Before it’s too late:  How the EU should support the Western Balkans’ EU accession

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In what may be her last State of the Union address as president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen declared that the European Union should respond to the “call of history” and admit a large group of new members, including from the Western Balkans. Ten days prior, the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, attempted to energise his audience of Western Balkan leaders: “It’s time to get rid of the ambiguities… I believe we must be ready — on both sides — to enlarge by 2030.”

However, neither side is ready. The EU is reluctant to enlarge, and the Western Balkan countries are reluctant to reform. But, as the Kremlin continues its attempts to influence the region towards Russia, EU institutions must heed this strategic urgency to prioritise the region’s accession. In her speech, von der Leyen echoed a popular opinion in the EU, that while strategic, this enlargement should still be merit-based. But a more concrete pledge is needed and should be done via a staged approach.

Since the 2003 Thessaloniki summit which concluded that all Western Balkan countries “will become an integral part of the EU” once they meet the established Copenhagen criteria, the EU’s commitment to enlargement has suffered numerous setbacks. Bilateral disputes (between Greece and then-MacedoniaSlovenia and CroatiaBulgaria and North Macedonia) have bruised diplomatic relations between member states and the Western Balkans, while the non-recognition of Kosovo by five EU member states damaged accession hopes. And a change in the enlargement methodology under French pressure in 2018, slowed down the process further.

At the same time, the six Western Balkan aspirants – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, and Serbia – have been backsliding in significant reform areas: democracy, rule of law, media freedom, fighting corruption and building a functioning market economy. They have been criticised by observers for developing into ‘stabilitocracies’, and the EU for not taking a stronger position against their autocratic tendencies. This trend poses a severe security risk to the EU: These governments are more likely to seek loans or investments from partners who do not attach strings of democratic performance. Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro, have already sought out alternative partners with countries such as Russia, Turkey and China, whose authoritarian influence is likely to further weaken their democracies and sway their geopolitical allegiances away from the EU.

In the 20 years since the Thessaloniki summit, the EU’s lack of commitment to enlargement and the Western Balkans states’ backsliding has turned into a vicious circle of excuses and disappointments on both sides. By announcing the 2030 deadline, Michel’s team hope to break this circle as it would be “ambitious but realistic… The date is close enough to feel achievable and worth the political investment by elected leaders in the candidate states”.

Moreover, political will in the EU to integrate Ukraine and Moldova, as a result of the Russian invasion, has re-energised arguments around enlargement. But the Western Balkans states should not rely on the softening of enlargement criteria due to the current geopolitical momentum. Instead, the better way would be for each state, by delivering on reforms, should be able to advance at its own pace via an incremental membership – rather than the current approach where a country is either a member state or it is not. A so-called staged accession would rebuild the candidate countries’ trust in the merit-based processes and is already being debated in many European capitals.

However, the EU needs to overcome divergences among member states on how to make its institutions more flexible and better equipped for staged enlargement. A basic package should include at least the following elements: participation in the single market, full integration with the EU’s climate agenda (including access to the financial instruments of the European Green Deal), and access to EU structural funds (full or partial). The initiative should have as a prerequisite the candidates’ full alignment with the EU’s foreign policy and should come from the European Council (not the European Commission) as a sign of strong political commitment.

Some member states fear that a rapid accession process could result in the importation of a leader who opposes EU values, such as Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who consistently blocks EU legislation. To prevent importing blockages, Michel has proposed two measures. The first, is a ‘confidence clause’, whereby new joiners cannot block future members; and the second, is a method of ‘constructive abstention’ which is derived from neutral Austria’s abstention in EU’s discussions about the European Peace Facility, which pays for sending weapons to Ukraine. And while the former seems implementable, the latter is too altruistic as it presupposes a high level of political maturity. Relying on constructive abstention to overcome blockages is unlikely to work among politicians new to Brussels and wanting to show their political muscle. Thus, a staged approach of accession, whereby new joiners gain voting power incrementality, is the most likely to shore against this threat.

Finally, the EU must seize this newfound geopolitical urgency to accelerate the six Western Balkan states’ accession without suggesting an alternative to enlargement. Turkey’s failed EU accession serves as a warning of what can happen when a government realises it will not join the bloc – a dangerous ‘giving up’ on reforms which can lead to further democratic backsliding of a European neighbour and push it further east in search of allies.

The EU must seize this newfound geopolitical urgency to accelerate the six Western Balkan states’ accession without suggesting an alternative to enlargement.

In the case of Ukraine, the risk of non-enlargement could be the birth of a nationalist country, an Orban-like Ukraine. At the same time, Ukraine’s ambitious progress towards EU integration has created a paradox in the EU’s accession process: The six Western Balkans countries, with a combined population of 17 million do not threaten the absorption capacity of the EU, yet the EU is reluctant to move forward; while with Ukraine there is a sense of urgency to move forward, but its size may present an absorption capacity issue.

This is why the European Commission cannot run the process of Ukraine’s accession in the same way for the Western Balkans. As a country at war, Ukraine’s accession must contain bold and coherent political messaging and larger amounts of funding linked to its reconstruction. Conversations on how to link reconstruction to EU integration need to start by the end of this year to prepare the next multiannual financial framework, common agricultural policy, and cohesion policy for potential enlargement. The financial framework for Ukraine would be part of a larger peace arrangement that would possibly include the frozen Russian assets and a further economic stabilisation effort, well above the size of any accession or cohesion policy instruments available to date to any single country, and for good reasons. Ukraine’s integration process must instil confidence in EU member states to bolster the political will behind the Western Balkans accession. Therefore, in addition to the current merit-based approach, a staged process would allow for each candidate state’s capabilities.  

Underneath the focus of some member states on advancing and reforming the enlargement process lies a lack of preparedness within the EU to support the Western Balkans. The current attempts by both von der Leyen and Michel to reinvigorate this process in the Western Balkans and create better preparedness within the EU, may not succeed if nobody means it seriously in the first place. And instead of dragging out the promise of membership, and risk losing the region to disillusionment, stabilitocracy, and other partners, the EU should immediately take the necessary steps to be prepared for enlargement. The calling of history can easily turn into a historic missed opportunity.

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