The Western Balkans leaving the EU dream behind

Despite the positive noises made at the EU-Western Balkans summit in Slovenia, the EU enlargement process is still in crisis.

Slovenia's Prime Minister Janez Jansa (R) welcomes Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) for the EU-Western Balkans summit at Brdo Congress Centre, in Brdo pri Kranju, in Kranj, Slovenia, on October 6, 2021. [Photo by Government of Slovenia/Handout via Getty Images]

Is there a need for the European Union to publicly recommit to the “enlargement” process, or would it be enough for it to merely voice its support for the “European perspective” of the Western Balkans? That was the question many EU leaders were likely battling with in the run-up to the October 6 EU-Western Balkans summit in Slovenia.

In the end, after their gathering at Brdo pri Kranju, a 16th-century castle tucked away in the Slovenian countryside, the EU leaders issued a declaration in which they not only “reaffirmed the European perspective of the Western Balkans”, but also the EU’s “commitment to the enlargement process”.

This was a point scored by the host, Slovenia, which has long been lobbying for the 27-strong bloc’s expansion into former Yugoslavia. The Western Balkans states – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, the Republic of North Macedonia and Kosovo – are all eager to carry their ties with the EU to the next level. These days, however, the idea of enlargement elicits little enthusiasm in old Europe. Supporting the “European perspective” of “the Western Balkans partners”, vague though it sounds – or rather, precisely because it sounds vague – comes a lot easier to most EU leaders than uttering the word “enlargement”.

But the fact that Slovenia perceived the Brdo declaration as a big victory against enlargement-sceptics shows that the EU enlargement process is in crisis. That adding a word or two in an official communique is perceived as a significant achievement shows how low the bar is set.

Indeed, there is little appetite within the EU to bring in new members. The Slovenian presidency of the EU Council reportedly wanted to insert a commitment that there will be at least one country joining by 2030. It hit a wall. “I don’t really believe in setting dates, I believe in making good on our promises,” outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after the summit. “Once the conditions are met, the accession can take place,” she added. The “making good on promises” part does not sound convincing, unfortunately. For all intents and purposes, the EU has put the process on halt.

Serbia, negotiating its accession since 2014, has not opened any new chapters since December 2019. Montenegro, the frontrunner, is now carrying out talks on all EU dossiers, but there is no end in sight for that country either. Then, there is North Macedonia, which has been blocked from launching membership negotiations by its neighbour Bulgaria over a dispute about history and language.  Albania, another hopeful, is a collateral damage because it is bundled together with the Macedonians. Bosnia and Kosovo are even further behind in the queue. Kosovars are frustrated that despite meeting all technical conditions they are still denied visa-free travel to the Schengen zone, unlike those living in the rest of the Western Balkans as well as post-Soviet republics such as Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine. Europe, it seems, is keeping the region at an arms-length, while continuing to occasionally pay lip service to demands for enlargement.

It is not difficult to grasp why the EU has become introvert. The order of the day is internal consolidation, not expansion. As it worries about the fate of the eurozone, tries to move forward with the European Green Deal and battles COVID-19, the EU has very little time and energy for other issues. Furthermore, some influential member states such as France see the generous recovery plan adopted last year to combat the pandemic-caused economic downturn as a stepping stone towards increased “strategic autonomy” and a higher degree of “European sovereignty”.

The EU, the argument goes, needs to strengthen its institutions and deepen integration between its members if it wishes to thrive in a growingly competitive world dominated by the United States and China. Adding new countries to the fold complicates such plans.

In the eyes of critics, the cases of Hungary and Poland, enlargement’s one-time poster children turned dyed-in-the-wool Eurosceptics, stands as a cautionary tale too. Many believe the EU may find itself vulnerable to many more Orban-like troublemakers with dubious democratic credentials if it admits the Western Balkans into the bloc.

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

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

Just like it is the case in the EU, there is also a significant appetite for “strategic autonomy” in the Western Balkans. At a conference in Skopje last week, for example, I heard several Balkan ministers cheering for “nearshoring”, that is bringing in manufacturing supply chains back to Europe and away from China or elsewhere in Asia.

All in all, the EU and the Western Balkans have similar goals and aspirations and their fates appear to be tied together on many fronts.

This, however, does not mean the EU is calling all the shots in the region. Many local power players do not hesitate to shun EU’s demands pointing to the lack of progress in their countries’ membership bids. Some of them, such as Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic, have no qualms about bashing the EU for its double standards and untrustworthiness in order to boost their popularity at home.

Vucic and his ilk also casually reach out to the EU’s rivals around the globe, such as Russia and China, to procure investment, vaccines, or diplomatic support. Moreover, partially due to the EU’s apparent reluctance to move forward with membership negotiations, pro-government media organisations across the Western Balkans regularly downplay or outright criticise the EU pandemic support efforts in the region, while praising non-Western powers for their contributions. All this results in public opinion turning against the bloc.

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

Despite the positive noises made in Brdo earlier this month, the EU’s current reluctance to expand into former Yugoslavia can end up transforming into a permanent stance. Indeed, the EU seem satisfied with the status quo, and the Balkan leaders seem to have already adapted to the situation. The risks – though non-negligible as the sporadic flareups in Serb-populated northern Kosovo show – appear to be manageable. If worse comes to worst and significant violence erupts in the region, the six Western Balkans countries can call on NATO and the US for help.

But this does not mean the end of the region’s European dream will be without any losses. Back in 2003, when the EU promised membership to the Western Balkans for the first time at the Thessaloniki summit, many in the region believed Europeanisation would deliver good governance, accountable institutions, robust growth, and bring an end to nationalism-fuelled conflicts. Sadly, in the almost 20 years since, the region has not come any closer to achieving these goals.

This month’s Brdo declaration also spoke of “the primacy of democracy, fundamental rights and values and the rule of law”. But with most EU member states becoming more vary of enlargement every passing day, and Balkan leaders actively starting to look for alternative paths for their countries, it is unlikely that Europe will play a significant role in bringing the region closer to achieving these important goals.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.