The prospect of accession is important because of Putin and China.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has finally awakened the European Union to the strategic importance of the Western Balkans and the potential for Moscow to use unresolved disputes in the region to undermine the West.
EU leaders must now seize the geopolitical moment to change the integration of the six small, economically unstable countries with a combined population of less than 18 million into the Union, or risk seeing them used by Russia and China in their power games. writes Paul Taylor for Politico.
Despite deep disappointment at the snail’s pace of progress since the EU formally gave them the prospect of membership in 2003, joining the Union remains the best possible outcome for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, as and for the rest of Europe.
If the EU continues to keep them at bay, the alternatives could be closer rapprochement with Russia, the emergence of an illiberal, non-aligned zone that could stretch from Hungary to Turkey, or – even worse – a downward spiral towards a new armed conflict involving a toxic mix of organized crime and armed migration.
In some Western European capitals, particularly Paris and The Hague, where EU enlargement fatigue is strongest, there is a complacent assumption that the status quo is manageable and poses no serious risk to European security. Certainly people in the Western Balkans are war-weary after the horrors of the 1990s.
The situation may appear under control, but it is unsustainable indefinitely. There is no guarantee that the unresolved conflicts in Bosnia or between Serbia and Kosovo will remain frozen with small outbreaks, or that localized political violence will not escalate, attracting outside players and fueling new flows of refugees, weapons and drugs to the EU. The recent skirmishes over the number plates of Kosovo Serb cars show how a small spark can ignite dry grass.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine has angered many in the region, fueling ultra-nationalism among hardline pro-Russian Serbs and bringing back painful memories of death and destruction among those who lived through the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.
Moscow is trying to inflame Pan-Slavic Orthodox nationalism and exploit the division wherever it can. Backs Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik in his threats to secede from Bosnia and spreads disinformation to fuel Kosovo Serb hostility to the government in Pristina.
For its part, China is primarily seeking economic investment, using the 14+1 framework under the Belt and Road Initiative to engage with local leaders seeking ambitious infrastructure and defense projects. In the UN Security Council, he followed Russia’s lead in the Western Balkans and used his financial power to dissuade Balkan states from supporting resolutions critical of human rights abuses in Xinjiang or Hong Kong.
Serbian pro-government media are feeding the Russian narrative of the war in Ukraine, and Russian-owned media are contributing to the war hysteria against Kosovo. Russia and China have contributed to the rearmament of Serbia. Moscow also has powerful energy leverage, as Serbia gets 80% of its gas from Russia, while Bosnia is 100% dependent. Partly as a result, Serbia has refused to join EU sanctions against Russia, causing irritation in Brussels.
The EU has more powerful long-term leverage if it wants to use them, given the widespread public desire to join the bloc across the region, except for Serbia. However, France and the Netherlands have since resisted further expansion, mainly due to fears of migration and organized crime.
Neighboring EU member states Greece and Bulgaria have long blocked the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s bid for EU and NATO membership, demanding that it change its name and accept Sofia’s narrative of its own history and the Bulgarian minority.
Even after it agreed in 2018 to change its name to North Macedonia, France vetoed the opening of negotiations with Skopje and Albania to demand reform of the accession process to include the principle of reversibility in cases where retreat. Talks finally began in July this year, but North Macedonia is still required to change its constitution next year to incorporate the terms agreed with Bulgaria, a potential political pitfall as the government does not have a supermajority.
When EU leaders rushed to grant Ukraine and Moldova candidate status in June in response to Russian aggression, Western Balkan elites understandably feared their countries were being pushed further back in the membership queue. Similarly, when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz demanded that the EU reform its decision-making system so that national vetoes on sanctions and tax policy are removed before new members are admitted, it sounded like an even longer wait.
So what should the EU do now?
Primo, more visible political engagement.
This year, the EU began to pay more attention to this long-neglected region. Two high-level meetings between the EU and the Western Balkans were held – one of them for the first time in the region – as well as a revival of the Berlin Process to support regional economic integration in preparation for joining the EU single market. Leaders from the Western Balkans attended the inaugural summit of the new European political community in Prague in October, dreamed up by French President Emmanuel Macron.
This commitment must continue.
Secundo, to accelerate benefits and participation in the accession process.
The EU needs to overhaul its cumbersome accession process to distribute more of the financial and market access benefits of membership up front as applicants move forward with reforms. They currently receive only a small proportion of pre-accession aid until the time of their accession.
The EU should invite ministers from the region to attend informal Council meetings on matters of common interest. It should encourage Western Balkan countries to elect observers to the European Parliament at the same time as the 2024 European elections, so that they have a say, if not a voice, in EU law-making.
Of course, the main work has to be done in the candidate countries, most of which fall far short of the basic conditions of democracy, rule of law, freedom of expression and the fight against corruption in order to apply for membership.
As always, it’s a chicken and egg problem. Why should Balkan politicians make painful reforms that could weaken their power and money for such a distant and uncertain prospect? The EU will need to work harder from below, supporting civil society, women’s organizations and small businesses as drivers of change, while offering incentives and applying pressure from above.
At this geopolitical moment, the EU simply cannot afford to let the region erode.
Photo by Michael Erhardsson: