Western Balkans leave the EU dream | European Union

Is it necessary for the European Union to re-engage publicly in the “enlargement” process, or would it be enough for it to simply express its support for the “European perspective” of the Western Balkans? This was the question that many European leaders probably struggled with in the run-up to the EU-Western Balkans summit on 6 October in Slovenia.

Finally, after their gathering at Brdo pri Kranju, a 16th century castle nestled in the Slovenian countryside, EU leaders issued a statement in which they not only “reaffirmed the European perspective of the Western Balkans”, but also the “Engagement in the enlargement process”.

This is a point marked by the host, Slovenia, which has long campaigned for the expansion of the bloc of 27 in the former Yugoslavia. The states of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Republic of North Macedonia and Kosovo – are all eager to take their ties with the EU to the next level. Today, however, the idea of ​​enlargement arouses little enthusiasm in old Europe. Supporting the ‘European perspective’ of the ‘Western Balkan partners’, as vague as it may sound – or rather, precisely because it seems vague – is much easier for most EU leaders than to utter the word’ enlargement ”.

But the fact that Slovenia saw Brdo’s declaration as a great victory against enlargement skeptics shows that the EU’s enlargement process is in crisis. Whether adding a word or two in an official statement is seen as a significant achievement shows how low the bar is set.

Indeed, there is little appetite within the EU to attract new members. The Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the EU would have liked to insert a commitment that at least one country would join by 2030. This has hit a wall. “I don’t really believe in setting dates, I believe in keeping our promises,” outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after the summit. “Once the conditions are met, membership can take place,” she added. Unfortunately, the part “keeping promises” does not seem convincing. For all intents and purposes, the EU has suspended the process.

Serbia, which has been negotiating its membership since 2014, has not opened a new chapter since December 2019. Montenegro, in the lead, is now leading discussions on all EU issues, but there is no end in sight for this country either. Then there is North Macedonia, which was prevented from launching accession negotiations by its neighbor Bulgaria because of a dispute over history and language. Albania, another hope, is collateral damage as it is regrouped with the Macedonians. Bosnia and Kosovo are even further behind in the queue. Kosovars are frustrated to be denied visa-free access to the Schengen area, despite all the technical conditions, unlike those living in the rest of the Western Balkans as well as in post-Soviet republics like Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. Europe, it seems, is keeping the region at bay, while at times continuing to pretend to support requests for enlargement.

It is not difficult to understand why the EU has become introverted. The agenda is internal consolidation, not expansion. As it worries about the fate of the eurozone, tries to move forward with the European green deal and tackles COVID-19, the EU has very little time and energy to d ‘other questions. In addition, some influential member states such as France see the generous stimulus package adopted last year to tackle the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic as a stepping stone to increased ‘strategic autonomy’ and a higher degree of ‘sovereignty. European ”.

The EU, the argument goes, must strengthen its institutions and deepen integration among its members if it is to thrive in an increasingly competitive world dominated by the United States and China. Adding new countries to the fold complicates these plans.

In the eyes of critics, the cases of Hungary and Poland, the enlargement poster children turned die-hard Eurosceptics, are also a warning. Many believe the EU could find itself vulnerable to many other Orban-type troublemakers with questionable democratic credentials if it admits the Western Balkans into the bloc.

Enlargement skeptics calculate that the Western Balkans have nowhere to go, and even if they are denied membership in the bloc, they cannot afford to turn their backs on the EU.

After all, the EU remains the region’s largest economic player, accounting for around 73 percent of foreign investment and 70 percent of trade. The people of the Balkans travel, study and work in the EU. Moreover, regardless of the hype surrounding the aid offered by Russia and China, it is largely the EU that is footing the bill for the post-COVID-19 recovery of the Western Balkans. The EU, together with the European Investment Bank, has mobilized 3.3 billion euros ($ 3.8 billion) to support the six countries in the region during the pandemic.

As is the case in the EU, there is also a strong appetite for “strategic autonomy” in the Western Balkans. At a conference in Skopje last week, for example, I heard several Balkan ministers acclaim “nearshoring”, which brings manufacturing supply chains back to Europe and away from China or elsewhere in Asia.

Overall, the EU and the Western Balkans have similar goals and aspirations and their destinies appear to be linked on many fronts.

However, that does not mean that the EU decides all the shots in the region. Many local actors do not hesitate to reject the EU’s demands, highlighting the lack of progress in their countries’ applications for membership. Some of them, like Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, do not hesitate to criticize the EU for its double standards and lack of confidence in order to boost their popularity in their country.

Vucic and his ilk are also casually reaching out to EU rivals around the world, such as Russia and China, for investment, vaccines or diplomatic support. Moreover, in part because of the EU’s apparent reluctance to move forward with membership negotiations, pro-government media in the Western Balkans routinely downplay or criticize the EU’s support efforts in the event. pandemic in the region, while praising non-Western powers for their contributions. All this has the consequence that public opinion turns against the bloc.

Even in countries with traditionally high EU stocks, like Albania and North Macedonia, the bloc’s resistance to enlargement is taking its toll. Even in these countries, being in favor of European integration no longer helps politicians to win elections. Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama and his North Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, know this all too well. Zaev’s party, the SDSM, suffered losses in the first round of Macedonian local elections last Sunday. This is why Rama and Zaev have teamed up with Serbian Vucic to create their own integration initiative, Open Balkan, to boost their countries’ economies without EU aid.

Despite positive rumors made in Brdo earlier this month, the EU’s current reluctance to expand into the former Yugoslavia may eventually turn into a permanent position. Indeed, the EU seems satisfied with the status quo, and the Balkan rulers seem to have already adjusted to the situation. The risks – although not insignificant as shown by the sporadic outbreaks in the Serbian-populated northern Kosovo – appear to be manageable. If the worst should happen and major violence erupts in the region, the six countries of the Western Balkans can turn to NATO and the United States for help.

But that does not mean that the end of the region’s European dream will be without losses. In 2003, when the EU first pledged membership in the Western Balkans at the Thessaloniki summit, many in the region believed that Europeanization would bring good governance, accountable institutions, robust growth and end to conflicts fueled by nationalism. Unfortunately, for almost 20 years, the region has not come close to these goals.

This month’s Brdo statement also spoke of “the primacy of democracy, fundamental rights and values ​​and the rule of law”. But with most of the EU member states becoming more diverse on enlargement every day and the leaders of the Balkans actively starting to seek alternative paths for their countries, Europe is unlikely to play a role. important in bringing the region closer to achieving these important goals.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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