “Western Balkan countries aren’t the backyard of the European Union, but the inner courtyard.”

So, what to make of all these?

Whatever happens to the accession process, at this stage and in the coming years three things stand out as key takeaways. These points clarify that accession isn’t an end by itself. And enlargement fatigue isn’t the root cause but a symptom that hides highly crucial issues as mentioned below.

Frist, history, geography, and mobility of people and ideas have increasingly demonstrated that the Western Balkan countries are part of Europe – the European community. The European Union is a club to which some may have the privilege to join and others not! In other words, there’s a difference between being a member of the European Union – the rich club – and being or feeling to be part of the European community.  If accession succeeds, it further deepens the ties and stimulates better mobility of people and increased investments.

Second, as member states of the European Union have shown more resilience and unity in the face of the Brexit debacle, Western Balkan countries should also be ready to pursue and walk the talk in cooperating among themselves in trade, infrastructure and other areas. I may sound naive if I don’t point out that such cooperation requires embracing diversity, reconciling historical anomalies and building trust.

Third and importantly, reforms and transformations should aim at not just facilitating the path towards European Union accession. Western Balkan countries should shape the reform agenda for first and foremost achieving the development and wellbeing of their own citizens.

Additional sources

Cover picture: © The Catholic Church in the European Union

Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies