EU Enlargement: from successful policy to dead end?

03 July 2019
EU Enlargement: from successful policy to dead end? - © Balkan Campers/Unsplash

Further enlargement of the European Union into the Western Balkans is increasingly questioned. Despite being a relatively small area, the region is unusually diverse: there are six comparatively small countries that are still characterised by the legacy of parallel democratic and economic transformation and, most of them, by post-conflict situations. While the frontrunners Serbia and Montenegro are already negotiating with the European Commission, Albania and Northern Macedonia have candidate status (the latter since 2005!), but are still waiting for negotiations to start: despite a positive evaluation by the Commission, the European Council has still to decide on whether and when to negotiate (France, the Netherlands and Denmark are particularly skeptical). Trailing far behind, Kosovo and Bosnia & Herzegovina are still torn internally by questions about their statehood: for the former, the issue is recognition of independence and relations with Serbia; the latter is still waiting for an acceptance of the common State by all groups and improved relations with Serbia and Croatia.

Although 2025 has been indicated as a possible entry date for Serbia and Montenegro, the slow pace of progress in the regions’ transformation and rising skepticism within the EU raise questions about the future of enlargement, as well as about the future of the region. But is there an alternative to including the Western Balkans?
For years, enlargement policy has been considered a major success of the European Union. It transformed the EU’s Central and Eastern European neighbours after 1989, providing orientation during their democratic transformation. Consequently, the process of their voluntary adaptation to common European rules and standards is known as “Europeanisation”. A wave of ten new members entered in 2004, Bulgaria and Romania in 2007, and Croatia in 2013. However, after the recent economic and financial crisis, Brexit, and with increasing difficulties in South Eastern Europe, enlargement is increasingly seen as a problem rather than as a solution. Continuous problems in the area of Rule of Law – with established external monitoring of Bulgaria and Romania, as well as procedures against Poland‘s and Hungary’s reforms of the judiciary which aimed at undermining judicial independence – seem to confirm worries regarding the ability of new members to sustain change. But worries also encompass the EU’s own capacity to enlarge without overstretching, demonstrating that enlargement has as much to do with change in the countries entering as with the state of the Union itself.

Admittedly, the current situation in the Western Balkans is rather worrying and probably worse than a decade ago. Authoritarianism is on the rise, with a Putin-style role model providing the blueprint for many leaders in the region to question pluralistic democracy. Nationalism adds to this, as it guarantees political elites the role as protector of their own group and makes it easy to blame others for everything without the need to address change. Indeed, the status quo and its preservation is the overarching main interest, as any change would question the very basis of power founded on clientelism and patronage systems. Generally speaking, extended systems of “state capture” can be found in most of the countries. This situation is a huge obstacle on the way to EU accession, as it is in direct contrast with the value system of citizens’ rights and rule of law, which is the basis of European integration. It also contrasts with the essence of integration, which is voluntary membership and thus voluntary adaptation. However, some (minor) reforms are adopted from time to time to keep the process going and to guarantee the continuation of EU financial assistance. This “progress” on the way to accession provides some legitimacy to political elites, creating a vicious circle.

The impression of stability created by these dynamics is an illusion. The situation may seem stable for the moment (despite frequent smaller crises, which mainly serve to  raise the stakes in negotiations), but it is far from being sustainable: the fundamental, systemic issues, such as statehood or state capture, have not been addressed or resolved.
In addition to many internal issues, Serbia has yet to find a way of co-existing with Kosovo (without this its EU accession is not even imaginable), Kosovo itself needs to fight against corruption within its institutions and to manage its relations with the Serb population. As attractive and easy a shortcut for this may seem, the proposed “land swap” is the wrong approach. Not only would it not “solve“ the question of Serbs in Kosovo, as it only regards the Northern municipalities and not the rest of the country, but it would also be detrimental for the whole region in setting a dangerous precedent by establishing homogeneity as the norm for the control of a given territory. The EU should think twice whether to open this Pandora’s box. The whole region is characterised by a high degree of diversity of its populations, and the homogeneity requirement sharply contrasts with the EU’s own character of a post-national entity.

In Bosnia & Herzegovina, the outlook is bleak to say the least. Great numbers of young, educated and qualified people, as well as families are leaving the country to work in Austria, Germany and other EU countries. They vote with their feet, as they have given up any hope of changing the power cartel of the ethnic parties in time to create a better future for their children. The Dayton Peace Agreement and the mistakes of the International Community are seen by everyone as the main culprit and serve an excuse for the widespread lack of constructive engagement. Any major change is potentially disturbing and thus to be avoided; the frequent crises are a reminder of the fragile basis of the country’s statehood: institutional fragmentation according to the principal of divide and conquer provides many possibilities for blockade and veto and is therefore a perfect guarantee of the status quo.

In Albania, reforms had political support and a comprehensive reform of the judiciary has been adopted, allowing for the vetting of all judges and prosecutors. More recently however, tensions between government and opposition have drastically increased, leading to violent protests and to controversy regarding the feasibility of local elections at the end of June. Some local administrations and poll stations were occupied by the opposition to prevent the elections, without success as it now appears.

Only Northern Macedonia is a rare success story: in 2015 a wire-tapping scandal created a political earthquake followed by timely EU intervention and to the establishment of a special prosecutor. The opposition won the subsequent elections (a rare event in the Balkans), and new Prime Minister Zoran Zaev immediately engaged in dialogue with Greece in order to resolve the controversy regarding the country’s name, which had blocked integration in NATO and EU for years. Against all odds, he and his Greek colleagues succeeded.

At the end of May, the European Commission recommended opening negotiations with Albania and Northern Macedonia. This would be an important recognition of the last year’s achievements and an urgently-needed support for the reform-oriented forces (also in other countries). It would also increase the credibility of both the EU and the promise of future accession as a viable option for the countries. This is even more important given that other geopolitical players, such as Russia, China and Turkey, are increasing their presence and engagement in the region. The EU has to refocus attention and its assistance to remain the only game in town. A special representative for the whole region would be useful to take the regional dimension into account, as well as the manifold links between the countries and their problems.
However, there is a risk that the contrary will happen: at the Council’s recent summit, a decision to open negotiations with the two countries was postponed to October, and it is not certain that a positive decision will be made at that point. There are even rumours that the next Commission will not have a Commissioner with an enlargement portfolio. This would be a huge mistake, as simply abandoning the Balkans will certainly not improve the situation there.

This shows once more that the debate about enlargement and the Balkans reflects the – open – debate about the future of the EU itself.

Jens Woelk is Associate Professor of Comparative Constitutional Law at the University of Trento (Italy) and Vice-Head of the Institute for Comparative Federalism at Eurac Research. In the Western Balkans and the Southern Caucasus he has been engaged in projects and expert missions for the EU and the Council of Europe. Currently, he is on leave from university for working in Sarajevo as Senior Legal Advisor on EU integration matters to the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina (HJPC BiH). He is on Twitter: @JensWoelk.


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