Post-Big Bang Expansion, is EU Overcorrecting with the Western Balkans?

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EU – Kosovo – wall painting outside Peje (Pec), Kosovo. Image: Adam Jones/Wikimedia

This article was originally published by Friends of Europe on 25 November, 2014.

“Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door”

Bob Dylan

The perspective of joining the European family has proven to be the most effective mobilising factor to stabilise and reform the Balkans. It’s replaced the dark scenario of conflicts sparked by efforts to redraw borders along ethnic lines. It has undoubtedly been the EU’s most powerful geopolitical instrument, the latest illustration being the brokered Belgrade-Pristina agreement. Before the process reached the point of no return, however, the enlargement policy has been challenged, accession hopes dangerously watered down and the door slammed shut, for now.

Prompted by the growing distrust of the enlargement policy within the member states since the 2004 “big bang” enlargement, as well as drawing lessons from the accession of Romania and Bulgaria, the European Commission reshaped the process. The very first paragraph of the EC Enlargement strategy 2014-15 reveals its goals: strengthen the credibility of enlargement, enhance its transformative power, and address fundamental reforms first. It put the emphasis on the three pillars of rule of law, economic governance and public administration reform. This creative approach, under heavy economic and political strains both within the EU and in the countries of the region, has so far kept the process alive. But has the EU over-corrected?

Integration Interrupted

On paper, the progress of the Western Balkans towards the EU appears credible. After Croatia joined, negotiations were launched with Montenegro followed by Serbia, and Albania was granted candidate status last June, while the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Kosovo was initialed in July. These significant milestones however, have not been fully matched by a commensurate effort to forge ahead with the required reform processes in each country. In the critical field of rule of law, the situation this year has been mixed at best.

While the improved conditionality is important, the lack of EU political commitment moves the target further and darkens the light at the end of the tunnel. Once European membership seems too distant, the most important incentive to pursue difficult reforms is lost, weakening the transformative power of the process. One major issue here is frontloading a big pile of difficult conditions in the pre-accession phases of the process often used as a political cover for failure to reach consensus to start negotiations. This is not a sound strategy, taking into account that the real influence of the Commission kicks in after the accession talks are opened. Given the possibilities to halt the progress at every step, the accession talks should be opened with all the countries in the region in the next 4 years, without fixing the dates for accession. Second, the tendency for political interventions – focusing on particular issue(s) in what is promoted as a merit-based process – endangers its credibility. The ESI proposal, to redefine conditions for membership as measurable outcome indicators that can be objectively compared across candidate countries, would increase transparency and competition. Finally, the accession process must not be used for bilateral issues, as between Greece and Macedonia.

The Macedonia “impasse”

There is hardly a more damaging case for the credibility of the enlargement policy than that of Macedonia, where the EU accession process is – in the words of the Commission – “at an impasse”, and “action is needed to reverse recent backsliding, notably as regards freedom of expression and of the media and the independence of the judiciary.” What’s worse and really sad – by virtue of simply allowing Greece to (ab)use the accession process as leverage on the name issue – is the shared responsibility of the EU with the Macedonian government for the well-noted backsliding. The country has been waiting for 9 years to start accession talks. After five consecutive positive recommendations of the Commission to open membership negotiations have been ignored by the Council, the transformative effect of enlargement has been turned upside down. The EU should stop referring to the UN process on the name issue as an excuse not to engage. Ever since Athens brought the name issue in Brussels as a precondition to open the negotiations with Macedonia – in breach of their legal obligation not to – the UN process has been rendered powerless. Instead, Brussels should approach the issue hands on, stop tolerating irresponsible policy and follow the wise advice of the Commission for the parallel track approach. Athens won’t play ball? Member states should consider recognising Macedonia by its name.

Balkan urgency

The “moral” of the Macedonian agony has been a lesson for other EU hopefuls: “Macedonia has candidate status since 2005. Macedonia still does not have a date for the opening of negotiations … So let us not repeat this abstract story of Europe moving and us lagging behind …”, stressed Milorad Dodik, reassuring his people in a TV interview upon his return from Brussels in October last year with no agreement on the Sejdic-Finci vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does geopolitics” wrote Gerald Knaus of ESI. While the Anglo-German initiative on Bosnia and Herzegovina should be welcomed, it needs to go further. One obvious way to respond to Russia’s recent abstention in the UN Security Council with regard to the extension of the EURFOR mission, quoting the resolution language referring to the country’s prospective accession to the European Union, is to speed up Sarajevo’s progress towards the most effective part of the enlargement process – negotiations.

The high-level conference Chancellor Merkel convened last August was the first sign of acknowledging the urgency to renew the commitment to the Western Balkans. It is now time to make a decision, because regardless of the inventiveness of the Commission, the job will not be done without political commitment. Europe can proclaim itself not capable and acknowledge its limits in the region, or act and make it a case of a major foreign policy success. For the Western Balkans are probably the last best hope to demonstrate it can pull its weight. After its enormous financial, security and economic investments in a region surrounded by EU member countries, Europe must choose. It wants a non-EU “hotbed of unrest, instability, semi-authoritarian regimes and nationalism” or fully integrated and consolidated, stable democracies.

The EU itself is facing a lot of challenges. The euro crisis spurred fears of unemployment and immigration. The austerity measures created frustrations and distrust. With the final turnout figure for the 2014 European Parliament elections reaching an all-time low, the talks on democratic deficit within the EU are becoming louder and louder. The rise of Euroscepticism and hard-right populist parties seems only logical against this background. And in such circumstances, EU enlargement might easily come as the last thing on the minds of even the most responsible politicians. Thus, the easiest way out – as Commission President Juncker has apparently done – seems to be to hush the enlargement story for the moment. This might bring instant gratification and momentary political points, but leaving unfinished business unattended is never a wise strategy. One thing is for certain – a stable Balkans is an asset for all. And organized crime, corruption and immigration will be much bigger threats to Europe if the Balkan countries’ knocking on EU’s door remains unanswered.

Nikola Dimitrov is a Distinguished Fellow at The Hague Institute for Global Justice. He was Macedonia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, National Security Adviser to the President, Ambassador to the United States, and to the Netherlands.

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