Has the EU abandoned the Western Balkans? Supranational and intergovernmental tensions within the Enlargement Policy

Miruna Butnaru-Troncotă and Dragoș Ioniță – National University of Political Science and Public Administration (SNSPA) Bucharest 

After the publication of the latest Enlargement Package on 29th of May this year by the European Commission, it was high time for the EU Member States to transform the findings into a coherent political position, awaited especially by Tirana and Skopje – the opening of their accession negotiations. High expectations came especially from Paris, The Hague and Copenhagen, as political elites from these capitals have emphasized their very reserved position on the enlargement process, each for different reasons. The last Council meeting that took place between 17th and 18th of October in Brussels brought bad news – no unanimity was reached and opening of negotiations was rejected. The following analysis goes through the main events and the overall context that influenced the controversial decision not to open negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, concluding with a set of possible impact on regional dynamics for both EU and the Western Balkans.

Photo credit: Shumpei Sano https://www.flickr.com/photos/130241662@N05/16104981916/

15 years of hopes and efforts. What for?

Before explaining the recent rejection of opening negotiation with the two countries, it is important to have a look back on the enlargement process and its main hurdles. More than fifteen years have passed since the European Union first announced the opening of a membership perspective for the Western Balkans (countries from former Yugoslavia and Albania – WB). The Thessaloniki agenda was launched back in 2003 to compel the countries to implement certain prerequisites and reforms that will bring them closer to EU membership based on strict conditionality. Ever since, the WB region has been under the spell of EU enlargement strategy, which shifted its focus several times in the last 15 years. The EU has combined stabilization initiatives with its usual enlargement toolkit – conditionality, assistance, monitoring, political dialogue, benchmarking and gatekeeping. All the while, the enlargement documents have made it clear that progress is measured in terms of ‘a track record of implementation’, drawing attention to the requirement of ‘substantial change’. All in all, there were more than 15 years of hopes and promises, coupled with many efforts and both material and emotional resources on all sides.
It is important to underline that the Balkans have profoundly challenged EU’s conventional approach to enlargement. The post-conflict region required EU to rethink its policy practices in the field of enlargement, which could not be simply a replica of the pattern successfully implemented in Central and Eastern Europe. The goal was at first to stabilize and then to associate the countries on the EU membership track, which is a two-step policy that did not occur in the previous waves of enlargement. Europeanization and democratization had to be implemented at the same time. So the EU had to adapt along the way in a process of ‘learning by doing’ policy-making, which was confronted also with numerous ‘unexpected consequences’ on the ground. But apparently, the experience that EU gained during the past waves of enlargement (big-bang Enlargement of 2004, Bulgaria and Romania entrance in 2007 and Croatian entrance in the EU in 2013), contributed in fact to greater skepticism in many old member states for the continuation of negotiations in the Western Balkans.
In the last years, a lot of internal and external crises obstructed the Western Balkan’s road towards the EU. At the same time, there was a populist surge of contestation in some old member states in the West, reflected in a sort of populist ‘rhetoric of discontent’ that managed to channel public fear and anger not only to domestic topics, but also towards EU’s enlargement policy. There were other factors that facilitated this situation. We should also remember the moment when the Juncker Commission started with a depressing statement – that there would be no more enlargement round in the next 5 years. It was a realist view, but it sent totally wrong and discouraging signals in the Balkans capitals. Some say this attitude marked the beginning of the ‘peripherialization’ of the Balkans on EU’s agenda, which was then confronted with other more ardent issues. The new Commissioner appointed for this area, Johannes Hahn, was given responsibility for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, as had been the case with his predecessor, but this was contrary to the practice in place from the previous enlargement exercises, where the Commissioner’s portfolio was purely for enlargement policy. The perceived downgrading of the enlargement portfolio and reduced attention to the situation in the WB region was reflected in various ways both in EU officials discourses and their actions. Moreover, this lack of engagement with the region gave a free hand to local autocrats to challenge many democratic principles or lean more evidently towards Russia. Particularly after the migration crisis, which had a ‘Balkan route’ that needed to be carefully observed, having “strong and stable governments” in the WB was foremost in the minds of EU leaders, with elected government officials from some EU member states openly supporting the ruling parties even when Ministers and officials from those same parties were already under investigation for abuse of power and corruption, as was the case in North Macedonia. This lead to ‘stabilitocracy’ – stability at all costs in the Western Balkan region, which has negatively impacted EU’s commitment to the enlargement agenda in the last years. The lack of capacity and determination of local elites to fulfil EU conditionality also showed the high costs of their politics of failed compromises. The normalisation talks between Belgrade and Prishtina, and their stagnation are an illustrative example in that sense. EU’s re-engagement with the Western Balkans in 2018 was also still very weak (with the Sofia Summit’s evasive final Declaration as a proof).
The normalisation process between Serbia and Kosovo is stalled, the accession processes of Albania and North Macedonia were twice delayed, owing to their lack of progress in reforms and some member states that fiercely want more deepening and less widening of the EU in the future. Bilateral issues are still unsolved. 20 years after the last violent conflicts that marked the dissolution of Yugoslavia – the Kosovo war, border disputes remain unresolved in the Balkans, and the EU has been clear that it does not intend to import these conflicts.
But we need to look at the bigger picture. Indeed, last years were marked by major setbacks in the Western Balkans’ EU accession process, many of which still remain unresolved. But also there was huge lack of coherence and inconsistency in EU’s approach. Domestic obstacles on the road to accession, together with the slow progress of EU engagement with the region over recent years have contributed to a rather grim picture and negative policy outcome – little advancement of candidate countries and stalled reforms for potential candidate countries. Europeanization is a two-way street and sometimes leaders forget about that. Despite these dire realities, there were also some positive developments that need to be mentioned. Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia agreed on a deal to change the latter’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia—an issue which acted as an obstacle to Macedonia’s EU and NATO accession path. Both Serbia and Montenegro opened new chapters in their negotiation processes, and the EU hosted several ministerial meetings for Serbian and Kosovo officials as part of their normalisation dialogue. Moreover, consecutive EU presidencies kept enlargement on their priority list (Bulgaria, Austria, Romania, Croatia).

From Berlin to Poznan

In terms of EU enlargement process, the highlight of last summer was the Poznań Summit, organized in the framework of the Berlin Process, the intergovernmental cooperation initiative launched by Germany in 2014 aimed at revitalizing the multilateral ties between the Western Balkans and selected EU member states, and at improving regional cooperation in the Western Balkans on the issues of infrastructural and economic development. The leaders of the Western Balkans reconvened on 4-5 July for the annual summit at the premises of the Polish city of Poznan. This was the fifth high level meeting of this type (after the 2014 Berlin Summit, the 2015 Vienna Summit, 2016 Paris Summit, the 2017 Trieste Summit and the July 2018 in London). The Leaders participating at the Berlin Process Summit in Poznań unanimously reaffirmed their unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans, while agreeing that the EU should simplify and improve the accession process. Keeping in mind the situation on the ground and the delicate relationship between WB states and EU Member states, the leaders gathered in Poznań also referred to state capture must be named, and the fact that there is a need to have an open dialogue between the WB countries and the Member States.
But why is this event important for the last days decision on North Macedonia and Albania? First, because the event was organized amid a climate of uncertainty, on both sides of Europe. Both the EU and the leading countries of the Berlin Process still have to deal firstly with their own domestic issues and encountering of the populistic tendencies (somehow highlighted by the results of the EU elections). What did not play at all in Poland’s favor is the general downgrading of expectations on the basis of the past summits’ experiences and the recent results in the European Parliament elections. Even if we know the results in recent European elections, nobody can guarantee the form of the future political alliances and how the Union will look like after, in the coming months, marked by intense negotiations for EU’s top jobs (Presidents of the Commission, the European Council and High Representative). Another highlight of the event was the decision to grant Bulgaria and North Macedonia organizing rights for the future Berlin Process Summit (to be held in 2020), “an important symbol of greater ownership of the process by the region”.
On their side, the Western Balkan governments have not strived enough to effectively materialize the undertaken commitments in the frame of the Berlin Process, which was intended to be a more tailor-made approach to address their needs, especially in concrete economic and social projects, that moved away from the very political side of EU conditionality. Today the region reflects features of general resistance to democratic reform processes, citizens’ lack of trust and illiberal tendencies – as shown by the above-mentioned Enlargement Package Reports.
Second, because there were also some very promising elements. In the frame of the Poznan Summit, Poland has voiced its readiness to provide political and technical support so as to enhance the EU reform processes in the Balkans, although at the domestic level this country is still facing issues with regard to the rule of law. This fact puts into question the overall architecture of the enlargement process, as the transformation power of the Union may be a reversible process even if a country is a member state.

New Commission, new hopes or new fears?

The 2019 summer of political change continued with the same ambivalence, with the designation of Ursula von de Leyen as President of the future EU Commission, a task which bought new hope for both Albania and North Macedonia in their strive to gain approval of the European Council for the start of accession negotiations. But new fears came along, too. As the new EC President-designate’s memo points out, the enlargement process must be accelerated “…through a merit-based assessment of each candidate country, keeping a credible perspective on future accession.” As Laszlo Troscanyi (Enlargement Commissioner-designate)’s audition in the European Parliament did not go as planned, the Hungarian nominee not receiving the approval of the Legal Affairs Committee, the leaders of the main EU institutions issued a joint letter urging the leaders of the Member States to approve the opening of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, as agreed in the European Council’s June meeting. While stressing that this decision “is a test of the Union’s ability to deliver on its promises and look to the future”, the four leaders recognized that a positive decision would only represent the start of a long process, and that the success imply a deeper cooperation between the EU and candidate states, “to go along with the widening, in the mutual interest of European and candidate countries’ citizens”.
Although the institutional perspective was clear, the European Council of 17-18 October did not go as planned, as France, the Netherlands and Denmark opposed the start of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, casting new doubts on EU’s ability to to “deliver on EU’s promises” and undermining once again the organization’s credibility in the Western Balkans.
As French President Emmanuel Macron led the opposition to opening membership talks with both countries, the Danish and Dutch leaders were slightly ambivalent, expressing their intent to approve the start of negotiations only with North Macedonia – and thus decoupling the two candidates in their accession process. The French leader continued to put pressure on EU leaders insisting once again that any future enlargement of the EU must be preceded by a revision of the process itself. The decision was described as a “major historic mistake” by outgoing EC President Jean-Claude Juncker, while leaders from the two interested countries expressed their worries regarding the impact of the decision on the dynamics of local politics.
The strong anti-enlargement lobby within the EU (practiced mostly between closed doors, in diplomatic meetings) has won last week another match, possibly a decisive one. The much talked about ‘enlargement fatigue’ has just reached its maximum point at the recent October Council meeting. There are many reasons to worry for the backsliding of all the positive outcomes of the last years of integration efforts in the region.

Does NO mean NO? What’s next?

As the hopes of Skopje and Tirana were again dashed by internal differences from within the EU, the question ahead is what have the last 20 years brought for the region?
On the one hand, almost all countries from the Western Balkans have an institutional relation with the EU, either as member (Croatia), candidate (Albania, North Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro) or potential candidate (Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo). But this s clearly not enough as there is little time left until the 20th anniversary of the 2000 Zagreb Summit of the South-East Europe Cooperation Process, when the Stabilization and Association Process was granted to the Western Balkan countries. Coincidentally or not, in May 2020, the same city will host a new round of intergovernmental discussions (EU-Western Balkans Summit), as Croatia will host the rotating presidency of the European Union. This will be a new (and somehow questionable) chance for the European Council to discuss the prospects of enlargement for both Albania and North Macedonia. But as EU s legitimacy is decreasing in the Balkans (a region known by now as a champion of the enlargement process), the future reunion of the European Council is expected to bring more uncertainty than answers – there is little hope that Emmanuel Macron’s vision on the process will change, while Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark will face new internal pressures to postpone a decision. Another aspect to be taken in consideration is the everlasting dispute between EU institutions – the internal conflict between the Council and the Commission is also part of the problem. For years already the Commission says yes, issuing positive Progress Reports particularly for North Macedonia and the Council says no. This is EU’s own fragmented decision making problem, one that affects not only its credibility, but also its own role as a player in the Western Balkan geopolitics (when faced with provocations coming from Russia, China, Turkey or Iran).
On the other hand, we must look at what the region looks like 20 years since the launch of the Stabilisation and Association Process. While being on the institutional road towards membership, all countries in the Western Balkans face major challenges. First, at internal level, all six countries (in different proportions) are experimenting high social pressure for change, with the latest demonstrations taking place in spring of this year in Albania, Serbia and Montenegro. Protests in all three countries are aiming to overthrow the ruling parties led by President Aleksandar Vučić, Prime Minister Edi Rama and President Milo Đukanović respectively. The regimes are accused of corruption, suppression of democracy and media freedoms as well as unsatisfactory economic situation. Second, being exposed to a climate of political uncertainty, the national institutions are refraining from acting responsibly when it comes to implementation of much-needed reforms, demanded by the EU. This puts the leadership in all countries in front of a difficult choice” continue to put pressure on national institutions, delay reforms and face demonstrations (and ultimately a loss of power) or de-capture national institutions and agree to the democratic rules that may lead to their replacement in office during future elections. Third, the legacy of the `90s cannot be ruled out when it comes to dealing with regional interactions – while Croatia stands by all Western Balkan states in their quest towards EU membership, the same cannot be told when referring to Serbia and Kosovo, two entities which are far from normalizing their relation (as envisioned by the 2014 Brussels Agreement). Kosovo’s decision to raise customs tariffs on Serbian and Bosnian goods from 10 to 100 percent after Serbia blocked its former province from joining Interpol is adding to the regional tension. It seems that, when discussing the Balkans, one must look first at a process of disintegration before focusing on their EU integration.


What about EU’s Enlargement agenda for the next years? As the situation currently unfolds, both at regional and European level, it will take more than 5 years (as envisioned by EC’s factsheet on the region) to bring into discussion the accession of a new member. With the EU deadlocked on its priorities vis-à-vis the region (France advocating for a reform of the enlargement process and a better management of the refugee crisis, while Denmark and the Netherlands asking for a decoupling of Albania and North Macedonia in the negotiation process), it will take some time for all 27 states to align their visions on the region’s future as part of the EU. The situation on the ground in the six countries involved in the process in also not in favour of their progress, as political and popular will are decreasing with each year of postponement and renewal of promises.
Macedonia applied for membership in 2005. It’s almost 15 years since then. It was even open to change its name in order to continue the process. Spending 15 years in a waiting room could lead to extenuation and low levels of motivation. Some express the fear that this decision means that there is little perspective left for the WB countries in the EU accession process. But when there is no perspective, then what is left? Retrospective could be an option, and this policy of looking backwards and revisiting history proved most often legal and conflict oriented in the case of the former Yugoslav countries. The end of this year brought an existential crisis to EU’s enlargement, at the same time with a confirmed nationalisation of Europeanization. At this point there is very little predictability in the accession process. Uncertainties are eroding future prospects and EU leverage in the Balkans. The tensions between the Council and the Commission are most evident. Moreover, Brexit is expected to have an impact on the EU’s redefinition of its global role and engagement with the Western Balkans, because it is one of the ways to demonstrate Brussels’ willingness to remain a relevant global actor. We think that the most worrying aspect is that several member countries transformed the whole enlargement process in a purely transactionalist game, not one based on values and solidarity.
It became clear that we are now confronted with a significant credibility crisis inside EU’s enlargement policy, as a result of this clash between supranational and intergovernmental tendencies. It will be up to the new Commission to regain a leadership role and make the integration of the region into the EU a priority. Candidate countries need to be reminded that all the required reforms for abiding EU conditionality are beneficial for their own people and the democratic functioning of their societies, so no matter the EU membership results, there is huge to gain from the process itself.
Are we willing to stop the current evolution of the enlargement process and redesign the whole approach, with the potential high (economic, social and political) costs? Or shall we wait for some diplomatic ‘miracles’ to advance the Enlargement agenda in some EU member states? Possible answers lay in the hand of the New designated Commission.